Clinton-aligned group claims to have mole in Koch machine

Clinton-aligned group claims to have mole in Koch machine
© Greg Nash

Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonAssange meets U.S. congressman, vows to prove Russia did not leak him documents High-ranking FBI official leaves Russia probe OPINION | Steve Bannon is Trump's indispensable man — don't sacrifice him to the critics MORE’s well-financed ally David Brock has a team that claims to be coordinating with moles inside the corporate and political empire of the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.

During a rare tour of its Washington office on Tuesday, the anti-Koch unit within the Bridge Project told The Hill it has covert channels feeding information from within the private world of the Kochs, the most influential donors in conservative politics.

Eddie Vale, who oversees the investigative unit, was tight-lipped about how the operation works.

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“This is the part I’m trying to keep vague. ... We get information from people in their network.”

Vale said the informants are both current and former Koch Industries employees and that the information generally comes from what he described as “old-fashioned” means instead of email and phone calls, “because I know that [Koch Industries] have crazy internal surveillance of their employees.

“I would say [our sources] have a decent level of fear,” Vale added.

A spokeswoman for American Bridge’s nonprofit arm — the place where the Koch work is done — declined to provide proof that the moles exist, citing the need for confidentiality.

“To protect the identities of the people who come to us, we can’t provide any more details,” said Regan Page, communications director of the Bridge Project, the name for Brock’s anti-Koch team.

Still, Vale’s claim is a new indication that the left may be countering what Politico recently reported was a “secretive” Koch operation that “conducts surveillance and intelligence gathering on its liberal opponents,” partly with help from a former CIA analyst.

The Koch brothers have built an expansive network of donors who are dedicated to promoting conservative causes and electing Republicans to Congress and the White House. The network plans to spend $889 million during the 2016 campaign cycle alone.

Asked about the alleged mole operation, Koch network spokesman James Davis jabbed at Brock.

“Very few people outside of David Brock believe attacking private citizens and job creators is a good strategy,” the spokesman said, referring to the Kochs.

The Bridge Project has so far published very little of the material it claims to have covertly obtained.

It alerted The New York Times to archival material that resulted in an investigative story on David Koch’s 1980 campaign on the Libertarian Party ticket.

The unit also published leaked recordings from gatherings of two right-wing groups linked to the Kochs: The Heartland Institute, where the speaker attacked the Pope for his advocacy of the “left-wing political craze” of global warming, and the Wichita Chamber of Commerce, whose 2015 annual meeting featured a panel conversation with Charles Koch.

Brock was part of the conservative movement in the 1990s, writing articles and books that fueled scandals involving Bill and Hillary Clinton.

But in the 2000s, he published a book renouncing that work, saying he had been a hatchet man for the right. Now, Brock has transformed himself into an aggressive defender and supporter of the Clintons.

The Democratic Party, in Brock’s judgment, has been playing politics too meekly. He believes it needs to match up more fiercely against what he has described as a “sophisticated” and well-financed “right-wing conglomerate.”

Supported by his own donor network, Brock has created a menagerie of liberal opposition and attack groups that fill two floors of warehouse-style office space in D.C.

The downtown space includes the American Bridge super-PAC, its nonprofit arm; the press watchdog Media Matters; and the pro-Clinton super-PAC Correct the Record.

In all, the groups are employing more than 60 full-time staffers, with 10 of them spending all their time investigating the business and political interests of the Kochs.

American Bridge also deploys another 26 full-time “trackers” who shadow Republican candidates and people connected to the Kochs. Some of the trackers are middle-aged men who are cast to blend into wealthy donor functions and make secret recordings on their phones, said the head of the tracking unit, who declined to give her name.

The Bridge Project has a $4 million budget for the 2016 election cycle. It is a relatively new outfit — it became fully operational in the summer of 2014 — and its nonprofit status conceals the identities of its donors.

Brock conceived of the group after conversations with Senate Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidOPINION | 5 ways Democrats can win back power in the states THE MEMO: Trump's base cheers attacks on McConnell It's time for McConnell to fight with Trump instead of against him MORE (D-Nev.), with both agreeing that the Kochs are corrupting U.S. politics, Vale said.

During the 2014 midterms, the Bridge Project led an assault on Republican candidates, portraying them as “puppets” of the Kochs. They also highlighted pollution from the Kochs’ carbon-intensive chemical businesses and say they have focus group evidence that these messages resonate with voters. 

But despite that ad barrage and Reid’s repeated denunciation of the Kochs, Democrats lost the Senate majority in 2014 and saw their numbers in the House shrink to a historic low.

Brock’s team said it has a long-term plan to defeat the Kochs and will not be deterred by perceived setbacks.

“Fighting back against the Kochs is a long-term challenge,” said Brock, “which is why we’re investing in research that connects how the Kochs’ anti-government agenda benefits their bottom line and how their businesses hurt workers and families.”

Vale argued the anti-Koch effort was “undercooked” in 2014 and said the Kochs have had a several-decade head start on influencing American policy and politics.

“I think obviously there was some skepticism after 2014,” Vale said.

“[But] the case that we made to folks … is that 2014 was a very hard Senate map, so I think that whether you talked about Kochs … or anyone,” it would not be enough to save Democratic incumbents in Republican-leaning states such as Arkansas.

Vale pointed to Democratic Senate victories in Michigan and New Hampshire — states where he says they made “heavy use of the Koch theme” — as evidence that their strategy is working.

These points are debatable, especially in Michigan, which was always going to be a heavy lift for Republicans given that President Obama won the state decisively in both 2008 and 2012.

Brock’s team is now redoubling its efforts for the 2016 presidential and Senate races, operating a website called “Real Koch Facts,” issuing hundreds of anti-Koch press releases to journalists, running digital ads and focus groups, publishing issue papers analyzing the Koch agenda and even printing books attacking the Kochs on their business activities and pet projects. 

Vale has hired attorneys and a former financial analyst, who are skilled at examining complex documents, to sift through the Kochs’ vast network of political and charitable spending.

The Koch brothers, meanwhile, have recently made an attempt to push back on the caricature of them as “shadowy” agents of corporate greed, sitting down for media interviews where they talk more openly about the political views and their philanthropy.

Page said there is little risk of the Kochs winning over the public.

“They’re doing [the public relations drive] to improve their image,” Page said, but the video footage it has produced has “given us so many good things.”