The Koch Brothers' Secret Bank: How What You Buy Affects Our Politics

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The notion of voting with your wallet is nothing new -- for decades, people have boycotted companies because of worker treatment, political stances, or a host of other issues. In the last few years, however, increasingly byzantine campaign finance laws have made it easier for companies to hide their political contributions -- and made it harder for consumers to know which causes their purchases support.

On Tuesday, news website Politico made tracking the impact of your purchases a little bit easier with its report on Freedom Partners, a group founded by the ultra-conservative billionaire Koch brothers. Freedom Partners, which distributed $236 million in 2012 -- making it the largest single conservative donor -- is designed as a clearinghouse that the Koch brothers can use to raise money and distribute it to a variety of political causes. Based on an IRS report, the Politico article -- which referred to Freedom Partners as the Koch's "bank," shows where the group's money goes.

The organizations that benefited from the Koch's largesse are not surprising: Many are political action groups like the State Tea Party Express, Tea Party Patriots, and Heritage Action for America. Some are conservative outreach groups, like Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee and The LIBRE Initiative, which reach out to female and Hispanic voters, respectively -- groups that often feel alienated by contemporary Republicanism.

Some of Freedom Partners' groups are even more specific: for example, the "bank" gave $3.5 million to the National Rifle Association, and another $130.7 million to two groups that directly target Obamacare.

While the IRS report was very clear about where the money goes, it wasn't so clear about where the money comes from. Freedom Partners claims to have over 200 donors, each of whom contributes at least $100,000 per year, and none of whom seems eager to stand up and be counted. Even the Kochs, who are closely connected to all of Freedom Partners' directors -- and who provide a big chunk of its funding -- were quick to point out that the group "operates independently of Koch Industries."

So, a variety of political action groups get money from Freedom Partners, and Freedom Partners gets a lot of its money from the Kochs. The Kochs, in turn, get their money from Koch Industries. But where does Koch Industries get its money from?

Well, like any successful businessmen, the Kochs are widely diversified, with investments in dozens of industries -- many of which don't have a clear consumer-facing business. In fact, The Daily Beast recently reported that one of Koch's subsidiary companies is now providing components for a host of Apple products.

But some of its companies, like Georgia-Pacific, Invista, and the Matador Cattle Company, directly interact with the public. Chances are that you're not going to go on one of Matador's high-priced hunting weekends. But if you buy Stainmaster carpet, Lycra fabric or any of Invista's dozens of products, you're sending money to the Kochs. The same thing goes if you use Brawny paper towels, Dixie cups, Angel Soft toilet tissue or any of several dozen Georgia-Pacific paper products.

Given the tangled web of corporations and subsidiaries, not to mention the twists and turns of campaign financing, it's not always easy to see which pockets end up being lined with the money you spend at the grocery store. Even so, Buycott and similar apps are making it easier to see how your weekly shopping affects your nation's politics. And, if that fails, you could always just poke around the Koch Industries website.

Bruce Watson is DailyFinance's Savings Editor. You can reach him by e-mail at bruce.watson@teamaol.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.

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