'Hidden History' Of Koch Brothers Traces Their Childhood And Political Rise Jane Mayer, author of Dark Money, says the Kochs didn't grow up in "the usual cozy, all-American family." Their parents were away much of the time, and competition between the brothers was fierce.
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'Hidden History' Of Koch Brothers Traces Their Childhood And Political Rise

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'Hidden History' Of Koch Brothers Traces Their Childhood And Political Rise

'Hidden History' Of Koch Brothers Traces Their Childhood And Political Rise

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross who's off this week. When President Obama was inaugurated in Washington in 2009, a group of wealthy conservatives was meeting across the country near Palm Springs, Calif. to commit tens of millions of dollars to undoing Obama's agenda. Security at the meeting, convened by billionaire industrialist Charles Koch, was intense. Smartphones and cameras were banned, and guests were told to destroy all copies of any paperwork. The semiannual donor summits assembled by Charles and David Koch are among the events described by our guest, Jane Mayer, in her new book, "Dark Money." Mayer writes that a small number of extremely wealthy conservative families have, for decades, funded think tanks, academic posts and political organizations that aggressively pursue a libertarian agenda of lower taxes and deregulation. She argues that their efforts have undermined an American consensus about the threat of climate change, pushed the Republican Party to the right and made Charles Koch one of the most formidable figures in American politics. Jane Mayer is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of three previous books. Well, Jane Mayer, welcome back to FRESH AIR. There's a lot of fascinating material in this book about the Koch family. And one of them involves the patriarch, Fred Koch's, association with Germany during the war. Tell us about that.

JANE MAYER: Fred Koch, the patriarch of the family, was an expert in building oil refineries. And he and a friend named William Rhodes Davis proposed building one in Germany during 1934-35, that period in there. And in 1933, Adolph Hitler became chancellor of the Third Reich in Germany, so this meant working under the Third Reich. And in order to get permission, they actually had to go to Hitler himself, and William Rhodes Davis did the heil Hitler to greet Hitler. And finally, they got Hitler to greenlight this proposal so that they could build an oil refinery in Hamburg. And the Hamburg oil refinery, built by the Winkler-Koch Company, became key, according to several German historians I talked to, to Hitler's war efforts. By the time they built it, it was already clear that Hitler had very major military ambitions. But one of the things he was unable to do was to refine high-octane oil for war planes. And what this plant did was create that capacity. And it eventually supplied much of the fuel that was needed for Hitler's Luftwaffe.

DAVIES: Right, so Fred Koch, the patriarch of the family, as this account tells us, made an important contribution, ultimately, to the Nazi war effort. He was not, himself, a Nazi though, right?

MAYER: He was not a Nazi, and I certainly don't suggest that in the book. But what he was was an American businessman looking for a good deal. And he was looking all over the world to see how he could make some money. And oddly, and what's been known before, is before working under Hitler's Third Reich, Fred Koch had worked for Stalin, where under Stalin's first five-year plan, Fred Koch helped build up the Soviet oil refineries and really gave huge muscle to the oil industry in the Soviet Union. But when the Russians figured out how to build their own refineries, Fred Koch was looking for other places to go to make money, and that's when he when moved on to Germany.

DAVIES: Right, and it was his experience in part with the Soviet Union that reinforced his conservative principles. He ultimately joined the John Birch Society, right?

MAYER: That's right. What he saw of Soviet Russia was so alarming to him that he became a lifelong extreme right-wing anti-Communist activist. But he didn't express similar disapproval of what he saw of Germany in the years before the Second World War. And in fact, he wrote home admiringly of it. He wrote that he admired how both Germany and Italy and Japan were all dealing with their populations during this period before the Second World War in comparison with Franklin Roosevelt's approach to governance back in the United States, which he saw as giving too many handouts from the government to the people. After the U.S. got into the war, Fred Koch, according to family lore, offered to enlist on the American side. At that point, he was quite old. And he was also, by then, very rich. He made a fair amount of money out of all of these deals. He was too old to enlist, but apparently he was asked to help refine some of that oil in the U.S. for the U.S. Air Force. So he - you know, he contributed in his own way after the U.S. went to war.

