Interview: Carl Deal and Tia Lessin of the Documentary “Citizen Koch”

Posted on June 19, 2014 at 8:00 am

“Citizens United has unleashed money that our disclosure laws are not equipped to reveal.” Tia Lessin and Carl Deal wanted to make a documentary about the toxic effect of corporate money on politics following the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United that invalidated just about every law controlling campaign contributions. But it ended up focusing on private money — mostly from the Koch brothers, who have spent hundreds of millions of dollars, much of it undisclosed before voting day. I spoke to Deal and Lessin about making the film.

How did this project get started?

Tia: We were really curious. David Koch ran for Vice President in 1980, on a Libertarian ticket. This was a fringe, fringe party. Not at all part of either major national party at the time.

Carl: They made Ronald Reagan look like a flaming liberal.

Tia:  His platform was abolished Social Security Medicare and Medicaid, the Postal Service, taxes, of course; corporate and personal taxes. Now a lot of those tenets have become mainstream within the Republican party. He’s no longer part of the Libertarian party, he’s part of the Republican party and so we were curious to understand how that happened. A big part of the way that happened was his seed funding, the Tea Party. And hijacking what might have been actually legitimate populous concern over Wall Street and the power of the banks and the economic implosion after the mortgage crisis.

People on both sides of the aisle were concerned about that and concerned about the lack of accountability. And the Kochs and their brethren I think hijacked that and saw the value in boots on the ground because that’s the one thing that they lacked. All this time they had the money, they had the strategy, they had their dupes and their political players in Washington but they didn’t have boots on the ground; they didn’t have any popular support. They always fabricated that, they pretended to have that. They had Astroturf but the Tea Party gave them the people and then they began to fund it. So we were curious on how that happened. We learned that that happened and how it was that true believers on the ground were allowing these, the two richest men in the country, if you put their wealth together; they are the two richest men in the country, in the world actually, to tell them what to do.

What percentage of what the Koch brothers are doing do you believe is pure policy and what percentage is just an way for them to make more money?

Carl: That’s a billion-dollar question right there!

Tia:  If it’s ideology, then it can also very conveniently makes you a richer. All the better right? I mean what’s the difference in ideology and greed? I feel like every one of their ideological positions also has a profit and benefit of making them and other companies richer.

What are their core positions?

Tia: The regulation of the financial sector, the regulation of the economy, of their industries. They want to do away with the EPA and the very government functions that provide oversight for their businesses. Those are primary and then they don’t believe in government; they believe in privatizing the conscience of government. And whether it be our schools, our healthcare, whatever else they believe in, they are very anti-union, they are anti-collectivists; In their dad’s day, that was anti-communist but now they have adopted this term “collectivist”. Well what does that mean? They don’t believe in people banding together to negotiate over their wages. And I don’t think it’s ideological either. I think that there is an element of cynical political maneuvering. I mean, that’s what we see in our film. It’s not about pensions, it’s not about wages, they want to kneecap the labor unions so that they don’t contribute to liberal politicians.

Is there a difference between the Koch brothers and contributors to Democrats like George Soros and labor unions?

Carl: They have more money and the way they spend their money is different. George Soros has a political agenda and he spends money on certain types of candidates; there is no doubt about it. But the kind of philanthropy that he gave, that he engages in is a little bit different than the kind of quote unquote philanthropy that the Kochs engage in.

Tia: The bottom line is, there is a difference in spending between billionaires and unions. I think the media equates those two. They are not equal. The Unions do not spend as much as the Kochs. They spend on a different scale but they also represent real working people. The Kochs, they are two guys, they are two men. The other difference in between spending of Labor and spending of the Kochs — Labor has to disclose every penny it spends.

Carl: They don’t even have a responsibility to the shareholders. They are part of a private corporation.citizenKoch-pin2-192x128

Tia:  They have the right to speak. The unions have the right to speak. They have the right to speak as human beings. But why should the speech of those two men trump the speech of millions of working people? I think yes, Soros, whoever it is; the Hollywood folks who spent a lot of their monies, Tom Steyer and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Why is it that any rich person has more of a voice or gets to speak louder because they have this money to amplify their voice? Why is that fair to everybody else? And in the end I think the big problem is that the politicians owe them something at the end of the day.

Carl: I think you also look at how a lot of the billionaires on the left are spending their money versus the way the billionaires on the right are. Tom Steyer and George Soros are building infrastructure, they want more government. They are interested in creating a bigger safety net and working for the betterment of everyone. The Kochs and their kind are about themselves; it’s a shell game they have created. Look, I think it’s straight up a cheating in a way. They took a look at the playing field and they saw where they were losing and then they figured out how they can strategically over time rig it in their favor. And that’s one of the reason why we looked at Citizens United so closely in this film. It was a marker; it was a signpost where there was democracy before Citizen United and there is less democracy after.

The surprise hero of the film is a politician who has held office as both a Democrat and a Republican, Buddy Roemer.

Carl: And he was a “right to work” governor. He is no friend of organized labor.

Why aren’t people more up in arms over this?

Tia:   I think people are. It makes you sick and tired and kind of don’t want to vote. You feel sick of it.  One guy in our movie votes for the first time and then he finds out all this money got poured into the election and he is like, “Never again. This is the first and the last time I am going to vote.” Two things; people don’t want to vote and when they see what’s happened in the state houses and in the Congress, this divisiveness and this extreme conflict and disinterest in negotiating on the part of these Two Party radicals, they feel that government has broken down. And I think that’s exactly what the Tea Party and the Kochs want people to believe, government has broken down. So it serves their agenda.

