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Koch Brothers in Washington State

By Josh Feit April 20, 2011

The left-wing magazine The Nation published a story today about the Koch Brothers, the now-famous tycoons who funded Tea Party candidates nationwide last year. The article zooms in on Washington State, highlighting a mailing the Koch Brothers funded to Koch Industry employees, urging them to support a conservative slate of candidates in state elections.

The story ties the Koch slate mailer to the Citizens United ruling, last year's controversial Supreme Court decision which allowed corporations to directly contribute money to non-profit groups for electioneering.

Here's what they have to say:
The Nation obtained the Koch Industries election packet for Washington State—which included a cover letter from its president and COO, David Robertson; a list of Koch-endorsed state and federal candidates; and an issue of the company newsletter, Discovery, full of alarmist right-wing propaganda.

Legal experts interviewed for this story called the blatant corporate politicking highly unusual, although no longer skirting the edge of legality, thanks to last year’s Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which granted free speech rights to corporations.

“Before Citizens United, federal election law allowed a company like Koch Industries to talk to officers and shareholders about whom to vote for, but not to talk with employees about whom to vote for,” explains Paul M. Secunda, associate professor of law at Marquette University. But according to Secunda, who recently wrote in The Yale Law Journal Online about the effects of Citizens United on political coercion in the workplace, the decision knocked down those regulations. “Now, companies like Koch Industries are free to send out newsletters persuading their employees how to vote. They can even intimidate their employees into voting for their candidates.” Secunda adds, “It’s a very troubling situation.”

[pullquote]For a primer on what Citizens does and doesn't do, check out a post I did last month, which catalogs the problems, but puts a check on some of the exaggerations about it.[/pullquote]

The Kochs were major supporters of the Citizens United case; they were also chief sponsors of the Tea Party and major backers of the anti-“Obamacare” campaign. Through their network of libertarian think tanks and policy institutes, they have been major drivers of unionbusting campaigns in Wisconsin, Michigan and elsewhere.

“This sort of election propaganda seems like a new development,” says UCLA law professor Katherine Stone, who specializes in labor law and who reviewed the Koch Industries election packet for The Nation. “Until Citizens United, this sort of political propaganda was probably not permitted. But after the Citizens United decision, I can imagine it’ll be a lot more common, with restrictions on corporations now lifted.”

The election packet starts with a letter from Robertson dated October 4, 2010. It read: “As Koch company employees, we have a lot at stake in the upcoming election. Each of us is likely to be affected by the outcome on Nov. 2. That is why, for the first time ever, we are mailing our newest edition of Discovery and several other helpful items to the home address of every U.S. employee” [emphasis added].

I don't quite buy the Citizens United connection. We wrote a lot about the  Koch Brothers' meddling in Washington State during last year's election—including the news about the Koch slate. And Citizens United certainly had its ramifications in local races—namely, that the public doesn't know exactly who paid for several conservative candidates' mailers. (Citizens also impacted the U.S. Senate race here). But the Nation's article about Koch sending slate mailers to employees is not anything new, and was legal here in Washington State prior to Citizens United.

For a primer on what Citizens does and doesn't do, check out a post I did last month, which catalogs the problems, but puts a check on some of the exaggerations about it.

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