Suspicious relationship between the Koch brothers and Utah university raises eyebrows

A Utah State University professor heads both on- and off-campus Koch-funded groups.

UTAH STATE UNIVERSITY STUDENTS PROJECT MESSAGE ON SIDE OF BUSINESS SCHOOL BUILDING. CREDIT: UNKOCH MY CAMPUS/GREENPEACE
UTAH STATE UNIVERSITY STUDENTS PROJECT MESSAGE ON SIDE OF BUSINESS SCHOOL BUILDING. CREDIT: UNKOCH MY CAMPUS/GREENPEACE

When a small think tank, funded in large part by petrochemical billionaire Charles Koch’s foundations, and a Utah State University institute began publishing the same research, people started to take notice. Further examination of the relationship is leading critics to question whether the Koch brothers are using the cover of an academic institution to push their anti-renewable energy, pro-fossil fuel agenda to a larger audience.

Strata Policy, an independent think tank founded by Utah State University professor Randy Simmons, is closely tied with a university research group called the Institute of Political Economy. Simmons and the other professors who staff the Koch-funded Institute of Political Economy also hold positions at Strata Policy. Simmons, who previously served as the Charles G. Koch Professor of Political Economy at the university, runs both the on-campus and off-campus groups.

“It seems obvious that they are gleaning the university’s brand and prestige for not only the Institute of Political Economy, but also Strata,” Connor Gibson, a researcher for Greenpeace’s investigations team, told ThinkProgress. Gibson cited a report released earlier this year critical of North Carolina’s pro-renewable energy policy that was co-branded with the names of both Strata Policy and the Institute of Political Economy.

Charles and David Koch are well-known for bankrolling universities as part of their strategy to bring a conservative worldview to new generations of students. At the same time, the brothers spend millions funding independent think tanks and advocacy groups that work to implement corporate-friendly policies at the federal and state levels.

With both Strata Policy and the Institute of Political Economy, the Kochs have found a way to do both — influence students and policymakers — within the confines of a single university. They are funding an independent think tank staffed by Utah State University professors, while simultaneously giving millions to the university to spread an anti-regulation ideology among its students.

“They are gleaning the university’s brand and prestige for not only the Institute of Political Economy, but also Strata.”

Where Utah State University differs from other Koch-funded schools is that Charles Koch is giving money to both on-campus and off-campus operations, according to Gibson. “It’s all the same people. I don’t know if they even try to determine where the ethical boundaries are and whether they are getting taxpayer money from the legislature or whether they are getting money from Charles Koch and whether the output is coming from the university brand or coming from the Strata brand,” he said. “They really don’t seem to care.”

According to the university, funding that comes to the Institute of Political Economy goes to support faculty salaries and student programming. Money has never flowed from the Institute of Political Economy to Strata Policy, “an off-campus organization unaffiliated with either the university at large or the university’s Institute of Political Economy,” said Tim Vitale, executive director of public relations and marketing for Utah State University.

The Institute of Political Economy has produced research projects that are then shared by Strata Policy via social media and on its website, Simmons said in an email to ThinkProgress, but he maintained that the relationship was purely research-focused.

“On some reports, the authors are listed as affiliated with Strata, because those authors were contributors to the project. While Strata employees sometimes have the opportunity to contribute to IPE projects due to their expertise on a given topic, they are not compensated by Utah State University or the Institute of Political Economy for their contributions,” Simmons explained.

Simmons has produced Institute of Political Economy projects as part of his normal research load, Vitale said. The Institute for Political Economy has never promoted Strata Policy, although Strata Policy might have used Institute for Policy research for its own reasons, he explained. “Other organizations — any organization — can access IPE research and use it as they see fit,” he said.

Utah State University, a public university, climbed into second place on the list of Koch-funded universities earlier this year when the school accepted a $25 million donation from the Charles Koch Foundation. Prior to the latest donation, the university’s Institute of Political Economy was already receiving large sums from the Kochs.

