Koch Brothers Move To Control Cato Institute

Libertarians say it's like watching dear friends in an ugly divorce, as the billionaire Koch brothers try to take control of the highly regarded Cato Institute. The head of Cato says the Kochs are out to politicize the think tank.

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We'll look, now, at the power of money in politics. Turns out, money isn't always welcomed by the recipient. The billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch are known for the many millions of dollars they've poured into conservative causes. One of the brothers, for example, co-founded the Cato Institute, a think tank that's a cornerstone of the libertarian movement. Well, now the Kochs are trying to take control of Cato away from its president. The president is furious, as are many libertarians. NPR's Peter Overby has the story.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: The fight became public this month when the Kochs sued Cato. But it's been brewing for 20 years. One episode sums it up. A meeting last fall that included David Koch, two representatives of Charles Koch, and Cato board chairman Bob Levy. Here's how Levy remembers it.

BOB LEVY: They said they wanted Ed gone in six to eight weeks.

OVERBY: Ed is Cato's president, Ed Crane. He and Charles Koch were co-founders of Cato in the 1970s. Sometime later, they turned against each other. So Crane's ouster was one item at the meeting. Item number two, according to Levy...

LEVY: The whole idea was that then Cato would begin working much more closely with Americans for Prosperity.

OVERBY: That's an organization backed by significant Koch money. But while Cato is a think tank that attacks policies of both major parties, Americans for Prosperity is practically a political organization. Here's its president, Tim Phillips, at AFP's national convention last fall, sending President Obama a message.

TIM PHILLIPS: You're going to hear from us this weekend. You're going to hear from us next weekend, and you're certainly going to hear from every one of us across America in 2012.

OVERBY: The Kochs fiercely deny that they want to control Cato or politicize it. Wes Edwards is the deputy general counsel for Koch Companies Public Sector. He says Cato's board needs to be more independent, and Cato shouldn't be beholden to AFP or anyone else.

WES EDWARDS: Our goal here is to create an independent, libertarian think tank that promotes free society, and hopefully does so by working with numerous organizations across the landscape.

OVERBY: Edwards adds this...

EDWARDS: We believe the objectives that we're seeking and what we're fighting for is worth some short-term turmoil.

OVERBY: That turmoil is fueled by some ugly, personal accusations. David Koch says Crane worked with hostile journalists to further his own ends. Bob Levy says allegations like that are nauseating. All of it reverberates across what libertarians call the Kochtopus, the many Koch-supported organizations and the people who have worked for them.

JULIAN SANCHEZ: You know, I often find myself making common cause with Democrats or writing for venues like, you know, The Nation or the American Prospect.

OVERBY: Julian Sanchez is a Cato research fellow, specializing in privacy and technology. The notion of doing anything for a group like Americans for Prosperity caused him to post a pre-resignation letter on his personal website.

SANCHEZ: That's not really what I signed up for and not something I'm interested in doing with my working day.

OVERBY: One frequent comment: This is like watching good friends in a really nasty divorce. Writer P.J. O'Rourke is a Cato fellow.

P.J. O'ROURKE: You always start out by saying, well, we're not going to take sides. We're going to remain friends with both of them. And of course, that always turns out to be much more difficult than you think.

OVERBY: Some say the Kochs should back off. Jonathan Adler teaches at Case Western Reserve University school of law.

JONATHAN ADLER: As a law professor, I teach my students that sometimes it's in a client's interest not to press for full enforcement of their legal entitlements.

OVERBY: The Save Cato group argues that the changes would give a deadly taint to any future Cato research. Robert Lawson says that just reinforces anti-Koch rhetoric from the left. He teaches economics at Southern Methodist University.

ROBERT LAWSON: People like me, I think, will pay a price for that. And that's what's bothered me about the way the debate has unfolded.

OVERBY: And nobody sees a good outcome or a quick one. Matt Welch is editor-in-chief of Reason magazine, where David Koch sits on the board.

MATT WELCH: I got to think that there'll be court action for the next year or two, and then we're probably going to see a different Cato emerge.

OVERBY: But right now, the debate is much too hot to indicate what that new Cato will turn out to be.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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