DAVIES: He had four sons, two of which now head the company. What kind of upbringing did they have?

MAYER: To me, anyway, it was a very competitive and, in some ways, searing childhood that these four boys went through. I mean, I think their parents seem to have cared quite a bit about them, but they were the kinds of parents who were gone much of the time. The father was gone doing business. And the mother was a very active socialite and was gone much of the time, and so she and the father placed the child rearing in the hands of a hired nanny.

MAYER: And here again, you get this strange reoccurrence of a kind of a little touch of Nazi Germany because the nanny that they chose for the two oldest boys, which would have been - Frederick Koch was the oldest son, and the next one was Charles Koch, who is the person who really has been the key figure running Koch industries and also running the company's political operations. Charles and Frederick, the oldest sons, were put in the hands of a German nanny who was described by other family members as just a fervid Nazi. She was so devout a supporter of Hitler that finally, after five years working for the family, she left of her own volition in 1940 when Hitler entered France because she wanted to celebrate with the Fuhrer. And there was a tremendous amount of kind of chilly competition between the boys and friction between the boys.

DAVIES: And she was tough. I mean, toilet training is an example that you give.

MAYER: See was very tough. I mean, maybe it was the Germanic way. But she brought - when she arrived at the family, she brought a trunk full of scary children's books that had terrifying tales about what would happen to children if they disobeyed the rules. They would have their fingers cut off, or they would be set on fire. And she also had very strict rules about how they had to go to the bathroom right at the right point first thing in the morning, or else they would be subjected to castor oil and enemas. And it was just a very kind of authoritarian early childhood, which - I'm not a psychiatrist, and I really - you know, far from being able to know what effect that would really have on someone. But I found it very interesting that specifically, that was the early upbringing of Charles Koch, who has become a larger-than-life-size figure in the libertarian movement, which rebels against an awful lot of authoritarian rules and against government and is a, you know, cry for greater freedom. And I don't know if it's related or not, but it was a tough early childhood for both Frederick and Charles Koch.

DAVIES: So the German governess goes back to Europe when the Nazi army has early success. There were four boys. Freddy was the oldest who was never married and more interested in arts than business. And you write that his brothers suspected he may be gay, and there was an interesting confrontation. Tell us about that.

MAYER: Yeah, I mean, you have to remember this was a very long time ago when the idea of being gay was being considered scandalous in a family, particularly a family of rough, self-made oilmen out in Wichita, Kan. And it was considered a sort of a dark secret that the firstborn son, Frederick, might have been gay. And at some point when Frederick was in his 20s, all four of the sons by then had shares in the family company. And what the three other brothers did was they created a kind of kangaroo court, and they developed a pretext for a meeting with the brother they thought might be gay, so that he walked room, found this three other brothers sitting there in chairs facing him, and they confronted him and conducted an inquisition to see if he was gay. And they then said that if he was, they were going to tell their father unless he handed over his share in the company, and it's come to be known within the family as the blackmail attempt by the brothers to get Frederick's shares of the company.

DAVIES: And what was the outcome?

MAYER: It was an ugly scene. I mean, and let me just explain how I know this, too, which is because it's been rumored about for years in other writeups about the Kochs. And there have been various descriptions of, you know, people denying it. But I actually got a hold of a sealed deposition in which one of the brothers, Bill Koch, describes the whole thing as it unfolded. And the brother who they were accusing, Frederick, who was the eldest, stood up, looked at them, said, I never want to hear about this again, and walked out of the room. And it didn't work. But as a ploy, I think it gives you an idea of a family that is not the usual (laughter) cozy, all-American family.

DAVIES: Frederick doesn't get involved in the family business - leads his own life. David was - became closest to Charles, the second-oldest. But David had a twin brother, Bill. And he had a falling out with David and Charles. Maybe this gets a little confusing. But what was that about?

