Beyond Koch: Meet the Other Right-Wing Oligarchs Featured in Jane Mayer's "Dark Money"


The shenanigans of the “Kochtopus” have garnered most of the headlines — including here — pertaining to reviews of New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer’s new book, Dark Money.

But the Koch Brothers and Koch Industries’ right-wing family foundation network are far from the only big money influencers featured in the must-read book which has jumped to #4 on the Best Sellers list at

Enter the Scaife, Olin and Bradley family fortunes, all three of which have served as key nodes through which the right-wing have tried to reshape the public policy landscape within (and beyond) the U.S. in the years following the Cold War until present day. If those family names sound familiar to DeSmog readers, they should: we have a profile in our database for Scaife and have written fairly extensively about Olin and Bradley.

Mayer devoted some 60 pages of the 380-page tome to the three families.

More than just a profile of those families and their influence in shaping policy, the pages also serve as a primer on the historical roots of the 501(c)(3) non-profit system itself and how and why plutocratic interests pushed the U.S. Congress to create it to begin with.

Self-interest, Mayer meticulously documents, played a central role. But that’s a long and vital history lesson for another day. 

For now, here are some of the most compelling details about a few of the families not named Koch probed by Mayer in “Dark Money”.

Scaife, “League to Save Carthage” and ALEC

At the center of the Scaife story is Carthage.  Yes, Carthage of the north African variety, sort of.

In 1964, Richard Scaife — namesake of the Scaife Family Foundations, whose money came largely from the Gulf Oil fortune — helped create a group called the League to Save Carthage, harkening back to the city conquered and colonized by the Roman Empire now situated as a suburb of Tunis, Tunisia. 

“This little-heralded group was just the first small step in what would become an improbably successful effort by one of the richest men in the country, along with a few other extraordinarily wealthy conservative benefactors, to cast themselves as field generals…in a strategic war of ideas aimed at sacking American politics,” Mayer wrote. 

Eventually, the Scaifes would call one tentacle of their Scaife Family Foundations the Carthage Foundation. But its origins in the League to Save Carthage are crucial if, for no other reason, than how one of its members, Lewis Powell, became a future U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

Before joining the Supreme Court bench, Powell penned the so-called Powell Memo which, at the time, was marked confidential. Written on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and officially titled, “Attack on American Free Enterprise System,” Powell’s treatise called for Big Business to pour money into universities, the media, think-tanks, the conventional political apparatus and other key institutions as a means to fend off what Powell described as the ongoing onslaught against the free enterprise system.

In other words, before the Powell Memo, there was the League to Save Carthage. DeSmog is in the process of acquiring historical documents listing the names of those who attended a League to Save Carthage meeting that unfolded on June 5-7, 1970, about a year before Powell published his memo. Stay tuned for that.

Among other key pieces of political infrastructure funded by Scaife, he was one of the first major foundation funders of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

Mayer cites a historical letter by ALEC founder Paul Weyrich’s aide in her book, in which the aide thanks Scaife for his support of the corporate bill mill for the statehouses.  

ALEC is well on its way to fulfilling the dream of those who started the organization thanks wholly to your confidence and the tremendous generosity of the Scaife Family Charitable Trusts,” wrote the aide in 1976, a few years after ALEC got off the ground in 1973, according to the letter cited by Mayer. 

According to research conducted and published by Drexel University sociologist Robert Brulle, Scaife’s family fortune funded climate change denial efforts to the tune of $39.6 milliob between 2003-2010, about seven per cent of all the cash spent on the climate change counter movement.

Olin & Law and Economics

Another influential family fortune featured in “Dark Money” is that of the Olins and in particular John M. Olin.

Jaded by his experience as a student at Cornell University, Olin believed universities served as brainwashing centers for liberals and the Left. So, Olin made it his life mission to spread conservative ideology onto U.S. college campuses.

Like Scaife and Gulf Oil, Olin made his bucks in part from the fossil fuel industry via the Olin Corporation, which manufactured blasting powder for coal mining companies. Olin Corporation found itself embroiled in a DDT production pollution scandal in the 1970’s, culminating in the federal government forcing the company to shut down its DDT unit.

“Rachel Carson, in her book Silent Spring, had identified the pesticide as a deadly contaminant to the biological food chain,” explained Mayer of DDT. “The Olin Corporation had been producing 20 percent of the DDT used in the United States.”

In documenting several other environmental catastrophes that Olin Corporation perpetrated, Mayer suggests that the regulatory crackdown that occurred due to these incidents may have influenced the self-interested anti-regulatory posture taken by Olin and the foundation he created, , from a business point of view. Former Olin officials denied to Mayer this was the case.

