Last weekend and into today, the billionaire Koch brothers and supporters converged on the St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort in Dana Point. This columned, luxury compound, little more than an hour north of San Diego, has 400 rooms, a spa, a golf course, a private beach and six restaurants. Staff confirmed the entire hotel — including food and beverage service — had been bought out for a special event.
An event so secret it had a code name on the schedule: “T&R Sales Meeting.”
Hotel guests who weren’t part of the conference — including two inewsource reporters who stayed the night Friday — were escorted out of the hotel by security on Saturday afternoon.
But over 24 hours at the St. Regis, they got a glimpse of what lay ahead at the conference entitled American Courage, Our Commitment to a Free Society.
“Arriving,” 3:39 p.m.
This was the first text between two reporters and an editor during what would become a 24-hour attempt to learn about the semi-annual political summit hosted by the sixth-richest men in the world: David and Charles Koch.
The retreats drum up hundreds of millions of dollars for conservative political candidates and set policy for the Kochs’ network of political organizations, which all share the same goal — moving the country to the right.
Most of the cash is funneled through “dark money” groups that are not legally required to disclose their donors.
According to Forbes, the brothers are worth $41.3 billion.
Click here to listen to the reporters talk with KPBS Morning Edition about their 24 hours at the St. Regis.
These are the most elite and most conservative political events in the country, and for the past few years, reporters and political bloggers have attempted to gain access. Two inewsource reporters booked rooms at the St. Regis, a five-star resort, to find out who would attend and what was on the agenda.
“It’s about freedom,” a 20-something man said when asked what the conference was about.
For many of the wealthy conservatives who attend these summits, it’s also about being able to influence the political process without being publicly identified, according to author and Politico’s chief investigative reporter, Kenneth Vogel.
“This big money is having an increasing impact on the political process on elections, on governing, and it’s become harder and harder to find who is doing the spending,” said Vogel, who twice infiltrated a Koch summit and whose book, “Big Money,” examines the issue.
Big money also buys big secrecy.
It can buy an entire luxury hotel for three days and a security force to ensure no one without an invitation gets in.
Hotel staff confirmed the resort was bought from Saturday to Tuesday for a private event. Some said it was a wedding, others speculated it was a celebrity, “extreme VIP” or someone political.
With tax, the least expensive room costs $609 a night.
It was the biggest show of security one longtime employee — who had met movie stars and royalty at the hotel — said they had ever seen.
“American Courage, Our Commitment to a Free Society,” was the theme — as evidenced by the oversized posters lining the hall into the meeting rooms, but the chatter indicated what else was on attendee’s minds: the new national education standards of Common Core, lost emails in the IRS investigation into unfair scrutiny of the tea party and other conservative groups, and political correctness.
As Friday-night guests checked out Saturday morning, a picture of who would attend the summit emerged: mostly male, mostly white middle-aged and older, some with their families or wives.
Represented at the summit were groups such as Americans for Prosperity, Mercatus Center, the Libre Initiative, and more — all part of the well-funded network able to contribute massive amounts of cash into political causes anonymously.
To see full list of groups represented at the summit, click here
James Davis, the former communications director and chief spokesman for the 2012 Republican National Convention, checked in under Freedom Partners, where he now serves as Vice President of Strategic Communications. Freedom Partners is a “nonprofit, nonpartisan... chamber of commerce that promotes the benefits of free markets and a free society,” according to its website. It’s one of the key conservative groups the Koch brothers use to fund their political candidates and causes, according to the Washington Post.
Carl Anderson, the former chairman and CEO of Arrow International Inc. and current board member and independent Director at Carpenter Technology Corp., checked in shortly after. This was Anderson’s third conference, and he was clearly a familiar face.
A huge security force of young men wearing blue sport coats and tan pants began to fan out inside the hotel’s maze of corridors and seating areas.
At 5:35 p.m., David Koch, the younger of the two brothers, walked quickly into the hotel, surrounded by an entourage.
At 6-feet five-inches and with all the confidence of one of the wealthiest people in the country, David Koch made a striking entrance.
He was once a college basketball player, according to a 2010 profile in New York Magazine, “when you could be white and be good.” He’s a libertarian whose father, Fred Koch, helped found the John Birch Society, an anti-communist, and what some consider, radical right, political group.
Koch quickly disappeared into the luxurious ether of the hotel, not to be seen in public again until later that night, when he emerged from the private dining room of the hotel’s premier restaurant, Stonehill Tavern, flanked by security.
Down the hall from the restaurant were two rows of at least eight black and white oversized prints affixed to silver-framed mirrors leaning against the walls. The prints depicted a family of three: a woman with a kerchief on her head, a man in a suit and cap, and a boy with his arm pointing to the Statue of Liberty in the distance, evoking a nostalgic coming-to-America picture of immigration.
“American Courage,” was printed in bold across the top.
“Our commitment to a free society,” written underneath.
At the end of the hallway, the grand staircase led to a ballroom and a series of meeting rooms. A worker swept the walls with what looked like a metal detector. He joked he was “cleaning the walls.”
Audio visual equipment was everywhere. A group of men walked into the ballroom. They’d been there for days working on preparations for the conference, but gave no hint about what the conference was about.
It’s the secrecy of these meetings that has fueled so much of the criticism. Secrecy combined with money.
Charles Lewis, founder of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity and an expert on campaign finance, said the Koch brothers would likely say their personal safety dictates secrecy, but Lewis said that’s a red herring.
“I think they just don't want the notoriety of being not only in the one percent but in the tiny, tiny fraction of the one percent of the richest human beings on planet earth — who by the way are also trying to influence politics so they can get even richer,” Lewis said.
Politico’s Vogel said small numbers of wealthy donors are having almost as much impact on the process as the political parties themselves.
