Original Link: http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0611/56628.html
By KENNETH P. VOGEL
Back when Philip Ellender was getting started in Louisiana, the Koch brothers’ enforcer wondered whether he had the right stuff for the cutthroat world of politics.
“Sometimes I wish I was more assertive and more of a bulldog,” he told an interviewer in 1994, when his résumé looked more like that of a Democratic environmentalist than the key operative for the billionaire industrialists he would later become.
“What’s that quote about bees and honey? ‘You can attract more bees with honey?’ I tend toward that philosophy, and sometimes I need to have a little more bulldog in me.”
These days, Ellender, 49, is serving up a lot more bulldog than honey for Charles and David Koch, crafting and directing a sharp-edged pushback against critics of their business interests and conservative politics with tactics that have helped cement the view that the Kochs play rough.
While the Koch brothers’ conservative donor conferences and support of the political group Americans for Prosperity have drawn extensive scrutiny in the past year, Ellender is part of a low-profile Koch inner circle that includes Richard Fink, a former academic who sits on the boards of Koch-funded nonprofits, and Mark Holden, Koch Industries’ top lawyer, and that is more directly involved in carrying out the Kochs’ legislative and political agenda.
As co-president of Koch Companies Public Sector, set up in 2009 to handle government, public and legal affairs for the Kochs’ privately held oil, chemical and consumer products empire, Ellender, based in Atlanta, is in charge of the Kochs’ multimillion-dollar lobbying operation as well as the response to what he calls “an orchestrated campaign against Koch that has been enthusiastically supported and aided by some in the media.”
“I would like to request some explanation for how Reuters justifies such obviously distorted and agenda-driven copy to be presented to its readers as though it’s actual, hard news,” Ellender wrote late last month in a typical missive to a news outlet, this one questioning a decision by the news service to run a pair of stories by an environmentalist press outfit called SolveClimate News.
After an anonymous group of environmentalists staged an elaborate prank late last year suggesting Koch Industries had changed its skeptical stance toward climate change, Koch brought a lawsuit in late December seeking $100,000 in damages.
“It’s sort of like using a bazooka to get at a fly,” asserted Deepak Gupta, a lawyer for the watchdog group Public Citizen, who represented the pranksters in the suit, which was thrown out last month by a federal judge.
Although the Kochs’ influence in the world of business and conservative politics is not anything new, they traditionally functioned outside the spotlight. But in the past few years — a period that coincides with Ellender’s time at the helm of Koch Companies Public Sector — the brothers have found themselves in a contentious and high-profile tug of war over their image.
Under Ellender’s watch, Koch Industries has assembled a team of crisis communications professionals with experience working for top Republicans, including Sarah Palin and Arnold Schwarzenegger, commissioned polling to monitor any damage to their business interests and launched a website called KochFacts that picks fights with reporters and media outlets in a way that is rare for a major company.
In response to liberal attacks portraying the Kochs as archconservatives pushing a policy agenda that boosts their businesses — a criticism echoed by a fundraising appeal last week from President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign — Ellender and his associates have tried to cast the brothers as free-market enthusiasts vilified for trying to increase economic opportunity by stripping away market-hindering regulation.
But despite the attention that now surrounds it, relatively little is known about Koch Industries, a privately held company, the brothers who own it or the executives who run it. And Ellender is a key part of the Koch enigma.
The great-nephew of the late Democratic Sen. Allen Ellender of Louisiana, Ellender’s career before joining the Kochs was mostly spent working for Democrats and environmental groups in his native Louisiana. He is still registered to vote as a Democrat and remains on the board of the Nature Conservancy chapter in his adopted home state of Georgia.
In an email interview, Ellender rejected the idea that there is any inconsistency between his political background and his job with Koch. Describing himself as “a classical liberal,” Ellender said he has never been as committed to a political party as to a small-government, free-enterprise ideology that matches precisely the one espoused by the Kochs.
And he said he favors environmental regulations based on “sound science and economic cost-benefit analysis” but never supported proposals like the cap-and-trade legislation backed by Nature Conservancy and opposed by many conservatives.
Still, his role with the Kochs leaves some who knew him in Louisiana searching for explanations.
“I’m actually a little bit disappointed that Philip works for the Koch brothers, because he seemed to me to be one of the good guys,” said Melissa Flournoy, a former Democratic state representative who in the early 1990s worked with Ellender at the Council for A Better Louisiana, a nonpartisan public interest group in Baton Rouge, and said she would have considered him “a progressive.”
