The billionaire Koch brothers, Charles and David, have become titans of money in politics. The two personally have given over $3.2 million to federal candidates and parties over the past 15 years. But that sum represents just a sliver of their ability to bring cash to bear. By one count, they spent over $400 million during the 2012 elections alone through a series of affiliated and hard-to-track groups.
This Sunday, the comic strip Doonesbury took aim at brothers Charles and David. The character Kim bemoaned the impact of the Supreme Court on campaign money.
"You know, the Roberts court really did screw us over with Citizens United," she said to Mike Doonesbury, speaking about the U.S. Supreme Court and a decision that allows corporations and unions to contribute unlimited amounts of money to political campaigns. "Last election cycle, a pair of nasty billionaires spent three times what the top 10 unions spent combined."
"You mean David and Charles Koch? The respected civic-minded job-creators?" asked Mike.
It might be a comic strip, but Doonesbury certainly reaches plenty of eyeballs. And in this case, the claim is no laugher. We can fact-check whether the Koch brothers themselves spent three times as much as the top 10 unions in the last election.
We asked Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau where he got his numbers, and he pointed us to a couple of articles. One from the Huffington Post tied the two men to a total of $490 million. The other from Republic Report, a liberal investigative project, found that the top 10 unions (based on their donations) accounted for $153 million. That’s actually a little more than a 3 to 1 difference.
"I rounded it in Kochs’ favor for rhetorical purposes," Trudeau said.
But the numbers aren’t so simple.
In fact, after talking to independent experts, we could not find an apples-to-apples comparison that included all the Koch brothers’ spending and all the union spending that ranges from local to federal races, and from supporting a candidate to supporting a cause. A limited comparison is possible, and we’ll get to that in a bit, but when it comes to tracking Koch money, the two brothers have set up a Byzantine network of nonprofits that make it impossible to know how much of their own money they have put into the game.
The Koch brothers' spending
We can say for sure that the $490 million Trudeau cited came from more people than just Charles and David Koch. It included campaign contributions from Koch Industries political action committees and from Koch Industries employees. In fact, the article itself doesn’t contend that all the money came from the Kochs. It called it part of the "Koch network."
"I saw that claim in Doonesbury and was surprised by it," Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer, a University of Notre Dame Law School professor who studies political nonprofits, told us. "Trudeau may have mistakenly overestimated the amount attributable to the Koch brothers."
Mayer noted that financial records show that at least $39 million spent by the Koch-affiliated group Americans for Prosperity came from donors other than the Kochs.
The biggest share, $407 million, came from the Koch’s unusual network of nonprofits. This network has been the focus of intensive research.
The Washington Post and the Center for Responsive Politics, a group that tracks money in politics, sifted through 17,000 tax records to piece together how the Koch network deploys its funds. Its signature method is to create what are called "disregarded entities." These are nonprofits that totally mask the people behind them. Robert Maguire is the center’s lead investigator.
"We haven’t found a network of organizations like this anywhere else," Maguire said. "The Koch brothers have mobilized this money and the amount is incomparable, even relative to other conservative funding organizations."
Maguire and the nonprofit investigative journalism organization ProPublica have documented how the legal structure of this network allows the Koch brothers to exercise a great deal of control over how this money is spent. The Kochs organize regular meetings where they invite donors who share their policy goals to join with them in common purpose. Managers and lawyers with strong ties to the Kochs play a key role in running this network. But so far, the corporate veil remains impenetrable.
That means while the Kochs control the purse strings, the money doesn’t all come out of their pocket.
"We have no idea how much of the money comes from the Kochs," Maguire said.
The union spending
There are difficulties, too, in trying to calculate spending by unions.
We found a variety of totals for union political spending, although only the one cited by Trudeau exclusively tallied up the activities of the top 10. Remember, Doonesbury compared the Kochs to that smaller group.
One of the problems is the national unions give money, but so do their local affiliates. Some of that spending is on candidates and parties, and some is on lobbying. A comparable analysis on the Koch Industries side would include similar spending by its 12 companies and their subsidiaries. We did not find anything like that.
The Huffington Post estimated total union spending on elections and lobbying nationwide at $1.7 billion. It cautioned that this probably included double counting. The Republic Report had a total for the top 10 unions of $153 million.
To further complicate the picture, the unions also give through third-party organizations that don’t reveal their donors. However, in this arena, unions face some special reporting requirements. A Huffington Post analysis found that a pro-Democrat group, Patriot Majority USA, received about $2.26 million from unions in 2012.
We would also note that when it comes to action on the ground in elections, unions can deploy hundreds of volunteers in a single city -- a way to influence the political process that the Kochs cannot match. Volunteers are not campaign spending, but they are a key tool in the political process.
The lone apples-to-apples comparison
We know there are holes in the data, both on the Koch and union sides. We don’t know how big those holes are, but there is one narrow part of the political world where we can find reliable data.
Federal elections offer the most uniform framework for tracking campaign money. There is information on donations to candidates, parties and political action committees, and information on expenditures.
Once the Center for Responsive Politics figured out the names of the many nonprofits in the Koch network, it was able to spot when those dollars showed up in the federal database or tax documents.
In 2012, the center found that groups in the Koch network, so-called social welfare organizations with 501(c)(4) tax status, spent $170 million, and $86 million of that had come through the Koch network's main donor organizations.
The comparable number for all the union groups, those with a 501(c)(5) tax status, was $24 million.
"We can trace $86 million back to the top of the Koch network," Maguire said. "The magnitude far exceeds the total for the liberal and union groups."
Again, this is not total spending. It is just a comparison where the kind of organizations and the use of the money are matched as closely as possible.
In other words, for this sort of political money tracked at the federal level, the network linked to the Koch brothers spent three and a half times more than the unions.
We contacted Koch Industries for a response to Trudeau’s claim and did not hear back.
Doonesbury, aka Garry Trudeau, said the Koch brothers spent three times more than the top 10 unions combined in the 2012 elections.
The information came from sources that attempted to track the political giving of the Kochs and the biggest unions.
But there are some complications with the numbers. On the Koch side, the sources Trudeau cited did not say that all of the money connected to David and Charles Koch was their personal money. The Kochs have played a key role in creating a unique legal mechanism to raise and spend money that obscures the ultimate donors, and the nature of that mechanism gives them a high level of of control over how it is spent. To some extent, unions also feed into third-party money operations. And union political activity is spread much wider and among more organizations than the Kochs’ giving.
In short, a true apples-to-apples comparison is quite difficult.
That said, one independent analysis of trackable federal data found organizations tied to the Kochs spent three and a half times what unions did in 2012.
How does all of this shake out?
Trudeau goes too far in ascribing all of the money to the Kochs but the ratio he offers is in the ballpark of what we can determine at the federal level. We rate the claim Half True.