MAYER: It is confusing, but what essentially happened was among the four sons, they broke into two teams of two. And on one side, you had Charles and David who are the ones that people think of today as the Koch brothers. And on the other side, you had Frederick and Bill. And they felt left out. They felt left out of the business, and they tried, at one point, to take control of it, which challenged the control that Charles and David had. And they lost in that effort. And from that point on, these two teams of brothers litigated against each other brutally for 20 years. It was just - it's just an incredible story of brother against brother. Both sides hired lawyers. Both sides hired their own private detectives to go through each other's garbage, quite literally. At points, they didn't speak to each other. And, in fact, some of the brothers still don't speak to each other. As far as I know, I don't think Frederick, the oldest, still speaks to the next in line, Charles. It left incredible bad blood. And in many ways, it was just a tussle over the company and millions and millions of dollars that were at stake.

DAVIES: Jane Mayer's book is called "Dark Money." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Jane Mayer. She's an veteran reporter and a staff writer for the New Yorker. Her new book is "Dark Money: The Hidden History Of The Billionaires Behind The Rise Of The Radical Right." Well, the political activism of the Koch family is focused on a libertarian philosophy. They've held that for a long, long time. And, of course, they argue that that's what's best for the country. But you write in the book that their political platform is very helpful to the Koch Industries bottom line, particularly in the area of government regulation. You want to explain that a bit?

MAYER: Well - and I do think that you have to say these are true believers from what I can tell. Certainly Charles Koch is a true believer in libertarianism and one of the most sort of far-right true believers in the country. The policies that he embraces are policies that are great for Koch Industries and for the accumulation of his own wealth. He opposes all kinds of government intervention, particularly regulations on business, especially those that regulate businesses for their environmental impact. He's running a business that is a huge fossil fuels company, and he is against any kinds of taxes on fossil fuel pollution. And he is against most taxes in general anyway. So Charles Koch gets involved in politics at his father's knee. His father, as we've said, was a member of the John Birch Society - one of the founding members of it. Charles Koch broke with his father over the John Birch Society at a particular point, but he instead became an acolyte of a man named Charles LeFevre, who was basically an anarchist. He ran something called the Freedom School out in Colorado Springs, Colo., which the New York Times wrote about in the 1960s as this kind of crazy school that had a completely different view of history in which they felt that the Civil War shouldn't have been fought, that slavery - if you want to sell yourself into slavery, that should be OK. They wanted to scrap the Constitution and replace it with a new one that denied the ability of the federal government to impose taxes. It's just a very, very sort of pure and far-out view of small government to almost no government, and a really strongly antigovernment view. And so that's where Charles Koch kind of cut his teeth in politics. He became a trustee of this Freedom School, and it moved from there to deciding that his brother, with whom he was quite close, David Koch, and with whom he ran the business, should become Vice President of the United States, running on the Libertarian Party ticket. So the two of them ran that campaign in 1980 against Ronald Reagan. They ran from the right against Ronald Reagan because they felt Reagan wasn't conservative enough and was too much of a sellout. So again, you get to see this marker very early on about how far out to the right they were.

DAVIES: You note that the libertarian philosophy the Kochs embrace in general supports their corporate interest. But you get much more specific in some chapters here, and you say that they - that the company has a remarkable record for corporate malfeasance. Do you want to just describe some of that and its connection to their political views?

MAYER: Well, they had a history that - for instance, I quote someone named Chuck Lewis, who was the head of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan group in Washington that's kind of a watchdog group. And he describes the Kochs as the Standard Oil of our time. And he says they have a record of lawbreaking and obfuscation like almost no other company. They have a long record of environmental legal cases where they held the record for the largest judgment against a company for pollution at one point. They also had the largest judgment against them at the time for a disastrous work-safety situation in which a pipeline blew up and killed two teenagers who lived near it. And there were - just one case after another after another. It was fascinating to put them all in one place. You look at it, and you can certainly understand why they might have hated government regulation - because they were being accused of violating these regulations right and left all over the country for many years.

DAVIES: And you say that they are noteworthy in their willfulness. I mean, there was an allegation, for example, that they stole oil from a tribal area - a Native American tribal area.

