Charles and David Koch

Protests planned; Supreme Court justices’ involvement with Koch questioned
10:42 PM, Jan. 21, 2011
By Erica Felci

A private meeting of elite Republican donors in Rancho Mirage is sparking a nationwide discussion about the influence money has on politics and governing.

The four-day gathering that starts Jan. 29 is organized by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, who are known to back conservative causes.

It marks the eighth time they’ve held an event in the Coachella Valley, but the first time their efforts are being widely publicized.

Though organizers have tried to keep their long weekend retreat under wraps, a leaked copy of the invitation says participants will focus on policies to combat “the most critical threats to our free society.”

News of the gathering is also prompting other groups to wage a campaign they say will shed light on the Koch brothers’ venture:

An “Uncloaking the Kochs” panel discussion will be held Jan. 30 followed by a “billionaire caucus” protest at The River. Organizers of the rally — involving Common Cause, Courage Campaign, California Nurses Association and Greenpeace — hope to draw as many as 1,000 people.

Common Cause, a national government watchdog group, this week also asked the U.S. Justice Department to look at whether two Supreme Court justices had a conflict of interest in a legal case involving corporate campaign donations. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas had attended previous Koch events that were held in Indian Wells.

The upcoming Koch event has drawn increased attention not just because the leaked invitation provides insight into political strategy but because it is being held as candidates and organizations are organizing for the 2012 presidential election cycle.

“We want Californians to understand who the Kochs are and what their agenda is,” said Derek Cressman, Common Cause’s regional director.

“These folks are likely making plans to spend millions of dollars in the next election that will be underground and can’t be directly tracked back. That does a real disservice to voters.”

Koch executives declined to release any details about this month’s gathering, which is being held at the Rancho Las Palmas Resort.

“This is the eighth time we have held this event in Palm Springs and we look forward to coming back,” Koch spokeswoman Nancy Pfotenhauer told The Desert Sun.

“We respect all Americans’ rights to free speech and to peaceably assemble, and we hope that any protesters will respect the community and not cause an inconvenience for residents.”

According to a copy of the invitation that was posted online, the event kicks off Jan. 29 with a reception.

It will be followed by two days of programs and wraps up with a breakfast on Feb. 1.

The goals, according to the invitation, include “attracting principled leaders and investors who will effectively defend our free society,” and “fashioning the message and building the education channels” to further that effort.

No panelists were named in the invitation.

Previous meetings, held in the desert and elsewhere, have featured the two Supreme Court justices, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Sens. Jim DeMint and Tom Coburn, and conservative commentators Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.

“Everyone benefits from the prosperity that emerges from free societies,” the invitation letter from Charles Koch reads.

“But that prosperity is under attack by the current administration and many of our elected leaders. Their policies threaten to erode our economic freedom and transfer vast sums of power to the state. We must stop — and reverse — this internal assault on our founding principles.”

Show of opposition

The Koches’ invitation, first reported by The New York Times and the liberal blog Think Progress, provides some insight into how the brothers are planning for the next election battles.

It also allowed opposing groups to plan their counter- campaign.

“This meeting that they’re putting together is insidious,” said Rick Jacobs, founder of the Courage Campaign, a California-based organizer of more than 700,000 grassroots supporters nationwide. The group describes itself as “progressive” and typically supports Democratic causes and candidates.

“It is a continued attempt by a tiny group of people who represent maybe 2 percent of the population to tighten their grip on America’s economy and to reinforce their way of life,” Jacobs continued.

“Our job is to expose and spotlight that agenda and to make people understand, make the middle class understand, what we can do about it.”

About 125 people are expected to attend a Jan. 30 panel discussion at the Hilton Garden Inn that features former Labor Secretary Robert Reich.

It will be followed by a public rally at The River, just across the street from Rancho Las Palmas and the Koch brothers’ event.

City officials are planning for 1,000 protesters, said Rancho Mirage Councilman Scott Hines, who has helped the protesting groups coordinate with city representatives and law enforcement.

Protesters initially were discussing a sit-in event that could lead to arrests, Hines said.

But the plans were revisited after the tragedy in Tucson, Ariz., which left six dead and left U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords recovering from a gunshot wound to the head.

“We still want to allow folks to express their First Amendment rights,” he added. “But there is absolutely a common goal to making sure what happens on that Sunday is in good taste.”

Conflict of interest?

Common Cause this week also filed an unusual letter with the federal government.

The watchdog group alleges that two of the Supreme Court’s most conservative members had a conflict of interest when they considered a controversial case last year that permitted corporate funds to be used directly in political campaigns.

Common Cause wants the U.S. Justice Department to look into whether Scalia and Thomas should have disqualified themselves from hearing the campaign finance case because they had attended Koch-sponsored events in the Coachella Valley.

If it believes there is a conflict, the Justice Department, as a party to the case, should ask the court to reconsider its decision, Common Cause said.

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