WASHINGTON – Conservative billionaire David Koch is stepping down from a key role in the political and policy empire that made him and his older brother two of the most powerful men in American politics and among the most vilified figures in Democratic circles.
Koch, 78, is leaving the board of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, Koch officials announced Tuesday. He is retiring from his roles at Koch Industries, the Kansas-based conglomerate run by his brother Charles. David Koch served as executive vice president of the company and a member of its board. He was chairman and CEO of one its subsidiaries, Koch Chemical Technology Group.
Koch officials cited health reasons for the departure but declined to provide details on the nature of his illness. David Koch is a prostate cancer survivor and donated hundreds of millions to cancer research and medical facilities over the years.
In a letter sent Tuesday morning to Koch Industries' employees, Charles Koch said his brother first announced his "declining health" in October 2016.
"Unfortunately, these issues have not been resolved, and his health has continued to deteriorate," Charles Koch wrote. "As a result, he is unable to be involved in business and other organizational activities.
"His guidance and loyalty, especially in our most troubling times, has been unwavering," Charles Koch wrote. He said David Koch would be named a director emeritus of the company.
Charles Koch, 82, remains at the helm of the family’s oil, chemical and textile conglomerate. Koch Industries is the country’s second-largest private company after Cargill and makes everything from components in iPhones to Brawny paper towels. The company made the brothers among the planet’s richest men. Forbes estimates they are worth $60 billion each.
They are best known for their role in politics and using their fortune to inject millions into an array of foundations, think tanks and political groups to spread their small-government, free-market messages, which their critics argue serve their economic interests.
Americans for Prosperity has operations in 36 states and a standing army of about 3 million activists the Kochs mobilize for political and policy battles.
The network, which includes about 700 like-minded donors who commit to giving at least $100,000 a year, plans to spend $400 million in policy and politics before the 2018 elections, the group’s largest midterm political investment. Big-name Republican politicians seek their support in elections and policy fights. Last fall, Vice President Pence traveled to New York to rally David Koch and a group of about 100 other donors to back a Republican tax-cut plan.
The Koch groups committed to plowing about $20 million into efforts to pass the successful $1.5 trillion tax overhaul and sell it to voters before November's midterm elections.
David Koch made his own foray into politics decades ago, waging an unsuccessful bid as the Libertarian Party’s vice presidential candidate in 1980 with Ed Clark. They won about 1% of the vote.
Charles Koch stands at the center of their political world, presiding over twice-yearly retreats with the network’s top donors. Two of his lieutenants — Koch Industries’ lead attorney Mark Holden and Brian Hooks, who runs the Charles Koch Foundation — have taken higher-profile roles in guiding the network’s activities in recent years.
In a statement Tuesday about Koch's departure, Holden said network officials "greatly appreciate his vital role on the board and all that he has done to help us build a strong foundation for our future success."
While Charles Koch has remained in the family’s hometown of Wichita, David Koch is a prominent figure in New York, where he has been a big contributor to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and a leading arts patron. Koch officials said David Koch's donations and pledges to non-profit groups have topped $1.3 billion.
His pledge in 2008 to donate $100 million prompted Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts to rename the dance-focused New York State Theater in his honor.
He's donated to museums — giving $35 million to the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum and $20 million to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Those gifts triggered some controversy. More than 100 scientists petitioned natural history museums to sever ties with Koch and any other executives in the fossil fuels industry.
Democrats criticized the brothers for their outsize role in American politics.
President Obama targeted them in the first ad of his 2012 re-election campaign. When Harry Reid was Senate majority leader, the Nevada Democrat routinely railed against the duo in the run-up to the 2014 midterm elections as “power-drunk billionaires” intent on buying American elections to suit their purposes.
That year, the publicity-averse family began a television advertising campaign to defend their business brand and have since opened up portions of their donor retreats to reporters.