MAYER: Well, yes. This was an interesting case. And it was in the 1990s. They were dragged - Koch Industries was dragged in front of the U.S. Senate. There was a committee investigating the company looking into accusations that it had stolen oil from Indian reservations by purposefully mismeasuring it and had pocketed millions and millions of dollars of extra money by doing so. The company didn't deny it at the time, but what they did deny - they said it had happened, but they said it was an accident. But if you take a look at the Senate report, what you see is that other companies that were operating around the same time in that same oil patch didn't have this problem. So they've raised eyebrows in pushing the limits of what a company can get away with for decades during this period. And to some extent, it was in harmony with Charles Koch's hardline libertarian views that the government just should not interfere with private enterprise.

DAVIES: And I guess I should say, I mean, there's a lot of material in the book, and it's very detailed. But you, of course, it did contact the Koch Industry folks about this. Did they offer defenses? Did they describe - did they respond to the specific cases in the book?

MAYER: No. You know, I wish they had. And I tried numerous times to get them to cooperate - give interviews, run over some of the material. Frequently, I've sent them actual detailed questions, and they have just declined to comment. You know, but they've spoken out in another places over the years, here and there. There is a record you can put together. And they have not denied these charges.

DAVIES: You write about the many ways in which the Kochs and other wealthy families operated, you know, for decades to influence politics and to influence universities. Let's talk about that a bit. Who are some of the other families that funded this effort?

MAYER: Well, one of the first is Richard Mellon Scaife, who was the heir to the Gulf Oil and Alcoa aluminum fortunes and the Mellon banking fortunes. And what I was able to do was get a hold of Scaife's unpublished memoir, in which he describes his sort of deliberate, long-term, multi-decade effort to take his fortune and build up an infrastructure that will fight a war of ideas in America and pull the country to the right. And he estimates himself that he put, I think it, a billion dollars by current dollars from his own fortune into this enterprise. He also estimates that of the 300 most important conservative organizations in America, he personally bankrolled something like 133 of them. So he describes this. He's growing up in this fabulously wealthy atmosphere. He was a boy in an estate called Penguin Court. His mother thought it was amusing to have real penguins waddling around. And as a boy, when he couldn't sleep, and even later in life when he couldn't sleep at night, he would try to count the rooms in his house and drift off as he was going through the - I think there were 70 bedrooms or something like that. And he felt America was going in the wrong direction, and that is the beginning of the secret history, to some extent - or the hidden history, to some extent, of these billionaires. They felt - several of them felt that, starting in the 1970s, America was getting off course. They disliked the antiwar movement. They disliked the consumer movement that Ralph Nader had started, that to them seemed antibusiness. And they strongly disliked the environmental movement too, which was imposing fines and new rules on major corporations, some of which this small group of enormously wealthy people ran. So they wanted to push back. Some of them backed the Goldwater campaign, but that failed. And they sort of went back to regroup and figure out what else they could do.

DAVIES: Jane Mayer is a staff writer for the New Yorker. Her new book is called "Dark Money." After a break, Mayer says some who've tangled with the Koch brothers report they were followed or investigated. And she'll tell us about a mysterious effort to discredit her own reporting. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer. She spent five years researching a new book about a network of wealthy conservative families who she says has spent hundreds of millions of dollars - much of it anonymously - funding think tanks, academic posts and political organizations that pursue a libertarian agenda. At the heart of the network, Mayer says, are the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch. Mayer's book is called "Dark Money." Now, you also write about a guy named Richard Fink, a very important man in the Koch network. And you say that he developed - I think you describe it as plans for a three-phase takeover of American politics. What were the three phases?

MAYER: So Richard Fink had a Ph.D. in economics, was a libertarian who connected up with Charles Koch and became his political consigliere for many years and still is. And what he developed was kind of an assembly line for political change. And, you know, one of the things that's interesting when you read about all this, the story was, you know, to me so eye-opening was you have to remember that the Kochs, Charles and David, were engineers - are engineers. They both have advanced degrees in engineering from MIT. And they basically with Richard Fink looked at the American political system and gamed how the widgets work in it and what you would need to do to mass-produce political change. And what they figured out was that there would be phases. First, they needed to subsidize the think tanks which would come up with the ideas that were libertarian. Then they needed to take those ideas and market them to the streets through political groups that would agitate for them, so they needed advocacy groups. And then they needed to take those advocacy groups and build up pressure on the politicians, who would then enact legislation in line with what they wanted. So it was a three-part system for a mass-produced takeover of American politics, and it was not just on the federal level. One of the things that was so genius about this plan was it kind of developed a cellular approach to America that broke the states down so that they had state-level organizations. At this point, there's a network of think tanks that called - it's called the State Policy Network that they funded that has a think tank in almost every state. And those then did the same thing on the state legislative level.