The university will receive the Koch money over the next 10 years in increments of $2.5 million a year. George Mason University, a public university in Virginia, is the largest recipient of Koch funding, earning it the nickname “Koch U.”

The Huntsman Foundation, founded by conservative industrialist Jon M. Huntsman Sr., also donated $25 million to the university to launch the Center for Growth and Opportunity and expand the Huntsman Scholar Program. The new center will be located at the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business, named after the industrialist. The Koch and Huntsman money will allow the school to hire several additional professors.

“The Kochs have extended influence to institutions of higher education, setting up grants at universities to hire professors that teach the Kochs’ anti-tax, anti-regulation business and political philosophies to mold young minds to fall in step with the Kochs’ industrial wishes going forward through the 21st century,” Salt Lake Tribune columnist Paul Rolly wrote in 2016.

While Charles Koch gives a substantial amount to Utah State University, foundations and organizations associated with both brothers are also funding Strata Policy to advance many of the same anti-renewable energy, pro-fossil fuel aims. A ThinkProgress review of Strata Policy’s funders (according to data provided by Conservative Transparency, Guidestar, and CitizenAudit) revealed that since 2011, its donations included at least:

  • $2,260,500 from the Charles Koch Foundation, the primary private foundation through which Charles Koch funds higher education programs.
  • $183,000 from the Searle Freedom Trust, which consists of wealth inherited from G.D. Searle & Company, a company that created the artificial sweetener aspartame marketed as NutraSweet. The foundation also has funded Americans for Prosperity, the American Enterprise Institute, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Heartland Institute, and many other right-wing groups.
  • $165,559 from the Apgar Foundation, a foundation created by the widow of John “Jack” N. Apgar Jr., founder of Somerset Tire Service, an automotive service and tire company based in New Jersey. The foundation was created to promote the teaching of “Western Civilization” on college campuses.
  • $93,000 from the Institute for Energy Research, a right-wing energy think tank funded by groups linked to the Koch brothers.
  • $51,600 from the Charles Koch Institute, Charles Koch’s anti-government “educational” arm created from the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation in September 2011.

Strata Policy describes itself as the “premier research hub on environmental, energy, and public land issues.” The Institute of Political Economy focuses on similar energy and environmental issues. Both entities have advocated against renewable portfolio standards in states, published anti-renewable energy reports, and sent Utah State University professors to testify in states against renewable energy.

In a 2015 report opposing a renewable portfolio standard in Kansas, Strata Policy and the Institute of Political Economy concluded that the standard “will increase fiscal and economic costs significantly between now and 2020” that will include a $171-million “burden” on Kansas electricity ratepayers and a loss of 795 jobs. “When major errors in the study’s methods are corrected, the study’s results actually confirm that state Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards (RPS) like those in Kansas create hundreds of jobs and save consumers tens of millions of dollars,” Matthew Goggin, senior director research at the American Wind Energy Association, wrote in a blog post.

The Institute of Political Economy issued a report in 2016 on a renewable portfolio standard report for Pennsylvania — authored by four out of the five researchers who prepared the co-branded Kansas report — that reached similar conclusions. The report found that Pennsylvania’s renewable portfolio standard has contributed to an increase of 10 percent in the unemployment rate.

Synapse Energy Research, in a study released in late 2016, countered that Pennsylvania’s renewable portfolio standard has not harmed the state’s economy. In fact, the study explains that meeting Pennsylvania’s electric power needs entirely with renewables by 2050 is both achievable — and economic. Instead of greater unemployment, Pennsylvania could see a net increase of nearly 500,000 job‐years from 2015 to 2050 under a scenario in which the state moved to 100-percent renewables during this period, the consulting firm found. (One job for one year equals one “job year” and if that job continues for another 12 months, it’s two “job years.”)

