Florida Politics

Critics charge state Sen. Thrasher is linked to conservative Koch brothers

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 — whose name at FSU is especially radioactive since 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 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 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 Charles 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 the Senate and Scott’s campaign. He also has pledged to allow faculty and staff to review all private donations and 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 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 was more eager to align with organizations affiliated with the Kochs. During the lead-up to his term as House Speaker, he attended American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) meetings where conservative lawmakers were encouraged to support legislation backed by 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, anti-union 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 financed a full-page ad in the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper 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 becoming 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.

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