David Koch, the billionaire who famously cheated death — first in an airplane crash, and later in a multi-decade battle with cancer — has finally met his maker at 79. But the toxic empire he built, gilded with society-friendly largesse, survives him.
Koch brought — or more accurately bought — New York respectability for a ruthless Wichita oil clan whose business cut corners and fouled the environment, whose fortune was amassed atop staggering EPA violations and a wrongful death judgment. With his brother and co-owner of Koch Industries, Charles, David also built a right-wing political juggernaut that helped remake the Republican party into a playground for climate deniers that, at its core, has become a subsidiary of the oil-industry.
His New York Times obituary today illustrates the undeserved respectability that an oil fortune can bring. He’s described as “a man-about-town philanthropist.” He was a “gregarious, socially prominent New Yorker who loved the ballet” and “saw his name emblazoned on … the Manhattan institutions on which some of his $1.2 billion in charitable gifts were bestowed.” The David Koch of New York Times description was “an extrovert who attended several dinner parties a week and bantered with reporters, politicians and friends in New York society.” Koch “had palatial homes” in Manhattan, Southampton, Aspen, and Palm Beach, and hung out with “Winston Churchill Jr., Prince Charles and Bill and Melinda Gates.” The paper also takes note of David’s youthful, er, prowess: “He was known as a playboy whose penthouse parties were attended by models.”
But Koch wasn’t just a party-boy philanthropist. He was the charismatic frontman of the Koch Brothers, who profited from a family business with egregious practices. As Rolling Stone detailed in 2014, Koch Industries has not only been a leading polluter of America’s air, water and climate, it has a criminal record and paid record-setting fines for fouling the environment. Bill Koch, another brother whom Charles and David wrestled out of the family business, once said that under his brothers’ direction: “Koch Industries has a philosophy that profits are above everything else.”
Any obituary for David Koch ought to mention a young woman named Danielle Smalley. The teenager was incinerated, with a friend, while fleeing a butane leak from a decrepit Koch Industries-operated pipeline in 1996. The pickup she tried to drive away in, it seems, sparked the leaking fuel, creating a firebomb that burned for hours. Smalley’s death led to the then-largest wrongful death judgment in U.S. history, later settled by Koch Industries on undisclosed terms.
As we consider David Koch’s life, let us remember that his family “crusade” for less regulation and higher profits had human consequences. According to the foundation established in her name, Danielle Smalley had an acting scholarship to a community college. She liked to play guitar. Perhaps she would have blossomed into an artist who played at the kinds of fine Manhattan institutions David Koch showered with his philanthropy.
But unlike David Koch, she didn’t cheat death. In fact, the 23rd anniversary of the explosion that killed her is tomorrow.