Charles Koch, the billionaire chairman and CEO of Koch Industries and leading conservative mega-donor, has set his sights on a new goal: reforming America's criminal justice system.
In an interview with The Wichita Eagle published Saturday, Koch said his own experiences in courts -- including the time a federal grand jury indicted Koch Industries on 97 counts of environmental crimes in 2000 -- prompted him to study the justice system at both the state and federal level. In that particular case, centered on a Koch Petroleum Group refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas, prosecutors eventually dropped all but one of the charges after the corporation agreed to pay a settlement.
According to Koch's chief counsel Mark Holden, the case made the billionaire industrialist wonder "how the little guy who doesn't have Koch’s resources deals with prosecutions like that," the Eagle reports.
Koch and his brother David have gained notoriety as the bankrollers of Americans for Prosperity, a political advocacy group that backs candidates who favor slashing taxes and shrinking government. But the brothers have also quietly backed criminal justice reform for years, and sponsored a forum on the issue earlier this year. Charles Koch said he plans to ramp up his reform efforts in 2015.
"Over the next year, we are going to be pushing the issues key to this, which need a lot of work in this country," Koch told the Eagle. "And that would be freedom of speech, cronyism and how that relates to opportunities for the disadvantaged."
Koch pointed to sentencing as an area in desperate need of reform, arguing that sentences should be "more appropriate to the crime that has been committed."
His new mission has precipitated some unlikely alliances. The Eagle reports that Koch has unofficially teamed up with progressive mega-donor George Soros and the American Civil Liberties Union to address prison reform. Koch has also earned praise from outgoing U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who told The Marshall Project that Koch's donation to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which funds training for attorneys who represent those in need, was a positive force. According to reports, Koch has been a supporter of the organization since 2004.
"That's a good thing to hear -- people from very different places along the ideological spectrum understanding that we have to make our criminal justice system more fair," Holder said. "It's about 51 years or so after Gideon [v. Wainwright], and there are way too many people on the civil side, as well as the criminal side, who don't have their legal needs met. There's a justice gap. And to hear that the Koch brothers would be contributing money in that way is something that I think should be applauded."
NACDL president Theodore Simon has also commended the Kochs for their support.
"We have to get beyond the corrosive idea that we have to agree with others on everything in order to cooperate on anything," Simon told Reuters in October. "This grant is going to help lawyers help the needy in our society."