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Directors Interview

Citizen Koch

Posted on June 3, 2014 at 12:39 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie, some offensive comments
Date Released to Theaters: June 6, 2014

The 2010 Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case opened the door — no, opened the floodgates — to unlimited and unaccountable political spending by corporations and wealthy individuals.  The case itself rose from a film about Hillary Clinton that was funded by a group opposing her candidacy for President.  And now this film, “Citizen Koch” takes on Charles and David Koch, the wealthiest, most powerful, most influential, and least known of the individuals who have taken advantage of the Citizens United ruling and the corrupting, distorting, and toxic effect on democracy.

The filmmakers make it clear from the beginning whose side they are on, opening with a racist quote from Koch paterfamilias and c0-founder of the John Birch Society Fred Koch, then cutting to Sarah Palin, shouting “Game on!” to Barack Obama at an Americans for Prosperity rally.  Americans for Prosperity is just one of the more than 30 organizations known to be funded by the Kochs.  It then goes back two and a half years earlier to examine the impact the Kochs have had in just a small but representative sample of issues and events, focusing in detail on Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, kept in office despite a recall vote, thanks to enormous amounts of money for an “end the recall madness campaign,” none of which was disclosed until after the vote, when it was too late to affect the outcome.

The unexpected hero of the film turns out to be Buddy Roemer, former Governor and Congressman from Louisiana who has served or run as Democrat, Republican, and independent.  His fresh, frank outlook and good cheer despite being ignored by contributors, voters, and the other candidates is a bracing antidote to the despair and animosity surrounding him.  One Rove/Koch operative refuses to answer questions about the benefits to their business interests that the policies the Koch brothers are promoting and another insists, outside of a Koch-funded bus filled with get-out-the-vote callers representing themselves as “volunteers for Americans for Prosperity,” that his group is not “election advocacy,” just “issue” education.  By contrast, Roemer’s candor — and his inability to get any support — are telling.

But the inescapable conclusion from the film is that there is something even more distressing than the impact of near-unfathomable individual wealth on politics: the impact on public understanding of the issues.  As sort of Gresham’s Law of information, the availability of outlets for unlimited sources with their own spins and agendas.  A group of people take in the anti-Semitic-fueled rant of a John Birch Society leader (he actually comes down on Hitler’s side regarding the threat posed by Jews), and one of them gratefully says it is good to be able to get information from those who are knowledgeable.  Another man, told that the money the Kochs spent on elections is vastly greater than that spent by the unions (as much a target of the Kochs as government regulations and the social safety net), simply refuses to believe it.  That same attitude — and the power of the Kochs to keep this film from being aired on New York’s PBS station to get this story told — is the real problem.

Parents should know that this film includes some disturbing language and bigotry.

Family discussion: How do other countries handle this problem?  What is the best way to evaluate the impact of political spending by all sides?

If you like this, try: Koch Brothers Exposed and Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty

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Documentary Movies -- format Politics

Greedy Lying Bastards

Posted on March 7, 2013 at 6:00 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for brief strong language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Scenes of environmental devastation
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 8, 2013

Greedy Lying Bastards is a documentary that takes on two problems — the pernicious impact of industry on the environment and the effect of those changes on communities and the even more pressing problem of the pernicious impact of a small group of corporate executives on politicians and the laws they enact and enforce.  As the title makes clear, this is a powerful attack that does not pull any punches or pretend to be objective.  It’s no longer an inconvenient truth.  It is a question of our survival being put at risk by a few wealthy people who are so determined to get even wealthier that they are either in denial about the consequences or just do not care.  The case it makes is dramatic and disturbing.

The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to say that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion but no one is entitled to his own facts.”  In this film, documentarian Craig Rosebraugh shows how a very small group of unfathomably wealthy industrialists create research and lobbying organizations designed to appear objective and broadly supported but in reality with no commitment to scientific data or to public policy.  The most telling information in this film concerns the lack of transparency and accountability of organizations that have such a pervasive impact on legislation and policy.  Washington insiders are already very familiar with the story of the Bush administration’s suppression of the most significant scientific report on climate change under the direction of an oil industry lobbyist serving a brief time in the government and allowing his former (and future) employers to edit the report’s findings.  But seeing the details of the story in the context of a widespread and chillingly effective program by the Koch brothers and others is very compelling.

It would be nice to have some updates about the most recent campaign and Obama administration. .  And while Rosebraugh has some good footage (thanks to a sneaky photo-pen) from the no-cameras-allowed Exxon shareholder meeting, he fails to connect the dots between what these executives do with corporate money and the true owners of the company — the shareholders, mostly through intermediaries like pension funds and mutual funds.  As the comic strip character Pogo said when he discovered trash in a once-pristine river, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

The “what you can do” section at the end should include more than just contacting elected officials, who need the corporate money to win elections.  Capitalism is as much at risk from this failure of accountability as the environment.  Perhaps that point could be made in Part 2.

Parents should know that this film has brief strong language and scenes of environmental devastation.

Family discussion: Who is in the best position to counter the messages sent by corporate-funded organizations to politicians?  Where do you get your most trustworthy information about these issues?  How do you know?

If you like this, try: “An Inconvenient Truth,” “FLOW: For Love of Water,” and “End of the Line”


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Documentary Movies -- format Politics
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