Transparent GMU lawsuit update

Students and community members rallied on campus and outside Fairfax County courthouse in support

By Sarah Bassil, Staff Writer

Students from Transparent GMU and members of the Mason community gathered outside Merten Hall on Tuesday, April 24, with one clear message to the Charles Koch Foundation: respect the law.  

And then began the march to the Fairfax County Circuit Court. More than two dozen students marched nearly a mile from Mason’s campus to the courthouse, carrying signs such as “UnKoch my GMU Campus!” and “End Koch dark money on college campuses!”

In early January 2017, Transparent GMU filed a lawsuit against George Mason University and the GMU Foundation, claiming the foundation had “denied their rights under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act to access donor agreements between the Charles Koch Foundation and the University and/or GMU Foundation.”

The Virginia Freedom of Information Act “ensures the people of the Commonwealth ready access to public records in the custody of a public body or its officers and employees, and free entry to meetings of public bodies wherein the business of the people is being conducted.”

The act is a part of the Code of Virginia, located § 2.2-3700 et. seq.

“All we ask is that the foundation comply with the law,” said Transparent GMU member Miles Reinhart. “Even if the judge doesn’t rule in our favor, the [GMU] Foundation has the ability to makes these documents public simply because students asked them to. Compliance with the law is the bare minimum and the foundation has the ability to exceed that minimum any time they so wish.”

Reinhart then explained the relationship between Mason and the Charles Koch Foundation, saying that Mason receives more money through the Koch Foundation than any other institute of higher learning in the United States.  

Public tax records indicate that Charles Koch has donated approximately $95.5 million to Mason since 2005 through his charity organization, the Charles Koch Foundation. In 2016 alone, Koch and a second anonymous donor signed grant agreements to give $20 million to Mason over a five-year period to fund the Antonin Scalia Law School.

“Public universities form an essential part of our society and any undue donor influence is extremely dangerous,” explained Gus Thompson, another member of Transparent GMU. “Public institutions must be held accountable to public scrutiny and these donor records should simply be public record. Any student or member of the public has the right to know who is funding their school and what the terms of the agreement could be.”

Members of the Fairfax community are concerned as well, specifically about what the Koch Foundation is doing to cover up the reality of climate change.  

“As an environmentalist, I am deeply concerned that the Koch money is being spent in our universities, with the most coming to GMU,” said Climate Reality Project leader Paula Clements, who expressed her fears at the march. “The Koch brothers are long time [climate change] deniers and have spent a considerable amount of money to cover-up scientific facts and to deceive the public.”

Clements referred to think tanks such as the Heartland Institute, which was founded by the Koch Foundation in 1984 and has since participated in research arguing against the cancerous effects of tobacco and denying the existence and effects of climate change.

“Through these academic institutions and others, Charles Koch enables Koch-funded scholars, professors and graduates to design and promote his ‘free-market’ strategies and produce flawed reports, such as those explaining the ‘negative impacts’ of clean energy policies,” said Scott Peterson, executive director of the Checks and Balances Project, an investigative watchdog group. “But Koch Industries is increasingly exposed to the disruptive the growth of clean energy, and the Koch Brothers know it. That is why they have been boosting funding to stop climate solutions technology – while the planet continues to heat alarmingly.”

The lawsuit proceedings began early Tuesday morning, with Judge John Tran, who is the first Asian-American ever to serve as a judge in the Commonwealth of Virginia, presiding over the case.

“We hope that the judge sees the strength of our argument and ultimately rules in our favor,” said Reinhart, when asked about Transparent GMU’s plan for the case. “Depending on how Judge Tran rules, we will have to tailor our legal strategy and next steps.”

On Friday, April 27, Mason President Ángel Cabrera sent an email in response to the Transparent GMU hearing.

In the email, Cabrera stated that he had just been “made aware of a number of gift agreements that were accepted by the university between 2003 and 2011 and raise questions concerning donor influence in academic matters,” and that these agreements “fall short of the standards of academic independence [he expects] any gift to meet.”

Cabrera, who became president of Mason in 2012, went on to say that he has “made it a priority to have all gift agreements clearly uphold our commitment to academic independence.”

As for now, Transparent GMU is waiting for Judge Tran to issue a final ruling.

Photos by Allie Thompson