“It’s incumbent upon us, as journalists, members of the media, to try and pull back the curtain as far as we can to try and give voters the ability to make informed decisions about who is influencing the debate, who is trying to get which candidate elected…,” Vogel said.
The Koch brothers only recently became a household name. The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, allowing corporations and labor unions to spend unrestricted amounts of money to support or denounce candidates and causes, thrust the issue of political spending into the spotlight. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid accused the Koch brothers of being “one of the main causes” of climate change, referring to their energy and chemical conglomerate.
The Koch brothers and their allies plan to raise nearly $300 million to spend on the 2014 election and fund a new energy initiative “with a deregulatory, pro-consumer spin,” according to a story published by the Daily Beast on Friday. The story said energy was expected to be a big part of this conference — but there was no evidence of that from anything in public view.
The emphasis was vaguely on freedom, with one attendee joking about the lack of it at the hotel.
“There’s no freedom around here — you’ve got to follow directions,” he said.
The secret summits are also attended by big name politicians. Past attendees have included New Jersey and Texas Governors Chris Christie and Rick Perry, according to Politico.
The Daily Beast reported Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida and potential GOP Presidential 2016 candidate, was expected to attend the St. Regis event.
No politicians were spotted Friday night, just groups of mostly men hanging out in the hotel bar and around the patio fire pit, talking politics.
“Academic institutions are factories for corruption,” one said to another.
They talked about political prospects, and one man remarked that he liked “Herrera,” possibly a reference to Jaime Herrera Beutler, who represents Washington's 3rd congressional district.
“You’re into Latinos, eh?” the other replied.
The man who said he liked Herrera talked about working on Rick Santorum’s campaign, and how it was the “Tylenol quote” that killed Santorum’s chances in the 2012 Republican primary. Foster Friess, one of Santorum’s most prominent backers, told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell “back in my days, they used Bayer aspirin for contraceptives. The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn't that costly,” he said.
They talked about how things said in private would sound terrible in public.
“My wife is a spik, I call her a wetback sometimes,” one man said, laughing.
Around midnight, details of the upcoming schedule trickled out.
Saturday was loaded with golf. The event’s opening reception was Saturday afternoon. Seminar registration was to begin Sunday.
The heading on the schedule read “T&R Sales Meeting.”
By 2 a.m., the open areas of the hotel were almost deserted.
A janitor polished the handrails leading down the large spiral staircase to the Pacific Ballroom, at the far end of the hallway lined with American Courage mirrors.
By 8 a.m. Saturday, staffers at the hotel’s Malta room handed out black folios to new arrivals, as a security guard stood outside the closed doors. The folios never left their hands.
A man conspicuous in his dark glasses — and what appeared to be a Google glass piece of hardware over his right lens — staked out a busy corridor.
“What a shady looking guy,” a man said to a woman as they walked by.
“He’s our intelligence guy,” the woman replied.
By mid-morning, sound checks were conducted in a ballroom, with another security guard standing in front of the entrance.
By 1 p.m., most of the hotel restaurants had shut down to the public, with just a few guests from Friday night left on the grounds.
At the Pool Bar & Grill a few conference attendees had lunch.
A gray-haired man in a blue suit greeted a husband and wife at a nearby table.
“Could things get any worse?” he asked.
“I suppose they could get a lot worse — that’s why we’re here, isn’t it?” the other replied. Both shared a laugh.
By 2 p.m., one man who was not with the conference was surrounded by four security guards. He was told he had to leave the premises because it was being occupied by a private function.
“What does that have to do with me?” he asked.
“You have to leave,” one of them responded.
Meanwhile, Charles Koch was making his way to the hotel gym for his 30-minute workout.
Koch, 78, the second oldest of the four brothers, is the chairman and CEO of Koch Industries. Just two months ago, he wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal, describing his vision of a free society:
“In a truly free society, any business that disrespects its customers will fail, and deserves to do so,” he wrote. “The same should be true of any government that disrespects its citizens. The central belief and fatal conceit of the current administration is that you are incapable of running your own life, but those in power are capable of running it for you.”
Koch wore grey Nike sneakers with neon green trim and socks hiked up halfway to his knees. He pulled out a mat at the far end of the gym and lay down. He stretched his legs, as one of his body guards watched through a glass wall from the adjoining atrium.
Koch paused in between sets to watch TV. The World Cup was on. He pulled a few smaller weights from the rack — five or 10 pounders — and sat at an incline bench closest to the glass wall.
Outside, two women and a man were swimming laps in the small pool. An older white man, with white hair and a hat, lay on a chaise lounge in a hotel robe. He carried with him an America³ bag. America³ was a racing yacht and syndicate operated by Bill Koch and Harry Melges in the 1992 America’s Cup.
By late afternoon, once the hotel was cleared of outsiders including two inewsource reporters, the conference began in earnest.
Vogel said we’re in a new political reality, in which the super wealthy are able to exert influence into the process without their names attached. And it happens on both sides of the aisle.
He cited the Democracy Alliance, which he called “a secretive group of wealthy liberals that’s the closest thing the left has to the vaunted Koch brothers’ political network” in a story earlier this year. The DA, as it’s known, also has big, closed-door meetings for well-heeled donors.
“They’re very much in competition in this new political world in which we live,” Vogel said.
It’s important for people to pay attention to the big money phenomenon, Lewis said.
“Most Americans don't give to political campaigns,” he said. “Most people that give a check of $1,000 or more, it's basically one or two percent of the American population at most, and that's at most. It’s a fraction of one percent, I believe, at that level.”
“...That's why we should care,” he said.
Disclaimer: Charles Lewis, found of the Center for Public Integrity and a campaign finance expert, is also a member of the inewsource board of directors.
We'll let you know when big things happen.