Clemency: The issue that Obama and the Koch brothers actually agree on


Unlikely allies

A bipartisan push for sentencing reform unites President Obama and the Koch brothers, but many are still waiting behind bars

Published on August 15, 2015

In Wichita

The gleaming black granite tower where conservative billionaire Charles Koch oversees an empire of multinational corporations is 1,500 miles and worlds away from the California prison cell of Weldon Angelos.

This story is the fourth in a continuing series about the legacy of the war on drugs and efforts to reduce the nation’s prison population.
Click to read Part I: The painful price of aging in prison

Click to read Part II: Against his better judgment

Click to read Part III: From a first arrest to a life sentence

Click to read Part V: Out of prison, slow steps to freedom

Click to read Part VI: In Calif., the unintended effects of leniency

Click to read Part VII: Softening sentences, losing leverage

Click to read Part VIII: Struggling to fix a ‘broken’ system

But Angelos sits at the intersection of an unusual alliance between the industrialist and President Obama — longtime political nemeses. Their cooperation illustrates the depth of a bipartisan effort to reduce the nation’s overcrowded prisons and undo the show-no-mercy sentences meted out to drug offenders in recent decades.

As Koch has emerged as one of the most influential advocates of sentencing reform, he has seized on the Angelos story to illustrate the inequities of the American criminal justice system. And Angelos is one of thousands of prisoners who have applied for clemency from the president under an initiative launched by the Obama administration.

Above: Serving a 55-year sentence, Weldon Angelos is the face of the Koch campaign for criminal justice reform.

The onetime rapper from Utah was sentenced in 2004 to a mandatory 55 years in federal prison after he was arrested for selling a total of about $1,000 worth of marijuana in three separate transactions with a police informant.

“I obviously did something illegal, which was stupid,” said Angelos, now 36, in an interview at the federal prison in Mendota, Calif. “I’ve accepted responsibility for everything and I’ve already served 12 years of my life because of my mistakes. I lost the family I started, my career and my father’s final days. I just want to move on. My main goal in life is to get out and take care of my children.”

He was 25 when he was sent away, and he will be nearly 80 when he gets out. The federal judge who put him there expressed his frustration and anger at the “irrational” sentence he was compelled to impose and urged then-President George W. Bush to commute it.

“Monstrous,” said Koch, 79, of the Angelos case. “Obscene. Somebody makes one mistake, violates a law — and I’m not talking about people who are violent criminals who are hurting people and destroying property — and their lives are ruined by these massive sentences.”

Koch and his brother, David, have used their vast wealth to counter Obama at almost every turn, from the administration’s initiatives on climate change to health-care reform. But their recent detente began with a 45-minute meeting at the White House between one of the president’s most trusted confidantes and the top lawyer for Koch Industries.

Last month, when Obama granted clemency to 46 inmates and just before he became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, he gave a shout-out to the Koch brothers in a speech during an NAACP conference.

“This is a cause that’s bringing people in both houses of Congress together,” Obama said. “It’s created some unlikely bedfellows. You’ve got Van Jones and Newt Gingrich. You’ve got Americans for Tax Reform and the ACLU. You’ve got the NAACP — and the Koch brothers.”

The audience started laughing.

These, after all, were the brothers that Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) called “un-American” and spoke of their role in political life as “the shadowy influence of two power-drunk billionaires.”

But Koch Industries is urging support of the same legislation in Congress that is backed by Obama as his administration tries to reduce the burgeoning prison population, cut the billions spent on inmates and reverse severe drug-sentencing policies that began with the crack cocaine epidemic.

Obama interrupted the laughter. “No, you’ve got to give them credit,” he said. “You’ve got to call it like you see it.”

Weldon Angelos is shown with his sons in this undated family photo. He hasn’t seen them in eight years because they can’t afford to travel to California (Family photo). President Obama was the first sitting president to visit a federal prison when he visited Oklahoma's El Reno Federal Correctional Institution last month (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images).

When he gives speeches, Charles Koch says he asks those in the audience to raise their hand if they have never made a mistake that could have gotten them in serious trouble.

“I’ve never had anyone raise his or her hand,” he said in his office on the sprawling Koch Industries campus here. “There, but for the grace of God or good luck or good fortune go all of us.”

2.3 million

The nation’s prison and jail population today, more than quadrupled from 500,000 in 1980. The U.S. has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, but nearly a quarter of the world’s prison population.

1 in 100

Adults behind bars in America. As many as 100 million of all American adults now have a criminal history record.

60 percent

Of prisoners today are people of color. One in three black men face the likelihood of imprisonment, and black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men, while Hispanic men are 2.5 times as likely.

