Advertisement
  1. Florida Politics

Thrasher's political links with billionaire Kochs questioned

State Sen. John Thrasher has received donations from the Libertarian Koch brothers, including $1,000 to his campaign in 2012 and another $1,000 in February.
Published Sep. 20, 2014

TALLAHASSEE — One of the latest lines of attack against state Sen. John Thrasher becoming Florida State University's next president: Tying him to the billionaire libertarian Koch brothers.

Thrasher does have ties to the political activists — who are especially radioactive at FSU since giving a controversial gift several years ago. But though the links are not as clear as some are suggesting, even the potential they represent is stirring some dissent.

The powerful state senator has accepted campaign donations from the Kochs and attended events with other conservatives that were sponsored in part by Koch dollars. But Thrasher's conservative politics have also conflicted with Charles and David Koch's libertarianism.

"I have been saying I've never met them, I've never talked to them and I wouldn't recognize them if they walked into the room," Thrasher told the Times/Herald on Thursday.

Thrasher's campaign received a $1,000 check in February from Koch Industries, the Kansas-based company that made the brothers rich. He received another $1,000 from the company in 2012.

Thrasher raised nearly $847,000 in total during those two campaign cycles.

Koch Industries also donated $25,000 to Gov. Rick Scott's Let's Get to Work political committee. Thrasher is chairman of Scott's re-election campaign.

The company also donated $40,000 to the Republican Party of Florida in 2012. That was a year after Thrasher stepped down as party chairman.

Jerry Funt, an FSU senior from Tampa who is co-president of a campus organization opposing Thrasher's candidacy, said that what he knows about Koch and the state senator is concerning. He is among students, instructors and donors talking about the issue.

"Whether or not Sen. Thrasher gets significant funding from Koch directly through his campaigns, there are new ways that money gets put into campaigns," Funt said. "And there are a lot of groups with agendas that are similar to Sen. Thrasher's that still receive significant money and spread it through the Florida Legislature."

As an economics student, Funt sees the influence Koch money has had on FSU's economics department.

Three years ago, the Tampa Bay Times reported that the Charles G. Koch Foundation gave the department $1.5 million over six years — and received the right to screen candidates for two positions. After the ensuing uproar, the school vowed to fix the agreement.

The Center for Public Integrity recently discovered documents that proved the Koch foundation was willing to give additional money if demands about staffing and curriculum were met.

The FSU economics department still has a libertarian streak, Funt said, and he is concerned that if Thrasher wins the presidency the Koch brothers will find an opportunity to exert more influence.

"He still has all those connections . . . He still has the same friends in the Legislature and he's still the same human being," Funt said.

Thrasher has said that if he were to be named FSU president he would end all political involvements, including stepping down from both the Senate and Scott's campaign. He has also pledged to allow faculty and staff to review all private donations, as well as that he would reject any funding that comes with strings attached.

Thrasher's recent activities show only some alignment with the Kochs.

Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-funded tea party organization, gave Thrasher a "D" grade on its annual report card of legislators. Only two senators earned above a "C," but in the more-conservative House, many Republicans earned top grades.

Thrasher's score reflected his support of legislation that the group opposed, such as additional taxes to benefit Miami-Dade College, and incentives for professional sports teams and facilities.

"We gave him a bad grade, and that's because he took votes that were not in the best interest, we thought, of Floridians and taxpayers," AFP Florida director Chris Hudson said.

Earlier in his political career, Thrasher more openly aligned with organizations affiliated with the Kochs. During the lead-up to his term as House speaker, he attended American Legislative Exchange Council meetings in which conservative lawmakers were encouraged to support legislation backed by certain interests, including the Koch brothers'.

ALEC named Thrasher its legislator of the year in 1998. He said he stopped attending ALEC meetings when he left the House in 2000 and did not go back in 2009 when he won a special election for a Senate seat.

Former FSU president Sandy D'Alemberte, a Democrat, nominated Thrasher for the president job and has become one of his most prominent advocates as the rancor increased. D'Alemberte, who is critical of the Kochs' influence on higher education, says he has no reason to believe Thrasher would facilitate further inroads at FSU.

