An arm of the Koch brothers pulls out of New Mexico. Why both liberals and conservatives should cheer.
Politics in the Land of Enchantment are looking just a bit more, well, enchanting these days following the news that Americans for Prosperity (AFP), one of the tentacles of the political octopus funded by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, is pulling out of New Mexico. According to Pam Wolfe, field representative for AFP's state branch, the right-wing group is "reallocating their resources elsewhere" and will no longer have any "boots on the ground" here. Whether that also means a 2014 campaign reprieve from AFP's endless TV ads is another question, though we're guessing New Mexicans won't be that lucky.
Based in Virginia, AFP had established chapters in 34 states. In New Mexico, it shares ties and Koch cash with the libertarian Rio Grande Foundation and the conservative New Mexico Watchdog site. In addition to spending $6.1 million in New Mexico and other battleground states in the 2012 campaign, AFP and its allies worked to defeat an increase in Albuquerque's minimum wage and backed that city's proposed abortion restrictions.
Why should we be rejoicing over AFP's pullback? Don't conservative special interests have the same right to organize and spread their cash around as liberal groups, such as labor unions? Of course they do, and the Kochs have even donated to groups liberals might approve of, such as the American Civil Liberties Union.
But AFP and its web of affiliated groups stand out for their misleading campaign commercials — which are shamelessly truth-twisting even by modern political standards — and the complex "dark money" machinations used to hide their finances and donors. It's not whether they're conservative or liberal; it's that their tactics embody all that is broken in today's political system.
It would take many pages to recount the falsehoods and half-truths perpetrated by AFP. Fortunately, the Washington Post's Politifact column has done so in depth, and its findings can be found at www.politifact.com/personalities/americans-prosperity. A summary of Politifact's analysis of AFP's recent ads and claims tells the tale, though: Zero were rated as "true" or "mostly true," two as "half true," four as "mostly false," three as "false" and two as so false as to earn Politifact's "pants on fire" rating for outright lying.
AFP's distortions include "creative editing," exaggerations that "go beyond the facts," substituting Mexico for California, simply ignoring the facts, and citing votes by one Congressman to condemn a different guy.
FactCheck.org, a nonpartisan project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, takes a similarly dim view of AFP's truthfulness (www.factcheck.org/tag/americans-for-prosperity). Typical headlines include: "False Assumptions on the Health Care Law," "Mailers Mislead on ‘Obamacare' Opt-Out Amendment" and "A Bogus Ad."
New Mexicans should count ourselves lucky that none of our Congressional delegation is considered a 2014 target. Next door in Arizona, already in January you can't turn on the TV without being assaulted by AFP ads against Rep. Ron Barber, distorting his support for and the facts about the Affordable Care Act.
This blizzard of half-truths (to be generous) and other right-wing operations are funded by a network of "hidden shell companies and secret wire transfers," according to a recent investigation by the Washington Post and the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Their report likened the secrecy of the 17 interconnected groups, spearheaded by the Koch brothers, which raised more than $400 million in the last election cycle, to the tactics of drug runners and tax evaders.
No less than labor unions or liberal billionaire George Soros, the Koch brothers have the right to make their opinions heard in the marketplace of political ideas. But why do they need to hide behind "cryptic, alphabet-soup names like SLAH LLC and ORRA LLC" and nonprofit entities acting "as de facto banks, feeding money to other groups downstream"?
The masks that these billionaire right-wingers put on in order to disguise the true nature of their electioneering can be illustrated by New Mexico Watchdog. A representative of the blog's national coordinator, Watchdog.org, contacted us last summer about a "content partnership" in which Desert Exposure would use free material originated by New Mexico Watchdog. Given our limited resources, naturally the offer of "investigative" content focused on New Mexico was appealing — until we did a little investigating of our own.
The state "Watchdog" sites are funded by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which former Reuters chief White House correspondent Gene Gibbons described as "delivering political propaganda dressed up as journalism." The Franklin Center says its funding source is "100% anonymous." But, according to the Center for Public Integrity, 95% of the Franklin Center's 2011 funding — $6.3 million — came from DonorsTrust, "a spin-off of the Philanthropy Roundtable that functions as a large ‘donor-advised fund,' cloaking the identity of donors to right-wing causes across the country."
One of the major contributors to Donors Trust, to the tune of almost $8 million between 2005 and 2011, is the Knowledge and Progress Fund. Guess who founded the Knowledge and Progress Fund? Billionaire brother Charles Koch, of course. Moreover, at least three staffers at the Franklin Center previously worked for Americans for Prosperity.
New Mexico Watchdog and its sibling sites may have some important things to say; Santa Fe bureau chief Rob Nikolewski also writes op-ed pieces for the Santa Fe New Mexican. But it's troubling when such overtly (yet covertly) partisan journalism is passed off as the real thing, especially in an era when newspapers and wire services are cutting back on their own statehouse coverage. Readers shouldn't have to play investigative reporters themselves to uncover the omnipresent hand of the Koch brothers pulling the strings of such enterprises.
Americans for Prosperity's pullback in New Mexico probably will barely dent the Kochs' hidden influence here. But is it impolite of us to say to the wearers of those erstwhile "boots on the ground," don't let the door hit you on the way out?
David A. Fryxell is editor and publisher of Desert Exposure, which receives no funding from any foundations or political groups, left or right.
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