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Conservative high-rollers gather to plot strategy

A phalanx of sheriff’s deputies with riot gear blocked all access to one of southern California’s most luxurious resort hotels on Sunday as more than 200 conservative donors gathered inside.
Image: Riverside County Sheriff's deputies in riot gear are seen behind Jodie Ivanes, of Venice Beach, Calif., left, and Ellen Sturtz, of West Los Angeles, right, during a protest dubbed the \"Koch Busters Rally\"
Crystal Chatham / The Desert Sun via AP
/ Source: NBC News

A phalanx of sheriff’s deputies with riot gear fended off protestors and blocked all access to one of southern California’s most luxurious resort hotels on Sunday as more than 200 conservative donors gathered inside to plot political strategy and raise an estimated $30 million for the 2012 election.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was among several members of Congress who flew in for the two-day event, a semi-annual meeting of political high-rollers sponsored by Charles and David Koch, the billionaire owners of Koch Industries, the giant, privately held oil firm based in Wichita, Kan. The Koch brothers, strong economic libertarians, have become two of the country’s biggest donors to conservative political groups and think tanks.

Cantor, who declined to speak to reporters while he was there, has been generously backed by Koch Industries over the years, having received $36,650 in campaign contributions from the company’s executives and employees since 2002, according to figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. Asked if he would speak to an NBC producer while attending the event, his spokesman emailed: “No thanks.”

The Koch-sponsored conference at the Rancho Las Palmas Resort and Spa is the latest sign that the conservative spending blitz that helped propel GOP victories in last year’s election is likely to be continued at an even greater level next year when control of the presidency, as well as Congress, is at stake.

A top Republican fundraiser told NBC that a principal goal of this year’s Koch conference was to lay the groundwork for a major “grassroots effort” to back GOP candidates in next year’s election and to develop an early “budget blueprint” for conservative groups during the campaign. The Kochs were planning to raise at least $30 million from donors attending this weekend’s event, the fundraiser said.

Much of the funds pledged this weekend by donors, however, may never be disclosed publicly because they will be directed to politically oriented non-profit organizations, like the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity, that — thanks to last year’s Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case — are now much freer to run political attack ads without publicly reporting their contributors.

"The purpose of this conference is to discuss solutions to our most pressing issues and strategies to promote policies that will help grow our economy, foster free enterprise and create American jobs," Nancy Pfotenhauer, a spokeswoman for Koch Industries, said in a statement about the event.

Utmost of secrecy
Whether primarily about policy or politics, the gathering — in keeping with the Kochs’ past practice — was conducted behind closed doors amid the tightest of security: The Kochs declined requests by NBC for an interview. Security guards stood at the hotel's entrance and checked off names, allowing only invited guests to proceed. Sheriff deputies and police stood outside the hotel while others with binoculars stood on its roof on guard for intruders. (A Koch spokesman said there were two other events taking place at the hotel at the time, including a conference of federal judges.) 

The secrecy was telegraphed in material distributed to invited donors last fall describing the Kochs’ last conference, held last summer in Aspen, Colo. A letter from Charles Koch, the CEO of Koch Industries, and an accompanying brochure, was later obtained by Think Progress, a liberal website connected with the Democratic-leaning Center for American Progress. The letter from Charles Koch asked donors to attend this weekend’s conference to help “combat what is now the greatest assault on American freedom and prosperity in our lifetime.” An accompanying brochure emphasized that the company’s events are conduced under the strictest of rules. “Please be mindful of the security and confidentiality of your meeting notes and materials, and do not post updates of information about the meeting on blogs, social media such as Facebook and Twitter, or in traditional media articles,” the brochure stated.

“They’re just very secretive about everything they do,” said the Republican fundraiser, who spoke to NBC on the condition of anonymity. He noted as an example that, last year, when conservative political groups held regular conference calls to discuss their plans for spending in particular congressional and Senate races, the representatives of Koch-backed groups were the only ones who were reluctant to share information — even to like-minded political allies.

For this weekend’s conference, as many as 1,000 protestors chanting anti-Koch slogans assembled outside the resort and about 25 were arrested. Earlier, a green blimp — commissioned by Greenpeace, the environmental group, with a sign saying “Koch Brothers- Dirty Money” — flew overhead. The group was protesting the Kochs’ role in funding groups that seek to debunk global warming.

The protests over this year’s conference reflect the mounting controversy over the Kochs' role in funding conservative political causes, especially in a new post-Citizens United era that allows unlimited corporate donations with little or no disclosure.

One of the principal Koch-backed groups, for example, Americans for Prosperity, ran millions of dollars in attack ads against Democrats in the last election and now is promoting an aggressive political agenda in Congress that includes repealing the health care overhaul law and the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill as well as restricting the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating carbon emissions.

“They are using their vast financial resources to get a tighter grip on elected officials and fight regulations that are protecting the public,” said Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for Common Cause, which staged its own conference to protest the Koch event.

But some conservative activists and journalists have challenged the Kochs’ critics, charging that what the oil billionaires are doing is simply advancing their deeply felt political views, which is no different than what wealthy liberal donors such as financier George Soros have been doing for years.

Timothy Carney, a conservative columnist who spoke at this weekend’s Koch conference, noted that Common Cause itself had received a $2 million donation from Soros and the liberal Center for American Progress (whose Think Progress has encouraged anti-Koch activity) was started with Soros money but does not disclose its donors.

“In other words,” he wrote about this weekend’s protests, “money from billionaire George Soros and anonymous, well-heeled liberals was funding a protest against rich people’s influence on politics.”