DAVIES: You said they would build advocacy groups and then pressure groups that would make politicians feel the heat. Give us an example of the pressure groups you're talking about.

MAYER: Well, the largest of the groups now that the Kochs have funded and founded is Americans for Prosperity. And to give you an idea of how big it is, Americans for Prosperity currently has something like full-time 1,700 full-time staffers. That is three and a half times bigger than the Republican National Committee. They have a budget for the 2016 presidential cycle - that is the Koch's funding group, it's a network that they've gathered around them now of level of like-minded multimillionaires and billionaires - they have a budget of $889,000,000 for the which is 2016 cycle, which is twice what the Republican National Committee spent in 2012. So this organization is in some ways bigger than the Republican Party.

DAVIES: And these groups, like Americans for Prosperity and other groups, assemble huge amounts of money from donors. But then they don't always spend it directly, right? It gets routed through other groups, and there are specific techniques to protect the identity of the donors. You want to talk about that?

MAYER: Yeah, I mean, it was enough to drive any reporter out of their mind. And if it was this hard for an investigative reporter, I think you have to conclude that this process these groups are designed to elude public inspection. I mean, in some ways, what's been built up is kind of the equivalent of the Cayman Islands, you know, banks. You can hardly follow the money with this process. But yes, what happens is really beginning with Richard Mellon Scaife and some of the other early funders, they realized you could use philanthropy to push politics and push your political ideology. And by doing so, you could hide the money trail in a way that you can't do if you have to disclose campaign spending. So many of these groups are for tax purposes nonprofit groups that are philanthropic. They are either charities or they are a - kind of another subgroup, which are called social welfare groups. And in both those cases, these groups that sort of push a political point of view and, in fact, even engage campaigns to some extent can hide the money. They need don't to disclose the names of their donors. These are the groups that are called dark money groups. And they thus become kind of secret banks that affect American politics in a huge way without most people who understanding who's behind them.

DAVIES: The Kochs have for more than a decade now been hosting semiannual seminars attended by wealthy conservatives. What happens at these events? What's their purpose?

MAYER: Well, of course, what really happens is hard to know because this is, again, part of the secrecy of the Koch's network. They don't allow outsiders in. So, in fact, they've been so careful about the secrecy at these meetings, which take place twice a year in resorts, that at one point they even went to the trouble to erect white-noise machines that would create static facing the outside so that nobody could eavesdrop on them. They routinely refused to disclose the names of the donors who come to these events. But at one point, a guest list got left behind, which has provided the one full guest list of one of these events. And what you can see from it is there are about somewhere between 400 and 450 of the wealthiest conservatives in America getting together to plan how to use their fortunes to influence American politics. And I think the genius of the Kochs is the magic trick that they've really figured out, which is that it's not just their money funding this. They've created a consortium. It's a club where you've got maybe 400 people who are cumulatively enormously wealthy. I tried to figure out at one point how many billionaires were involved just in the first term of Obama's presidency because they were funding so much of the opposition to Obama. And I got to a count of 18 billionaires who were known and whose net worth put together was $214 billion. Now, obviously, they're not spending all of it on politics. But it gives you a sense of the throw weight of this tiny concentrated group of people.

DAVIES: You got a tape of one of these seminars. What did you hear?

MAYER: What you hear is Charles is kind of the master of ceremonies, and he's trying to rev everybody up to give as much as they can. And he describes the election that's pending - it would've been the 2012 presidential election - as the mother of all wars. And what you can hear also is how fervid he is in his believes. I mean, he describes it as kind of like if we don't save the country, who will? And that I think is kind of how he views all of this.

DAVIES: And then does he ask for dollar commitments among his attendees?

