For those of us who took a while to realize that The Sopranos wasn’t a reality show, the soap opera playing out in Governor Chris Christie’s office seems to fit right in with how we picture New Jersey. We see the tough talking but still likeable Capo, politicians on the take, minions getting bumped off right and left—the whole list of Central Casting characters; great show.
Compared to that, the other story crowding the headlines, where some gunk spilled into a river in West Virginia, doesn’t seem too exciting. But wait, as they say on the TV ads: there’s more.
“More” in this case is the interesting connection between New Jersey’s bridge problems and West Virginia’s river problems: and the connection is -- Dave and Charlie Koch. The multibillionaire brothers (tied at being the 5th richest person in America, and the 24th richest in the world) own nearly all of Koch Industries. Koch Industries, in turn, owns a bunch of other companies.
Both Dave and Charlie share social attitudes that seem to come straight from some Dark Ages playbook. Witness Charlie’s famous remark, after he’d pilfered a few hundred dollars’ worth of oil from a small group of Osage Indians, apparently just to show he could do it: "I want my fair share -- and that's all of it."
This “gimme, gimme, gimme” attitude, paired with their standard-issue “no prisoners” way of dealing with dissenting points of view has led the Brothers Koch to put somewhere north of $30 million into science denial groups over the last few years, to convince us all that their coal and petroleum processing doesn’t really hurt the environment.
Some of the money goes to their pet think tanks (Cato Institute, Mercatus Center, Heritage Foundation) for science-denial work. These folks crank out learned-sounding but scientifically-inaccurate articles and studies saying that processing and burning coal and oil is really good for us; Global Warming is all a hoax, the data got misinterpreted, and so on. Some more money goes to pay politicians to recite these fact-challenged talking points in Congress, on statehouse floors, or in campaigns.
And when the real world has intruded, and their refineries and pipelines leak, blow up, or hurt people, the Kochs have paid tens of millions of dollars in environmental fines and penalties.
So, aside from a sort of humorous connection between Koch money (Dave and Charlie) and coke money (the white powdered stuff--and more about that in a bit), let’s connect some dots and see if we can get from New Jersey to West Virginia.
The Koch money in New Jersey is straightforward, but for some reason, not much publicized. The Kochs appear to own Governor Christie. Case in point: after a two-hour, one-on-one meeting with Dave Koch in the company’s Manhattan office in early 2011, which didn’t seem to get much press coverage then or now, Governor Christie was invited to be the keynote speaker that June at one of the Koch Brothers highly exclusive fundraising retreat for their Million-Dollar Club members near Vail, Colorado.
The speech and the trip itself were kept secret from the press, and his constituents. On June 26, 2011, Governor Christie appeared on NBC’s Meet The Press. Immediately after that, he was whisked by private jet to Colorado, delivered his speech at the Ritz-Carlton, and was then flown back to New Jersey, with no word to his constituents or the press.
Interestingly, just like Mitt Romney’s now-famous “47%” speech, Governor Christie’s remarks were recorded. Check the Mother Jones link to hear him ridicule his state legislators and others as “stupid,” and tell how he plans to destroy teachers unions.
Now, quick: jump about 600 miles south and west from Fort Lee, New Jersey’s troubled bridge over its waters to Charleston, West Virginia and their troubled waters.
Most of us have seen the headlines: 7,500 gallons of a substance known as 4-methylcyclohexane methanol--MCHM, for short—flowed into the Elk River through a leak in a steel storage tank. MCHM is used to “wash” coal to remove impurities and pollutants before burning. The American Association of Poison Control Centers says it’s harmful if swallowed or inhaled.
The Elk River is a prime fresh water source for 300,000 West Virginians; the spill left them without water for drinking or bathing, and forced many businesses to close.
The storage tank belongs to a company called Freedom Industries, which was founded back in the mid-80s, but has only been around in its present form since December of 2013 after some mergers. It was founded by Gary Southern (the guy swigging a bottle of Aquafina water on camera while trying hard to not answer reporters’ questions) and a local felon named Carl Kennedy (tax evasion and cocaine dealing—that’s the other half of the Koch money/coke money joke).
It gets better, though: Freedom Industries was selected by Georgia-Pacific to be its supplier for MCHM. Georgia-Pacific corporation is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries.
So, there is a strong tie between the Kochs and Governor Christie, and therefore the George Washington Bridge situation. And there is a tie of still-to-be-determined strength between the Kochs and Freedom Industries, and the Elk River situation.
But here’s where it gets really interesting: the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is investigating Governor Christie’s use of Federal relief funds to air the “Stronger than the storm” TV ads, featuring the Governor and his family. Critics charge that the commercial was essentially an election ad for Governor Christie.
On another front, both houses of the state legislature are starting their own investigations, and the state Attorney General may be brought in.
But West Virginians aren’t waiting for their legislature, or the Feds. The Charleston, West Virginia, law firm of Hill, Peterson, Carper, Bee & Deitzler has already opened 17 suits on behalf of businesses that suffered losses from the MCHM leak. Similar suits are being planned for Ohio residents and businesses, since the MCHM has now run downriver and shown up in that state. One aim of the suits is to “pierce the corporate veil;” setting aside the idea of limited liability and holding a corporation’s management and shareholders responsible for damages.
As a side note, the Hill, Peterson offices are located at 500 Tracy Way, Charleston, WV; zip is 25311. Looking at this building on Google Maps we see that it is a large, elegant suite of offices in an elegant and obviously expensive office park. The conclusion to be drawn from looking at their very high-dollar offices is that Hill, Peterson can afford such quarters because they are very good at what they do.
So, in New Jersey we will see one of the Koch Brothers’ pet governors having to defend himself against several government investigations, and possibly a number of civil actions resulting from the lane closures on the George Washington Bridge.
And it may be that testimony will be required from other people connected to the closure; perhaps the Kochs themselves.
And in West Virginia we will see a Koch Brothers’ subsidiary company having to defend itself, along with its management and shareholders, against possible regulatory actions and over a dozen civil suits brought by highly accomplished lawyers.
And if these lawyers do manage to pierce the corporate veil, sources very close to the Koch Brothers themselves may have to testify. Perhaps the Koch Brothers themselves.
Looks like interesting times ahead. Stay tuned.