Source: Compiled by the Coalition for Public Safety, a bipartisan criminal justice reform organization.

The industrialist said his interest in overhauling the criminal justice system is not new. For 12 years, Koch Industries, the country’s second-largest private company with a $115 billion valuation according to Forbes, has been working with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and is providing funding to train lawyers who represent indigent defendants. The group honored Koch Industries a few years ago with its Defender of Justice Leadership award.

He describes his focus on sentencing reform as part of his libertarian philosophy of limited government and his commitment to removing barriers of opportunity for the poor. He said Obama should do more and do it faster to rectify the effects of mandatory minimum sentences, especially for the disadvantaged and men and women of color.

“Clemency for a few — to me, that isn’t just,” said Koch, noting that the president has not granted clemency to Angelos despite appeals to do so from a large group of bipartisan lawmakers. “If you have 1,000 people who got unjust sentences, to give clemency to [a few] — what about the others? Why should they suffer?”

But some Democratic groups remain skeptical about any recasting of the Kochs’ image as anything other than megadonors who have long backed Republican politicians, including tea party candidates.

They’ve ridiculed the effort as “Kochshank Redemption,” playing off the name of the 1994 movie “Shawshank Redemption,” about an inmate sentenced to two life terms.

Liberal blog ThinkProgress has questioned how the Kochs can support criminal justice reform while also supporting candidates such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. As a state legislator, Walker sponsored dozens of tough-on-crime bills, including ones to increase mandatory minimum sentences and not allow parole for many offenders.

Critics have also noted the Kochs’ support for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an advocacy group that helped push for mandatory minimum sentences, tough three-strikes laws and privatization of the prison industry.

Liberal watchdog group Bridge Project last month released a report, “The Koch Brothers’ Criminal Justice Pump-Fake,” attacking their work on criminal justice issues, saying the Kochs’ interest in reform stems from a 97-count indictment and prosecution charging the Koch Petroleum Group and several employees with violating the Clean Air Act at its refinery in Corpus Christi, Tex.

David Uhlmann — the federal prosecutor who was head of the environmental crimes section of the Justice Department — described the lawsuit as “a classic case of environmental crime: illegal emissions of benzene — a known carcinogen — at levels 15 times greater than those allowed under federal law.”

“Koch pleaded guilty and admitted that its employees engaged in an orchestrated scheme to conceal the benzene violations from state regulators and the Corpus Christi community,” said Uhlmann, now a law professor at the University of Michigan Law School.

Uhlmann, along with other critics, are reluctant to accept the Kochs’ support for criminal justice reform at face value, and believe there must be a deeper political agenda — possibly to include the later pursuit of legal reforms that will benefit corporations.

“Their advocacy for less draconian drug laws could prove to be a stalking horse for their long-standing efforts to protect corporate criminals and roll back environmental, health and safety laws,” he said.

Koch Petroleum was fined $10 million in the Corpus Christi case and ordered to pay another $10 million to fund environmental projects. In a plea agreement, the charges were dropped against the four employees.

In Charles Koch’s opinion, the federal case was unjust.

“We had four innocent employees indicted,” he said. “Okay, the company can handle it. Okay, we pay a fine and so on. What’s so upsetting is seeing what it did to them personally and their families.”

And Mark Holden, Koch Industries’ general counsel and senior vice president, said the company “was railroaded” and its experience in the Corpus Christi case “is what really started us working on criminal justice issues.”

Of the skeptics, Holden said, “People are going to believe what they want to believe. We’ve been working on these issues for 12 years now. Charles has had these views his whole life, by and large. Just judge us by our actions. We’re in this for the long haul.”

In a nod to the moment, Holden has a T-shirt in his office with the words: “Koch. Not Entirely Awful,” playing off the words of a recent article.

Van Jones, the president of #Cut50, a group seeking to cut the incarcerated population by 50 percent over the next 10 years, and the former special adviser on Obama’s Council on Environmental Quality, defends the Kochs.

“In a democracy, when you disagree with somebody, you should really work hard against them,” Jones said. “We oppose the Koch agenda when it comes to their pro-polluter, extremist agenda for the environment, and we fight real hard. But when you agree with them, you should work really hard alongside them. On criminal justice reform, we’re very proud to work alongside them.”

“And,” Jones added, “I never met a single person in prison who said, ‘I sure hope the Republicans and the Koch brothers don’t help me.’ ”

Mark V. Holden, senior vice president and general counsel for Koch Industries, left, is photographed with his boss, Charles Koch, in Koch’s office in Wichita.