MAYER: Yes, he asks for dollar commitments, and it becomes kind of like an auction where, you know, each one tries to one-up the next one and offer more money. There are applause and thanks and the kitty grows.

DAVIES: And what kind of numbers are we talking about?

MAYER: In the 2011 summit, I had a source who was there at the time and described the donations being given in increments of five million.

DAVIES: Let's talk about the impact of this network on one area, and that's climate change. You know, there was at some point a fairly broad public consensus that climate change was real, man-made and needed to be addressed. Tell us what kind of effort went into reversing that and its effect.

MAYER: Well, if you look at the way public opinion has changed - at least some of the scientists I interviewed - I interviewed one very well-known climatologist named Michael Mann, he really thinks the money completely moved public opinion in America. There's been an effort to try to figure out how much money it was. Again, a lot of this is dark money. But a professor at Drexel University named Robert Brulle did a very careful study that's been peer-reviewed to look at the amount of money that was spent to create doubt about climate change in America between 2003 and 2010 - by the time he'd added it all up, he believed it was something approaching a half a billion dollars.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Jane Mayer. Her new book is called "Dark Money." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Jane Mayer. She's an investigative reporter and a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her new book is "Dark Money : The Hidden History Of The Billionaires Behind The Rise Of The Radical Right." You know, you write about a number of cases in which adversaries of the Kochs believe they were followed or investigated. Give us a sense of who's making these claims and what you think are their credibility.

MAYER: Yeah, this is interesting. I came across this pattern of people who had tried to challenge the Kochs or Koch Industries in one way or another who felt that they were being targeted, particularly by private investigators.

DAVIES: And in some cases - in some cases, employees or former employees of Koch Industries, right?

MAYER: That's right. You got the sense that if their stories are true, that this was a company that plays and played super hardball. And interestingly, among those who've lodged such complaints who I've interviewed were three former prosecutors, government prosecutors - two federal ones, one state prosecutor - who have tried to either press charges against Koch Industries or to investigate it. And in each case, they felt that somebody was following them or someone was going through their garbage or somebody was trying to dig dirt on them. There's a reference to it in one of the Senate reports about the investigation into whether Koch Industries stole oil from Indian reservations. It specifically mentions that some of the investigators felt that they too were being investigated, but by Koch Industries. Let me tell you one story about - there was an FBI agent who worked on the Senate investigation into Koch Industries. His name is Jim Elroy, and I interviewed him. And he told me that he was so certain he was being tailed that one day, he just stopped his car and confronted the person who he thought was tailing him. He took out his badge. He took out his gun. And he said to this person who he thought was following him, you tell me what you're doing and who you're doing it for. And the guy sort of, you know, froze and said, I'm working for Koch Industries, he says. And Elroy told me that he told this fellow, you tell your bosses if they try to do this again, you're going to be in a body bag. So Elroy's kind of a tough guy, but he - he had investigated organized crime in Oklahoma before he had investigated Koch Industries. And he told me he'd never encountered the kinds of tactics that he thought were being employed against him when he investigated Koch Industries.

DAVIES: So it sounds like these seem credible. There's no finding by a prosecutor or jury that substantiates them. What do the Kochs' representatives say when they're asked about these things?

MAYER: Well, in the case of Elroy, they said at the time - they denied it. But then they also confirmed another case around the same time, where somebody said that - it was a witness to the Senate investigation who said that he thought he was being smeared. And they admitted that they had provided sort of some negative information to the press on him.

DAVIES: Now, you wrote about the Kochs in a 2010 piece in The New Yorker. And then you were attacked by conservatives. What happened?