George C. Kennedy, a veteran Louisiana political consultant who worked with Ellender on a Democratic campaign, said his politics have evolved but in a way that reflects the region as a whole.
“If you look at the story of Phil Ellender, you’re going to see a metaphor for the entire sea change of politics among elites and movers and shakers in the Deep South,” Kennedy said. “You’re going to see a guy who came up with a Democratic heritage, some money and influence, who evolved as a young man into a hard-right conservative.”
Ellender got his start in politics working on the 1987 gubernatorial campaign of Buddy Roemer, an up-and-coming young Democratic congressman running as a reform-minded environmentalist who later became a Republican. After Roemer won, he appointed Ellender to the state Mineral Board, which leases state lands and water-bottoms to oil companies for drilling.
Ellender resigned two years later out of his concern over a potential conflict with his work for the Nature Conservancy — for which he was raising money, including from some of the same oil companies to which the Mineral Board leased drilling rights.
“In order to maintain the highest standards of accountability that you have instituted in public service, and in order to maintain the credibility of myself, your administration, and The Nature Conservancy, I have concluded that the best solution is for me to resign,” Ellender wrote in 1990 letter to Roemer.
Ellender went on to work for the Council for A Better Louisiana and briefly for Roy Fletcher, a prominent Louisiana-based political consultant who worked for Democrats and Republicans, before being hired in 1994 by a Baton Rouge lobbying firm, Harris, DeVille & Associates. It guided Koch through tricky situations with environmental groups, local press and government permitting agencies.
Koch hired Ellender full time in 1998, and he helped the company win support from environmental groups — and deal with an angry neighbor or two — en route to getting approval for an $85 million gas line project. Later, he handled public relations surrounding the $55 million the company paid in settlements, fines and remediation for crude oil spills across several Southern states and charges it covered up massive environmental violations at a Texas plant.
Just before the Texas settlement was reached in 2001, Ellender pledged to “aggressively defend our company” and its accused employees “at an incredible expense” against what he called “unjust criminal prosecution.” And he stressed that “the government does have unlimited resources in pursuing matters like this.”
Nancy Roberts, a close friend from Ellender’s Baton Rouge days, said Ellender was particularly skilled at brokering agreement between seemingly conflicting factions like environmentalists and industry. Roberts – who in the early 1990s appointed Ellender to the board of the non-profit she runs, then called Friends of Environmental Education – said “Philip is the kind of guy who can negotiate and build consensus around something.”
But compromise and consensus don’t appear to be the driving principles of the national PR strategy Ellender has implemented at Koch.
After the nonprofit media outlet Center for Public Integrity published a 4,000-word report by reporter Jack Farrell on Koch’s lobbying operation, the response was quick.
“Koch Confronts CPI: Bias, hidden agenda, at Center for Public Integrity,” read a Facebook ad placed by Koch as part of an online advertising campaign challenging the accuracy of specific suggestions in the center’s report and presenting Koch’s lobbying and advocacy as “based on principles of economic freedom and property rights that are core values recognized and held by the majority of Americans.” The rebuttal questioned Farrell’s objectivity and alleged an inherent bias in the center’s funding from George Soros’s Open Society Institute, which also bankrolls a handful of advocacy groups that have led the left’s campaign against the Kochs.
KochFacts also has questioned the integrity and motives of media outlets and adversaries ranging from The New York Times and The New Yorker to POLITICO — even a University of Kansas political science professor has felt Ellender’s bite.
The center’s executive director, Bill Buzenberg, described the KochFacts campaign against Farrell’s story as an “ad hominem attack on a reporter who was objectively doing his job” and an effort “to use advertising to bully and chill a free press.”
Ellender said the mission of KochFacts is “to set the record straight and to communicate the truth about our company when news stories are factually incorrect or misleading.”
He declined to comment on his 1994 quote about wanting to be more of a bulldog but said “I think honest debate in a civil manner is good.”
As for his ties to the Nature Conservancy, he said he has “openly expressed my disagreement” with its support for legislation that Koch and Americans for Prosperity oppose that would cap carbon emissions and set up a market-based trading system for emission credits.
“A disagreement on one issue does not necessarily foreclose me from working with a group on the many other issues we share an aligned interest and point of view,” he said.