The Koch-Obama alliance began to take shape at the Washington Marriott Wardman Park hotel in March. In a hotel ballroom, #Cut50 held a bipartisan criminal justice summit, hosted by former Obama administration official Jones and former Republican speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

Roy Austin Jr., a deputy assistant to President Obama, approached Holden at the gathering and they traded business cards.

$80 billion

Amount taxpayers spend each year on prisons and jails. Nearly a third of the Justice Department's approximately $24 billion budget is spent on federal prisons. Between 2000 and 2013, the cost per federal inmate increased by close to $8,000, resulting in a $2.3 billion increase in the Bureau of Prisons' budget.

400 percent

Growth in states’ combined corrections spending from 1980 to 2009.

40 percent

Decrease in annual earnings and higher unemployment rates for people who serve time in prison. Families with incarcerated fathers have greater economic stress, are more likely to be homeless, and are likely to report negative behavioral changes in children, particularly aggression and delinquency.

Source: Compiled by the Coalition for Public Safety, a bipartisan criminal justice reform organization.

“Both our bosses care a lot about these issues,” Austin said, according to Holden. He later invited him to the White House.

When Holden walked in to a West Wing office to meet Austin on April 16, one of Obama’s closest advisers, Valerie Jarrett, was waiting for him, along with other White House officials.

“I decided to participate in the meeting to signal to him how important this effort is to President Obama,” Jarrett said in an interview.

Jarrett was struck by Holden’s sincerity and personal engagement with the issue.

“Mark was very forthcoming about why he thought it was important to his company and also why it was of personal importance to him,” Jarrett said. “He shared his story about working as a prison guard.”

After high school and during summer breaks in college, Holden had worked as a guard in a prison in Worcester, Mass., where he grew up. He said there weren’t “a lot of rich people in prison” and that many of the inmates were kids he knew who had drug problems.

But what convinced Jarrett of Koch Industries’ commitment was when she asked Holden’s position on “ban the box,” the effort to remove the criminal-record check box from job applications. It is a defining issue for reformers because the box has proven to be a critical barrier to getting former prisoners into the workforce. Employers tend to see the tick and dismiss the application.

Holden told her that Koch Industries, which has about 100,000 employees worldwide, had joined Wal-Mart, Target, Bed Bath and Beyond and others in the “ban the box” movement.

Surprised, she asked Holden if he was willing to talk about it publicly and encourage other companies to do the same. He said he would.

“You have made my day,” Jarrett said.

She told Obama about the meeting and said that she believed Holden and the Koch brothers were “very committed” to criminal justice reform.

Obama didn’t hesitate.

“The president’s message to us was “work with whoever will help form that coalition of the willing,” Jarrett said. “He’s always been willing to work with people with whom he disagrees on many issues, searching for that common ground.”

At the Aspen Ideas Festival in June, Jarrett met Charles Koch’s brother and in her speech there, mentioned the Koch brothers. The next month, Obama would do the same.

Holden, who is Charles Koch’s point person on criminal justice reform, said he is now focused on convincing more Republicans to pass criminal justice legislation, including the Safe, Accountable, Fair and Effective Justice Act introduced in June and sponsored by Reps. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) and Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.).

The bill would impose mandatory minimum sentences on high-level drug traffickers rather than low-level, nonviolent ones; apply life sentences for drug trafficking only in egregious cases; and allow eligible offenders to petition for resentencing under new trafficking laws.

The criminal justice effort is being led by Charles Koch, Holden and a Koch Industries team in Washington. Much less involved is the network of conservative advocacy groups backed by Koch, such as Americans for Prosperity, which is more focused on energy regulation and government spending, and the LIBRE Initiative, which is working on immigration and education.

Holden declined to discuss the funding and resources dedicated to sentencing reform, except to say they were “significant.” He also said Freedom Partners, which oversees the donor network the Koch brothers created, sent a questionnaire to all the 2016 presidential candidates that included two prominent questions on criminal justice issues.

Holden sometimes talks to people about Angelos, who was featured in a video that the Kochs helped produce.

“They all shake their heads and say, ‘That was an unintended consequence and an outlier,’ ” Holden said. “I say, ‘Well maybe, but Angelos is more than that. He’s a human being. And it’s wrong. He’s just one of many, many stories like that. The bad news is that this happened. The good news is we can fix this.’ ”

Dad's prison sentence 'ruined us'

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Weldon Angelos was 25 when he was sentenced to 55 years in prison after selling marijuana to a police informant. His sons, now 16 and 18, look back on the childhood they missed without their father. But the boys and Weldon's sister remain hopeful for an early release, as billionaire Charles Koch campaigns for clemency for Weldon.

Angelos has never met Charles Koch or anyone from Koch Industries. While people in Washington and Wichita debate sentencing reform and Justice Department lawyers sift through clemency petitions, he and thousands of others are still waiting for relief.