MAYER: Yeah, that was really strange (laughter). After my story came out in The New Yorker on the Kochs, which they didn't like - but, you know, again, I wish they had cooperated, but they didn't. But I did my best to try to show their side of things anyway. Anyway, they were not happy with it. They don't like publicity anyway. But when the story came out, I began to hear a couple rumors from people saying, you know, there's a private eye who's digging around about you. And I just thought, well, that's kind of ridiculous. I don't have much to be dug into, frankly. And so I kind of laughed it off. But then, that story came out I guess in the end of the summer, 2010. In the first few days of January 2011, the editor of The New Yorker, David Remnick, got notification from two conservative publications that they were about to go with what they described as a devastating expose of me. And both publications at the same time somehow had the same information that was supposed to be negative about me that said that I was a plagiarist. And one publication was The Daily Caller, which is a Washington-based conservative web publication. And the other was The New York Post. So David Remnick sent me a note saying, God, what is this? I have no idea. Can you take a look at it? And I sort of looked at it, and I thought, wow, I wonder if this is what people were referring to when they said there were private eyes digging into me. And I - I asked to see the details of the charges, and these two publications sent me what was sort of the bill of goods against me. And I looked at it, and I thought, well, that is ridiculous. There were four sentences that were supposed to have been the same as other people's sentences taken from 10 years of my work. And at the same time that I knew it was ridiculous, I also thought, wow, if this gets into print, for the rest of my life, it's going to be there in Google. And people are going to think there's something real about it. Even when you deny it, people always think, oh, there's got to have been something to it.

DAVIES: So what did you do?

MAYER: (Laughter). So I - you know, I did the only thing I could think of, which was to call the authors of the stories from which I was supposed to have stolen sentences and see if they thought I had plagiarized from them. And I'm glad to report that not a single one did. And in fact, they all offered to make on-the-record statements supporting me. So I took these statements, and I sent them to the conservative organizations that were about to publish this kind of planted smear on me and said, these guys do not think they've been plagiarized from. In fact, in one case it was funny. It was - The Washington Post had a reporter named Paul Kane, who I called. And I said, Paul, you know, it looks like they think I stole from you. And he looked up the story. And he said, not only did you not steal from me, you credited me in the next freakin' sentence. And then he pointed out that when my reference to his story had run in The New Yorker, we had also linked to it in the magazine. And then, it also turned out that my husband, who was then an editor at The Washington Post, had edited the piece that I was supposed to have stolen. So I mean, it was getting almost comic. But it wasn't really funny at time. Anyway, I told these publications that none of the people that I'd supposedly stolen from thought it was true and that I thought it would libelous if they printed it. And they backed off.

DAVIES: You know, the reporting in this book is very thorough. And you focus on wealthy conservatives. I'm sure some will say, well, if you look carefully at Democrats and liberals, you'll find they have their own wealthy donors - you know, George Soros and Tom Steyer. And there are ways that they route money through groups that don't report their contributors. What would you say to those who say that you have an agenda in this kind of reporting?

MAYER: Well, I think that the Democrats definitely - and liberals definitely have their own super big donors. There's, for instance, Tom Steyer, who is an environmental activist. And he poured more money, outside money, into the 2012 campaign than any single individual - at least disclosed money. So I mean, I think it's absolutely true. And big money is an issue on all sides and I think a worry on all sides. But at this particular moment, I mean, as a political reporter, my job is to follow the money. And if you want to know where the disproportionate amount of money is, it's on the right right now. And it would be really creating a false equivalence I think if - and misleading readers if I were to say it's exactly the same on both sides. The problem exists, certainly, on both sides. But the sums are different. For instance, there are two really big groups of dark money, superrich donors. On the Democratic side, you've got something called the Democracy Alliance. And on the Republican side, you've got the Koch network. Here's the difference if you look at it right now. For the 2016 election cycle, the Democracy Alliance has pledged to raise $40 million. On the Republican side, the conservative side, the Koch network has pledged to raise $889 million. So they're not really commensurate right now, but I think the problem is not a partisan problem. It's an American problem.

DAVIES: What is the American problem? How would you describe the impact of this on - on democracy?

MAYER: Well, I think it's very worrisome to many Americans to think that the whole ideal of one man, one vote might be overwhelmed by 400 of the richest people in the country, of any political persuasion, picking the next leader for them. That's just not how democracy's supposed to work.

DAVIES: Jane Mayer, thanks so much for talking with us.

MAYER: So good to be with you. Thanks so much for having me.

DAVIES: Jane Mayer is a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her new book is "Dark Money : The Hidden History Of The Billionaires Behind The Rise Of The Radical Right." Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new novel by British writer Tessa Hadley. This is FRESH AIR.

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