"I am convinced he would maintain academic values and would not let anyone from the outside dictate to our faculty or anybody else our curriculum or who we would hire," D'Alemberte said.

The presidential search committee will meet Monday to review feedback from all four finalists' on-campus interviews. Based on the committee's recommendation, the Board of Trustees will interview at least three candidates Tuesday and make a final selection.

Thrasher's critics have cited various reasons why they believe he is unfit for the job: lack of academic credentials, antiunion policies, refusal to detail his views on scientific topics such as climate change and ethical violations in years past. But the Koch ties are coming up more and more.

Part-time FSU instructor Ray Bellamy paid for a full-page ad in the Tallahassee Democrat titled "John Thrasher should not be FSU's next president" that mentioned, among many other gripes, "large donations" from the Koch brothers.

Retired orthopedic surgeon Howard Kessler didn't have ties to FSU until he and his wife moved to nearby Wakulla County in 1999. But they got involved at the school and established a scholarship for theater students.

Kessler, a county commissioner, was concerned about the influence of corporate dollars on how FSU students were taught, but he said Thrasher as FSU's president would be even more problematic because of the Koch ties.

"Would the selection of Sen. Thrasher influence me in how I would be gifting or not gifting to FSU? Absolutely," Kessler said.

Contact Tia Mitchell at (850) 224-7263 or tmitchell@tampabay.com. Follow @tbtia.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Richard Swearingen, Florida's Commissioner of the Department of Law Enforcement, testifies before state lawmakers on Monday. Florida Channel
    But law enforcement officials are getting behind a “threat assessment system.”
  2. Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, urges the Florida Board of Education to hold schools accountable for teaching the Holocaust and African-American history, as required by lawmakers in 1994. The board was considering a rule on the matter at its Sept. 20, 2019, meeting in Jacksonville. The Florida Channel
    School districts will have to report how they are providing the instruction required in Florida law.
  3. The Mar-a-Lago Resort in Palm Beach. JOE RAEDLE  |  Getty Images
    It wasn’t immediately clear how much Mar-a-Lago would charge to host the Marine Corps Birthday Ball — or even if it might do so for free.
  4. In this March 24, 2018, file photo, crowds of people participate in the March for Our Lives rally in support of gun control in San Francisco. JOSH EDELSON  |  AP
    ‘Guns are always a volatile topic in the halls of the legislature,’ one Republican said.
  5. Pasco County school superintendent Kurt Browning says Fortify Florida, the new state-sponsored app that allows students to report potential threats, is "disrupting the education day" because the callers are anonymous, many of the tips are vague and there's no opportunity to get more information from tipsters. "I have an obligation to provide kids with a great education," Browning said. "I cannot do it with this tool, because kids are hiding behind Fortify Florida." JEFFREY SOLOCHEK  |
    Vague and anonymous tips often waste law enforcement’s time and disrupt the school day, says Kurt Browning, president of Florida’s superintendents association.
  6. Tonight's LGBTQ Presidential Forum is hosted by Angelica Ross of FX's Pose. Twitter
    A live stream of the event and what to watch for as 10 candidates meet on stage in Iowa.
  7. In this April 11, 2018, file photo, a high school student uses a vaping device near a school campus in Cambridge, Mass.  [AP Photo | Steven Senne] STEVEN SENNE  |  AP
    "The department does not appear to have the authority to do anything.”
  8. Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos listens to a speaker share an opinion about a city matter during a city council meeting at Clearwater City Hall in Clearwater, Fla. on Thursday, April 20, 2017.  On Thursday, the Clearwater City Council rejected the mayor's resolution urging lawmakers to ban assault weapons.  [Times files] TIMES FILES  |  Tampa Bay Times
    However, the city did pass a resolution calling for more modest gun control measures.
  9. Maurice A. Ferré at his Miami home earlier this year. JOSE A. IGLESIAS  |  Miami Herald
    He served as mayor for 12 years and set the stage for Miami to become an international city.
  10. Rep. Susan Valdes, D-Tampa, during a Feb. 7, 2019, meeting of the House PreK-12 Appropriations subcommittee. [The Florida Channel]
    ‘One test should not determine the rest of your life,’ Rep. Susan Valdes says.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement