Criminal defense lawyers’ group: no reason to shun Koch Industries’ money

October 23, 2014

On Wednesday, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers announced a major new grant to fund training for lawyers who represent indigent defendants. That’s no surprise. Providing good lawyers for defendants who can’t afford counsel is a core mission for NACDL. But the source of the funding caused a bit of a stir: Koch Industries, the Kansas-based, privately held manufacturing conglomerate that is the source of the boundless wealth of Charles and David Koch. The Koch brothers, as you surely know, contribute so lavishly to Republican candidates and conservative causes that the Senate’s Democratic majority leader, Harry Reid, has tagged them (via Talking Points Memo) “‘un-American’ plutocrats who ‘have no conscience and are willing to lie’ in order to ‘rig the system’ against the middle class.”

So why is NACDL, a group dedicated to defending the downtrodden, in bed with two of America’s richest and most powerful conservative ideologues?

NACDL’s president told me the group only cares that Koch Industries shares its view of the sanctity of the Sixth Amendment and defendants’ constitutional right to counsel. Koch placed no conditions on its contribution – the amount hasn’t been disclosed – and deferred to NACDL on the best way to spend the money. Under those circumstances, NACDL president Theodore Simon said in an interview, there was no reason to look askance at the Koch money. “We have to get beyond the corrosive idea that we have to agree with others on everything in order to cooperate on anything,” he said. “This grant is going to help lawyers help the needy in our society.”

Simon doggedly refused to veer off of his Sixth Amendment message in our conversation. He declined to discuss NACDL’s relationship with Koch Industries, which dates back to at least 2011, when the group honored Koch general counsel Mark Holden for his ongoing support. He also declined to say whether NACDL approached Koch for the new contribution and declined to name his group’s other donors. I emailed half a dozen current NACDL board members; the only one who got back to me referred me to Simon. I also emailed a Koch Industries representative but she was traveling and not immediately available.

Happily, two former NACDL presidents – New York criminal defense lawyers Gerald Lefcourt and Lawrence Goldman – were a bit more voluble on the subject the Koch brothers and NACDL funding. Both Lefcourt and Goldman serve on the board of the group’s Foundation for Criminal Justice, and both said there was no debate about taking Koch money. “The reality is that criminal defense lawyers often take money from people that aren’t that nice,” Lefcourt told me. “Anybody – anybody! – who wants to join us in the indigent defense effort, as long as it is without strings, is welcome.”

Lefcourt said that NACDL finds itself allied more often than you’d think with conservative groups, particularly those with a libertarian bent. His group worked, for example, with both the Cato Institute and Republican Congressman Henry Hyde on reforming civil forfeiture laws. On white-collar criminal defense issues, both Lefcourt and Goldman said, NACDL has occasionally teamed up with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “Contrary to what some people think, NACDL is not necessarily a liberal organization,” said Goldman.

He told me that he wondered fleetingly whether the group should take a major grant from Koch Industries. “I’m alive, so I know who the Koch brothers are. I do not agree with them politically,” Goldman said. “The question went through my mind, but I dismissed it pretty quickly.” After all, he told me, it’s good for the cause to have conservatives like the Koch brothers sticking up for the constitutional right to counsel. “For them to support indigent defense, as opposed to white collar defense, is pretty significant,” he said.

In the end, said Lefcourt and Goldman, what matters is NACDL’s ability and freedom to execute its agenda, whether funding comes from George Soros or Charles and David Koch. “We will take money pretty much from whoever offers it,” Goldman said. “I have lost no sleep over this.”

Koch’s general counsel, Holden, sent me an email about the company’s relationship with NACDL. “Charles Koch, David Koch, and Koch Industries are strong supporters and defenders of the Bill of Rights, which is the blueprint for our free society,” he said. “We are proud to have worked closely with the NACDL for over 10 years on a variety of criminal justice reform issues to help ensure that all Americans’ constitutional rights are protected. NACDL has been effective in building broad and diverse coalitions across political, demographic and ideological grounds in order to bring about real and positive improvements in our criminal justice system for all Americans. Our latest partnership with the NACDL is designed to help ensure that the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of a right to counsel when accused of a crime is made a reality, especially for the most disadvantaged in our society. For those who know what Koch is really all about, it is no surprise we would work on such a worthy and important issue because it is consistent with our vision of helping people improve their lives.”
(This post has been updated to include comment from Koch Industries.)

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