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The Buzz, 7-11: Who is David Koch?
Meet the new patron of the NY State Theater

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2003, 2008 Paul Ben-Itzak

(To celebrate its 10th anniversary of telling stories not told elsewhere, the Dance Insider has been revisiting its Archive. The following article was first published, in slightly different form, on May 1, 2003. Some of the links and sources cited have been changed because the Justice Department press releases on which they were originally based have since been moved on the Justice Department website and cannot be found. On Thursday, the New York Times reported that beginning this fall, Lincoln Center's New York State Theater, home to New York City Ballet and New York City Opera, will be renamed the David H. Koch Theater following Koch's pledge to contribute $100 million to the building's renovation. I have added an appropriate post-script. -- PBI. )

His name is David Koch. Since 1994, he has served as vice chairman of the board of governing trustees of American Ballet Theatre. With his brother, David Koch is the executive vice president and co-owner of Koch Industries, the largest privately owned oil company in the United States. In 1996, a faulty pipeline operated by Koch Industries caused an explosion in which two Texas teenagers, Danielle Smalley and Jason Stone, were killed. As noted by the Austin American-Statesman, a Kaufman County, Texas jury later awarded the Smalley family $296 million -- the largest award for actual damages for a wrongful death suit in US history. The company appealed, and later reached a settlement with the Smalley family for an undisclosed amount. In another case, in January 2000, Koch Industries agreed to pay a $30 million civil penalty, according to the Justice Department "the largest civil penalty ever imposed against a single company for violations of an environmental law," as well as improve its leak-prevention programs and spend $5 million on environmental projects. The settlements with Koch Industries, the Justice Department wrote, "resolve claims under the Clean Water Act related to more than 300 illegal oil spills from Koch's pipelines and oil facilities resulting in the release of some three million gallons of oil and related products into ponds, rivers, lakes, and shorelines in six States." The Clinton Justice Department team that worked on the case even received a John Marshall award for support of litigation in the department's 2000 annual awards ceremony. (In a report on Koch Industries, CBS News's 60 Minutes II noted: "In a statement, Koch Industries claims that it has spent a billion dollars on environmental improvements and reduced leaks by 96 percent. The company urged us to look at its record at the federal Office of Pipeline Safety. We did and discovered that Koch's records at OPS look good. But we also found that OPS doesn't cover more than half of Koch's lines -- including the lines that leaked.")

In May 2001, as reported by CBS, Bill Koch (David's brother) and Koch Industries announced a legal settlement of all their disputes in which Koch Industries agreed to pay $25 million in penalties to the US government for improperly taking more oil than it paid for from federal and Indian lands. About a third of it went to Bill Koch for bringing the lawsuit, according to CBS. (In a written statement to CBS, Koch Industries blamed its problems on Bill Koch, calling him a "disgruntled family member" who has waged a "personal vendetta through lawsuits and the media against his brothers' company.")

In fall 2000, according to Mother Jones magazine, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted Koch Industries and four employees on 97 counts of violating federal clean air and hazardous waste laws. Government prosecutors "accuse(d) the company of intentionally releasing fumes from benzene -- a suspected carcinogen -- into the atmosphere and then lying about it to state regulators in Texas. If convicted, the company could be fined up to $352 million." In the 2000 presidential campaign, David Koch and his wife, Julia, donated $487,500 to the Republican Party, its candidates, and conservative political action committees, as documented by Mother Jones. Additionally, as reported BBC commentator Greg Palast, Koch Industries donated $970,000 to the party during the Bush campaign, among energy companies third only to Enron and Exxon. In 2001, the government, under President Bush, fined the Koch Petroleum Group $20 million for the benzene spill, according to CBS. One more interesting fact: As noted by the Sierra Club, Koch helped found a group called "Citizens for a Sound Economy." What exactly do CSE's policy papers and experts argue? Writes the Sierra Club's Curtis Moore: "CSE's representatives have appeared on hundreds of radio and television shows and published 235 op-ed articles. What do they tell us? Among other things, that 'environmental conservation requires a common sense approach that limits the scope of government,' acid rain is a 'so-called threat [that] is largely nonexistent,' and global warming is "a verdict in search of evidence.'"

In 1994, Donald McKayle created, for San Francisco Ballet, a work, "Gumbo Ya-Ya," which treated a post-(environmentally) Apocalyptic society. The ballet was inspired, McKayle told me, by his witnessing first hand, during a tour with the Martha Graham company in the 1950s, environmental devastation wrought in Malaysia and elsewhere. Would that ballet have a chance at entering the rep. of Mr. Koch's ABT?

Post-script, July 11, 2008: Notwithstanding its considerable benefits for ballet and opera-goers in New York City, Koch's largesse raises a disturbing question: At a time when rising oil and gas prices and the rising food prices they in part provoke are making daily living a struggle for many Americans, how has the co-owner of the U.S.'s largest privately owned oil company been able to set aside $100 million for a theater tickets to which most of those Americans cannot afford?

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