—By Brad Friedman
September 6, 2011– "We have Saddam Hussein," declared billionaire industrialist Charles Koch, apparently referring to President Barack Obama as he welcomed hundreds of wealthy guests to the latest of the secret fundraising and strategy seminars he and his brother host twice a year. The 2012 elections, he warned, will be "the mother of all wars."
Charles Koch would probably not publicly compare the president of the United States to a murderous dictator. (As a general rule, he and his brother don't do much politicking or speechifying in public at all.) But Mother Jones has obtained exclusive audio recordings from the Koch seminar, a private event that took place in June at a resort near Vail, Colorado.
These unprecedented recordings provide a behind-the-scenes look at how the Koch brothers and their comrades talk when they gather. They include a pair of keynote speeches and remarks by brothers Charles and David Koch, who spell out their political aims and name some of the "great partners" who have contributed millions of dollars to their causes. (The audio was provided by a source who approached the author after the event was over and was not seeking compensation.)
Security was tight at the Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch on opening night of the weekend conference, which drew an estimated 300 guests. (Past attendees have included prominent politicians, right-wing media luminaries, corporate titans, and wealthy political donors.) Audio technicians even set up outward-pointing speakers around the perimeter of the outdoor dining pavilion, according to sources, emitting static to frustrate would-be eavesdroppers.
"There is anonymity that we can protect," noted emcee "Kevin"—likely Kevin Gentry, a VP for the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation—as he gently urged guests to open their wallets in support of the brothers' causes. Indeed, Charles Koch named 32 individuals and families who had donated more than $1 million over the previous 12 months, yet because of loopholes in federal campaign law, their donations do not exist in the public record.
Charles and David Koch are co-owners of Koch Industries, an energy and chemical conglomerate inherited from their father that is currently America's second-largest privately held company. To date, the brothers have spent more than $100 million supporting hard-right political campaigns and institutions. They are key funders of the movement to discredit climate science and sow doubt on the scientific consensus that human activities contribute to global warming.
The Kochs also bankrolled the fledgling tea party by making massive investments in right-wing political advocacy groups such as Americans for Prosperity, as detailed by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker last year. More generally, the brothers have dedicated a portion of their vast wealth—and that of their benefactors—to influencing elections across the nation and swaying public opinion on everything from health care and fracking to labor policy and government spending.
The brothers have held their biannual seminars since at least 2003, endeavoring to keep almost everything about them a secret—not just the content but also the identities of attendees and speakers, and even the locations and dates. They've succeeded until recently. Last October, a leaked invite for the Kochs' January 2011 seminar was obtained and published by Lee Fang of ThinkProgress.org. In response, groups including Common Cause and Greenpeace organized a massive protest outside the gates of the resort near Palm Springs where the gathering was held.
According to an agenda for the 2010 Aspen meeting that accompanied the leaked invitation, previous Koch seminars have featured "such notable leaders" as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), and Reps. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Mike Pence (R-Ind.). Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas also have attended.
Several GOP governors made it to the Vail seminar in June, among them Florida's Rick Scott, Virginia's Robert McDonnell, and White House hopeful Rick Perry of Texas. News of the event slipped out after McDonnell put the trip on his weekend schedule; neither Perry nor Scott initially disclosed the trip to their constituents. A Perry spokesman acknowledged his attendance only after the Austin American-Statesman tracked the tail number of a plane belonging to one of the governor's top donors from Texas to Colorado. He described the summit as a "private gathering of business leaders."
I contacted the Kochs numerous times with questions about the seminar, requesting clarification, for example, on Charles' Saddam Hussein reference. Without addressing the specifics, a spokeswoman for the Kochs merely pointed me to a Koch Industries web page describing the conference. (UPDATE: A Koch spokesman gave ABC News' Jake Tapper a statement claiming that Koch was "not referring to President Obama in his remarks." Listen for yourself below.)
During his welcoming remarks, Charles Koch warned his guests that the 2012 elections are nothing short of a battle "for the life or death of this country." He then acknowledged the individuals and families who had given more than $1 million to the brothers' efforts—though he misspoke, saying "more than a billion," earning a huge laugh from the crowd. "Well, I was thinking of Obama and his billion-dollar campaign," Koch said, to more laughter and cheers. "So I thought, 'We gotta do better than that.'" (Forbes pegs the brothers' personal net worth at around $22 billion apiece.)
Click icon to hear highlights from Charles Koch's speech.
(The complete audio and transcript of his remarks are available at The BRAD BLOG.)