Mark Holden, general counsel and senior vice president at Koch Industries, in his office at Koch headquarters in Wichita, Kan. (Photo: Mark Nagel for Yahoo News)
WICHITA, Kan. — Every morning around 7:30, hundreds of Koch Industries employees walk from their cars and trucks across a large, gated-off parking lot and into a tiny glass building, no bigger than a log cabin. There, a stone’s throw away from the office buildings where they work, the employees use their keycards to get past security and descend into an underground tunnel that leads to the heart of the more-than-one-million-square-foot headquarters.
The isolated campus feels like a fortress, but over the past five years, as Koch transformed from a nearly anonymous Midwestern oil and manufacturing company to a reviled symbol of corporate influence in politics, the security has been necessary. Protesters and other aggrieved citizens showed up by the busful. Death threats poured in for the company’s septuagenarian leaders, David and Charles Koch. Hackers attempted to infiltrate the company’s networks multiple times.
But on a recent spring day when I visited the headquarters, there was a sense that the worst of the five-year-long siege — which has created an embattled mentality among some of the company’s top officials — is beginning to lift.
Much credit for the onset of relative calm goes to Mark Holden. The company’s top lawyer and a close adviser to its 79-year-old leader Charles Koch, Holden has helped shepherd the company through its painful transition out of the shadows and into the public eye. The litigator from Massachusetts is a fierce and loyal guard dog for the company, creator of a rapid-response team to hit back against negative portrayals in the media and political sphere.
For decades, Koch Industries was the largest company you’ve never heard of. Now, you couldn’t turn on a cable news station without hearing the brothers’ names.
Just in the past year, he’s become the face of the Kochs’ push to reform the criminal justice system, an effort that’s made allies out of former enemies and softened the billionaire brothers’ image. Holden, a former jail guard with a decades-long interest in criminal justice issues, shuttles back and forth between Wichita and Washington to champion legislation to reduce the prison population and to give ex-felons second chances. Holden now spends most of his time highlighting one of the few political beliefs of the Kochs that liberals find palatable, thereby tempering the blowback their enormous political spending generates on the left.
Holden traces the crisis back to 2010, when Jane Mayer of The New Yorker published a 10,000-word piece about the Koch brothers’ under-the-radar conservative political network , which gave hundreds of millions of dollars to Republican candidates and causes. The company’s public relations team, led by Missy Cohlmia, could sense the piece was going to be negative, so Cohlmia declined to give any interviews.
But when the story came out, Holden and other top Koch employees were shocked at how big an impact it made. For decades, Koch Industries was “the largest company you’ve never heard of,” as David Koch once characterized it. Now, you couldn’t turn on a cable news station without hearing the brothers’ names. The “Occupy” movement was in full swing, and public opinion polls showed a majority of Americans disapproved of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allowed much more money to be poured into ads for and against political candidates. Democratic politicians cannily channeled that anger toward the Kochs, using Mayer’s research as fuel. Sen. Harry Reid alone has railed against the Kochs hundreds of times on the Senate floor, calling them “un-American.”
Holden identifies the article as a turning point for the company. He says the blistering story by “Ms. Mayer” — an uncharacteristic formality on Holden’s part — blew them back on their heels. “It was a wake-up call,” he said. The Kochs suddenly went from near invisibility to a symbol of corporate political power run amok. Even today, Holden gets visibly worked up when he recalls the article, which he thinks was unfairly slanted against his boss, Charles.
Charles Koch in 2007 (Photo: Bo Rader/Wichita Eagle/MCT via Getty Images)
“We didn’t have a response to [The New Yorker article] that was ready to go. And so they brought me in to help respond more quickly to things because I have a background as a litigator and a background growing up in Worcester, Mass., where you gotta be quick when someone comes after you,” Holden said.
Holden, who has a folksy, light-hearted air about him, is general counsel and senior vice president at Koch Industries. But his real job is far bigger than that. Holden’s sphere includes the Kochs’ outside political organizations, which have grown so wealthy and powerful that they are projected to spend $890 million in the 2016 election, more than either of the political parties. He’s a board member of Freedom Partners, an umbrella organization of conservative donors, and is on the executive committee of Americans for Prosperity, both of which spent hundreds of millions of dollars bankrolling conservative candidates and causes in the 2012 election. He’s also president and COO of the legal division of Koch Companies Public Sector, which represents the company and spends millions lobbying in Washington.
Holden’s actual job description is to tackle the most pressing issue the company faces at any given time. In 2010, bad press was its most pressing issue. The litigator formed a small team to respond to the attacks, and Koch Industries began doing something it hadn’t done much of before — corporate defense.
Holden, whose resilient Massachusetts accent has survived 20 years on the prairies of Kansas, was suited for the job. The 52-year-old grew up in working class Worcester in a strict Catholic family — his parents attended Mass every single day — and he has an Irish tribal sense of loyalty that transcends ideology.
“I’m not politically astute, so to speak,” Holden says from his sports memorabilia-filled office in the tallest building on campus, called The Tower. “I’ve always been aware of politics and all, but even now, I get involved because of my job and my allegiance and loyalty to Charles more than anything else.”
He pauses. “I’ve really picked a side here.”
“ He should be celebrated, in my opinion. Like Ford, Rockefeller, Steven Jobs, Carnegie — you know what I’m saying? ” – Mark Holden
Holden’s aw-shucks, jokey demeanor makes you forget that he’s at the very nexus of conservative politics. He says he’s more interested in sports than politicking and can get frustrated by the molasses-like pace of progress in Washington, where he travels to twice a month to promote criminal justice reform and to work with the Kochs’ political organizations. Holden fills his office with dozens of Red Sox baseballs housed in little Plexiglas cubes, framed front pages declaring victory for various New England franchises, and signed football helmets, fan letters and posters — with very little political memorabilia visible in the chaos. (“I think I’m a hoarder,” Holden said sheepishly, surveying his office.)
Holden is an independent who registered as a Republican when he moved to Kansas so he could vote in more meaningful primaries there. This would most likely shock his Massachusetts mother, who “cried harder the day Ted Kennedy died than the day my dad died,” Holden joked. He shares some of his boss’s libertarian views — he believes no one should be forced to disclose political donations under the First Amendment and that government should be predominantly local and much smaller than it is today. But like Charles Koch, he says he’s more about ideas — smaller government, less regulation on markets — than political parties and candidates.
Koch Industries in Wichita, Kan. (Photo: Mark Nagel for Yahoo News)
What motivates Holden to appear on criminal justice reform panels, talk to reporters and respond to attacks is his loyalty to Charles Koch, whom he views as an American icon and trailblazing entrepreneur in the style of the captains of industry who built America in the 19th century. (Unlike those earlier, self-made titans, however, the Kochs inherited from their father the company that became Koch Industries.) Holden feels the backlash to the Kochs’ political involvement keenly, and sees it as unjust. This sense of unfairness over the Kochs’ reputation and legacy permeates the company’s top ranks, which is full of true believers. “People should want us in this country,” Holden said, pointing out that Koch employs 60,000 people in the U.S. and makes vital products like gasoline and toilet paper.
Over lunch in the gleaming “Café Koch” cafeteria, Holden said he thinks Charles Koch’s distaste for the spotlight and for showboating of any kind prevents him from taking more credit for his considerable philanthropy and empire-building.
“He should be celebrated, in my opinion,” Holden said. “Like Ford, Rockefeller, Steven Jobs, Carnegie — you know what I’m saying?”
Cohlmia, the head of public relations, agreed. “He is an American hero and an icon, and we want people to know,” she added.
Holden and others who work with Charles Koch believe that his Midwestern distaste for claiming credit has fueled his vilification — and that if people understood his views and his accomplishments, the negative mythology would mostly disappear. This may be because Koch Industries’ outpost in the Kansas prairies has insulated the company from the genuine anger many Americans feel about the unfettered flow of money into politics. Though that money comes from the left and the right, the sheer size of the Kochs’ political operation is unprecedented.
Holden’s become the face of the Kochs’ push to reform the criminal justice system, an effort that’s made allies out of former enemies and softened the billionaire brothers’ image.
“Just two individuals are seeking to have extraordinary and unheard influence over our elections and the government decisions that will follow,” said campaign reform activist Fred Wertheimer, president of the nonprofit group Democracy 21. “This is not what our democracy was meant to be. It is in fundamental conflict with the constitutional principle of one person one vote.”
But criticism of this kind has not at all diverted the Kochs’ from their mission. “It has no impact on our drive or desire,” Holden said of the political blowback. “It makes Charles and it makes me more determined than ever to keep doing what we’re doing. If that was their intent, if they’re trying to intimidate us, it didn’t work.”
The criticism might not intimidate them, but it does annoy them. Charles’ brother has expressed frustration that he’s not seen more favorably by the public. David Koch, who lives in New York City, told Crain’s last year that he’s surprised his nearly $1 billion in charitable donations occasionally generate outrage from those who don’t like his politics. “I put money into providing [cancer] treatments. You’d think I would be celebrated for that,” said Koch, who added that he likes putting his name on the cultural institutions he funds because it “sends a message” to “left-wing Democrats” that call him an evil Koch brother. He’s given millions of dollars to the Smithsonian, Lincoln Center and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Charles Koch, who lives in Kansas and runs Koch Industries, has been less vocal about what it’s like to be vilified. But the elder brother has slowly stepped more into the public eye than ever before. He wrote three op-eds in the past year, including one with Holden that advocates for eliminating mandatory minimum sentences and restoring rights to nonviolent felons once they’ve served their time. In October, Koch’s second book will come out, about his management philosophy. (The first, called “The Science of Success,” is given to every Koch employee, who must take a two-day course on its tenets.) Unlike his first book, this one, called “Good Profit,” will contain some personal anecdotes and photographs.
“What we’re doing more than ever is taking our case to the public,” said Steve Lombardo, the newly hired head of marketing and communications, as a Koch Twitter feed rapidly updated on his computer monitor behind him. The company began running a series of TV ads this past year featuring Koch manufacturing employees next to a banner that reads “We Are Koch,” which Lombardo said appears to be having an effect on public perceptions of the company. The brothers also opened up portions of their biannual political seminars for wealthy donors to a few handpicked journalists, helping to dispel their reputation for secrecy.
“ I’m not politically astute, so to speak. I’ve always been aware of politics and all, but even now, I get involved because of my job and my allegiance and loyalty to Charles.” – Mark Holden
Emphasizing criminal justice reform is a key part of the strategy to deflate the negative narrative around the Kochs, Lombardo said.
The Kochs — and Holden — have long been interested in the criminal justice system. Holden worked as a guard at the Worcester County Jail in high school and during breaks from college, making $6 an hour to guard inmates — one of whom was a former classmate who had dropped out of school. He noticed it was always the kids who came from rougher backgrounds — poorer, or with family trouble — who ended up there.
“What it taught me was that when you’re on the lower end of the food chain from a socioeconomic perspective and if you get caught up in the system, you’re kind of hosed,” he said. More recently, Holden’s wife befriended a Wichita couple, Lynn and David Gilkey, who started an organization working with local kids to prevent them from joining gangs. The Gilkeys were convicted 15 years ago of dealing drugs, and they struggled to rebuild their lives as ex-convicts — their felonies made it nearly impossible for them to get hired anywhere. The Gilkeys impressed upon Holden that people who make nonviolent criminal mistakes deserve and need second chances to succeed in society.
David H. Koch in New York City in 2014 (Photo: Jason DeCrow/Invision for David H. Koch Foundation/AP Images)
Koch and Holden’s interest turned to action a few years after Holden joined the company in 1995 as an employment law specialist. Four Koch employees were indicted for environmental crimes in Texas in 2000; Holden worked on the case. “It was hell,” Holden recalls. The company eventually pleaded guilty to one count of covering up environmental violations at the Corpus Christi plant, paid $20 million and avoided jail time for the employees. Charles Koch was struck by what he saw as government overreach in the prosecution. If his powerful company couldn’t win a case, how badly must average citizens be faring? (The government would undoubtedly disagree they were overreaching: Koch has been fined millions of dollars for illegal oil spills and air pollution over the years.) The company began donating to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers every year for the past decade to help fund defense for poor people.
It wasn’t until the past year that Koch became more public about the criminal justice reform effort, as more and more politicians from both sides of the aisle began to express interest. Holden now spends more than half his time promoting criminal justice reform at various panels, workshops and in meetings with Capitol Hill staffers and politicians. The decision to go public and go bigger with the criminal justice reform effort has done wonders for the Kochs’ image. It emphasizes an aspect of libertarian thought that liberals can agree with, and it also shows that the brothers are open to working across the ideological spectrum.
“ I remind everyone we weren’t going after them, they were coming after us. We just defended ourselves. We’ll work with anybody.” – Mark Holden
At a panel on Capitol Hill in January, Holden was warmly embraced by Van Jones, the former Obama administration official and liberal commentator. And Koch is now partnering on reform with the Center for American Progress, the liberal think tank whose research appeared in The New Yorker article that first propelled them into infamy. The issue attracts unlikely bedfellows at a time of deep division between Democrats and Republicans, which suggests that Congress may actually pass reforms to reduce the prison population by cutting penalties for nonviolent crimes in general.
Charles Koch, who declined to be interviewed for this article, said in a statement that criminal justice reform “is a key priority for us, and I am urging Mark and our team to continue helping build as broad a coalition as possible to make reform a reality.”
Holden is exasperated when people are surprised that Koch Industries is willing to work with its critics. Though the Kochs are worth an estimated $40 billion each and command a political network that plans to outspend either of the political parties in 2016, the company still feels like it’s the Midwestern underdog.
“I remind everyone we weren’t going after them, they were coming after us,” he said of the liberal groups he now works with. “We just defended ourselves. We’ll work with anybody.”
Holden is now hopeful that the discourse around his boss will be “more measured,” as his critics see his work on criminal justice reform.
“I’d like everybody to calm down, take a chill pill and try to be a little more civil,” Holden says. “That’s our hope. But I’m not naive. So we’ll be ready.”