'Dark Money' author Jane Mayer talks buying influence in American politics

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Photo Credit: Angela Wang | Daily Texan Staff

Investigative journalist Jane Mayer took to the AT&T Amphitheater stage Friday, followed by a hailstorm of applause from UT students and faculty, many of whom clutched her 2016 National Bestseller “Dark Money.”

As in her novel, the discussion focused on her findings involving the influence of billionaires in American politics. Mayer said today’s most influential businessmen are oil tycoons and brothers Charles and David Koch.

“You cannot find out what is happening in American politics if you don’t chase the money,” Mayer said. “As I discovered, you cannot chase the money today without stumbling across the Kochs.”

Mayer estimates the Kochs have spent nearly $100 million on funding conservative nonprofits and politicians, such as the Tea Party. However, she said there is no way to know how much “dark money” has been invested.

“(The Kochs have) created a web of private foundations, think tanks, academic programs … all of which can, to varying degrees, hide the identities of the donors,” Mayer said.

The Kochs are not alone. Before “Dark Money,” Mayer followed George Soros, the liberal financier who broke all previous campaign spending records in an effort to prevent George W. Bush from being re-elected in 2004.

“Big money is a bipartisan problem and there is plenty of it on both sides of the political spectrum,” Mayer said.

Mayer said while there is laundered money in both parties, the Kochs' situation is unprecedented.

In The Koch Effect study, researchers assert the brothers have “a strong gravitational pull,” drawing candidates toward ultra-free market policies and small government.

Event coordinator Julie Irwin said her intention in having Mayer speak for the Center for Leadership and Ethics speaker of the year event is to expose students to varying ethical dimensions.

“A lot of corporate money is invested in politics and education, and we want students who go work for corporations to have that ethical aspect of their education,” Irwin said.

Government sophomore Connor Johnson said he was thrilled to hear Mayer speak, but left feeling discouraged.

“There needs to be campaign finance reform,” Johnson said. “As private citizens we can donate $2,700 and billionaires get around this limit through loopholes in the law.”

Although she fears the concentration of political influence, Mayer said she is optimistic given the successful anti-establishment campaigns of Trump and Sanders.

“The American public is poised to do what it’s done in the past … demand change and get it,” Mayer said.