Olin would move to endow the still-influential “Law and Economics” curriculum in law schools nationwide, which calls for a system of jurisprudence in which judges and lawyers incorporate free market economic analysis into their legal decisions and arguments. 

“As a discipline, Law and Economics was seen at first as a fringe theory embraced largely by libertarian mavericks until the Olin Foundation spent $68 million underwriting its growth,” wrote Mayer. “Like an academic Johnny Appleseed, the Olin Foundation underwrote 83 percent of the costs for all Law and Economics programs in American law schools between the years of 1985 and 1989. Overall, it scattered more than $10 million to Harvard, $7 million to Yale and Chicago, and over $2 million to Columbia, Cornell, Georgetown, and the University of Virginia.”

The New York Times reported that Olin spent $68 million promoting Law and Economics in elite law schools nationwide before shutting its doors in 2005. 

“I saw [funding Law and Economics] as a way into the law schools,” James Piereson, former director of the Olin Foundation and now a senior fellow at the industry-funded Manhattan Institute, told the Times. “Economic analysis tends to have conservatizing effects.”

Law and Economics now sits at the center of how, and how not, U.S. regulatory apparatuses decide to crack down on polluters and the corporate sector. In particular, around the same time Olin began funding Law and Economics programs in law schools nationwide, President Ronald Reagan created an entire federal government agency in 1980 tasked to police the regulatory actions of all other federal agencies, called the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA)

As covered here on DeSmog, OIRA has opened its doors for Big Oil and Big Rail to water down regulatory proposals designed to making transporting oil-by-rail a safer practice. OIRA, which has proven a crucial anti-regulatory node under both Republican and Democratic Party presidential administrations, calls the practice of considering the impact of regulations on the bottom line of Big Business “cost-benefit analysis.”

Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation

Though covered in less depth than other families, the Bradley Foundation also earned a section in “Dark Money.” Just as Olin Foundation shuttered its operations, its Executive Director, Michael Joyce, was hired by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, which had enjoyed a huge financial boost resulting from a corporate merger that catapulted the Bradley Foundation into the top 20 largest foundations in the U.S. With its fortune derived from manufacturing enterprises, the Bradley Foundation currently controls about $870 million in assets.

The Bradley Foundation is hugely powerful in Wisconsin, where it is headquartered in Milwaukee and maintains tight ties to Republican Governor Scott Walker. The foundation also gives big donations to a fellow midwest-headquartered climate change denial organization: the Chicago-based Heartland Institute

Harry Bradley, was one of the founding members of the John Birch Society alongside the Koch Brothers’ father, Fred Koch. According to a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel investigation, between 2001 and 2009 the Bradley Foundation “doled out nearly as much money as the seven Koch and Scaife foundations combined.”

Its focus under Joyce was on becoming the biggest ATM for conservative ideological think tanks and publishers in America. Joyce shelled out $280 million to his favorite conservative operations, and Mayer credits the Bradley Foundation with accelerating the “school choice” movement and “waging an all-out assault on teachers’ unions and traditional public schools. 

Rightward “Force Field”

A recently published paper titled “The Koch Effect”, by Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol and Harvard government and social policy PhD student Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, describes the impact these family foundations, and in the case of their paper, the Kochs in particular have had on public policy in the U.S.

“In a disciplined way, the Koch network operates as a force field to the right of the Republican Party, exerting a strong gravitational pull on many GOP candidates and officeholders,” they wrote. “The overall effect is to re-set the range of issues and policy alternatives to which candidates and officeholders are responsive.”

As seen through the lens and case study of OIRA, however, it appears their influence has pushed both dominant U.S. political parties to the right.

Another case in point: the Kochs formerly funded (and some of its executives served on the Board of Trustees of) the Democratic Leadership Council, a think-tank and advocacy group pinpointed as pushing the Democratic Party rightward under President Bill Clinton.

Clinton formerly served as chairman of the DLC, and those who agree with the DLC‘s free market ideology, such as President Barack Obama, now call themselves New Democrats.

If anything, this rightward “force field” created by the influence of big money, serves as the genius and long-lasting impact of the Koch-Scaife-Olin-Bradley oligarch network’s donations and advocacy. 

Image Credit: jumpingsack | Shutterstock

Steve Horn is the owner of the consultancy Horn Communications & Research Services, which provides public relations, content writing, and investigative research work products to a wide range of nonprofit and for-profit clients across the world. He is an investigative reporter on the climate beat for over a decade and former Research Fellow for DeSmog.

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