In 2015, Ryan Yonk, an assistant professor at Utah State University and executive director of research at Strata Policy, testified before Ohio and Kansas lawmakers, where renewable energy standards were in jeopardy, to lay out his group’s research in opposition to the state renewable energy policies. Utah State University allows faculty to conduct outside consulting work; faculty members are not permitted to “exploit the institution’s name or their relationship to the institution for personal reasons unrelated to their legitimate academic or professional activities” and must avoid “creating the impression that they are representing the institution in public appearances or statements,” according to the university’s faculty code.

Most recently, Strata Policy partnered with the Institute of Political Economy to refocus on North Carolina as lawmakers were once again debating the state’s renewable energy policy. Updated in 2017, the partner organizations’ report found that the renewable portfolio standard in North Carolina has faced opposition since its creation, including from the American Legislative Exchange Council, a Koch-funded group that drafts model legislation for states. “North Carolina is still where the action is,” Gibson said.

The Koch-funded groups, though, failed in their attempt to undermine North Carolina’s renewable energy policy. A new law created a competitive bidding process that will bring more than 2.6 gigawatts of new solar into service over a three-and-a-half-year period. The Solar Energy Industries Association lauded the bill as one that “will significantly enhance the solar market in North Carolina.”

Strata Policy “waged these state-level attacks” because “they want to drive regulation to the state, where it’s more controllable and because that’s where their dollar really goes the farthest ” Gibson said.

Recently, Strata Policy has begun to expand its portfolio beyond attacks on renewable energy to embrace a Republican-led effort to allow greater use of public lands by extraction companies. Two years ago, the think tank won a public relations contract from the state of Utah to promote its efforts to force the federal government to transfer control of Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service lands to the state. The Utah Legislature approved $2 million in funding in 2015 for Strata Policy and other groups to promote the benefits of turning over federal land to the state.

Utah Republicans believe that allowing the state to control the lands will create more economic value by clearing the way for more oil wells, coal mines, and tree harvests. Public lands supporters fear states would sell off the lands that belong to all Americans, allowing industry to destroy the environment.

Simmons’ Strata Policy “landed the public relations contract for the Utah Legislature’s efforts to wrest control of 31 million acres of public land from the federal government,” Rolly wrote in his op-ed.

Strata Policy has put out several studies on public lands issues. In a 2016 op-ed, Yonk argued that economic activity in Utah and other Western states is “limited by the decisions of federal land bureaucrats.”

In May, Simmons authored a report that recommended the Department of the Interior reduce the size of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah “to more appropriately encompass sites of legitimate historical and scientific interest.” Native American groups pushed for the monument designation for years to protect their artifacts. The position embraced by Simmons is the same as Republican lawmakers in Utah; once Trump won the presidency, the lawmakers immediately began lobbying the new administration to make reducing the size of the Bears Ears monument a priority.

Strata Policy joined other conservative groups, many of them also funded by the Kochs, to thank President Donald Trump for signing an executive order calling for a sweeping review of national monument designations. In the June letter to Trump, Strata Policy and the other groups said the support the criteria in the executive “to reduce and rescind egregious national monuments where local support exists to do so.”

The American Lands Council, a group formed to gain control of federal lands across the West, has also received funding from Americans for Prosperity, a group founded by the Kochs. The Idaho Freedom Foundation, which also signed the letter to Trump, has received funding from Koch-affiliated groups and is a partner organization in the Charles Koch Institute’s Liberty@Work program.

Along with significant funding from the Charles Koch Foundation, Strata Policy has received donations from the Institute for Energy Research, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that is also funded in part by the Kochs and their affiliated organizations. Simmons’ son, Daniel Simmons, previously worked at the Koch-funded Institute for Energy Research as vice president for policy.

Daniel Simmons now serves in Trump’s Department of Energy as acting assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy. Prior to joining DOE, the younger Simmons also held a top position at the Koch-funded American Energy Alliance, which advocated for the office he now oversees at DOE to be eliminated.

Josh Israel contributed to this piece.