But he is acutely aware of the interest of politicians and activists in his case. Recently, he was holding up a radio to the window to get better reception and listen to a talk show on criminal justice issues. He heard Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul invoke his name.

“I heard him say, ‘There’s this guy, Weldon Angelos, and he got 55 years’ and I was like, ‘Wow, he’s talking about me!’ ”

He is hopeful that the influence of the Koch brothers and others could secure his release through presidential clemency, and help other inmates.

“Their support is definitely going to make a difference,” Angelos said. “I think it has already. Their coming out on this and telling Obama to grant these commutations and pass these bills has brought some Republicans around. We need that conservative support.”

The son of a Greek immigrant, Angelos grew up poor and on food stamps. His escape was music. In his early 20s, Angelos founded a Utah-based rap label, Extravagant Records. Trying to break into the industry, he wrote and produced songs with several well-known artists, including Snoop Dogg.

Photo gallery: ‘I just want to move on’

As the issue of sentencing reform brings together President Obama and the Koch brothers, prisoners like Weldon Angelos are still waiting to be reunited with their families.

“It was really promising,” Angelos said. “But I just didn’t have the financial backing I needed.” In 2002, when he was 23, Angelos was arrested for selling marijuana to a Salt Lake City police informant.

“It ruined my career and my life,” he said.

Inside the cell he shares with another inmate, Angelos has a small library of books. He is taking classes to get a college degree. Every night he calls his children. He hasn’t had a visitor in three years.

Angelos hasn’t seen his two boys — Anthony, 18, and Jesse, 16 — in eight years because they can’t afford to travel to California. The boys and their mother recently moved in with Angelos’s sister near Salt Lake City after they were evicted. His 12-year-old daughter, Meranda, who has a different mother, lives nearby. He last saw her three years ago.

Anthony reflected on his father’s life in a video produced by Generation Opportunity Institute, a group backed by the Koch brothers, and Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the group that first told the Kochs about the Angelos case.

“I think it’s cruel,” he said. “I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve anything, but he did serve his time and I think he’s in there long enough. The minimum should have been five years maybe. Fifty-five years is way too much. Way too much.”

Angelos never used or pulled a gun, but the informant later testified in court that he saw one in Angelos’s car during the first buy. He said that during the second buy, Angelos was wearing an ankle holster holding a firearm. Officers later searched his home and found guns.

Read more

The sentence Angelos received as a nonviolent first-time offender fell under a law called 924(c).

Federal drug laws require 5- to 30-year mandatory minimum sentences for possessing, brandishing or discharging a gun during a drug-trafficking crime. For each subsequent gun conviction, there is a mandatory sentence of 25 years that must be served consecutively. This is often referred to as “gun stacking,” which is why Angelos received 55 years without parole.

He received five years for the gun in the car; 25 years for the second gun charge, having one in an ankle strap; and another 25 years for a third firearms charge, the gun police found in his home. He got one day for the marijuana.

At Angelos’s 2004 sentencing, Utah U.S. District Court Judge Paul G. Cassell, appointed by President George W. Bush, compared Weldon’s sentence (738 months) with the guideline sentences for the kingpin of three major drug trafficking rings that caused three deaths (465 months), a three-time aircraft hijacker (405 months), a second-degree murderer of three victims (235 months) and the rapist of three 10-year-olds (188 months).

“This is the most difficult case that I’ve faced since taking the bench 2 ½ years ago,” said Cassell, now a professor at the University of Utah’s law school.

“I believe that to sentence Mr. Angelos to prison for what would essentially be the rest of his natural life is unjust, cruel and even irrational.”

Matea Gold and Julie Tate contributed to this report.

An earlier version of the graphic conflated two statistics about money spent toward prisons and jails. This version has been corrected.

From left, Weldon Angelos's children Meranda, Jesse and Anthony walk along a trail near their new home in Utah. Every night he calls his children.

2.3 million

The nation’s prison and jail population today, more than quadrupled from 500,000 in 1980. The U.S. has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, but nearly a quarter of the world’s prison population.

1 in 100

Adults behind bars in America. As many as 100 million of all American adults now have a criminal history record.

60 percent

Of prisoners today are people of color. One in three black men face the likelihood of imprisonment, and black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men, while Hispanic men are 2.5 times as likely.

Source: Compiled by the Coalition for Public Safety, a bipartisan criminal justice reform organization.

Read more

This story is the fourth in a continuing series about the legacy of the war on drugs and efforts to reduce the nation’s prison population.
Click to read Part I: The painful price of aging in prison

Click to read Part II: Against his better judgment

Click to read Part III: From a first arrest to a life sentence