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Oil Billionaires Funding WVU Economics Department, Morgantown Think Tank

September 9, 2010

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - According to "New Yorker" magazine, oil and gas billionaires Charles and David Koch have spent millions funding right-wing political causes around the country, including the Tea Party movement. The brothers are also helping fund a conservative Morgantown think tank and several positions at the West Virginia University economics department.

Russell Sobel is a professor there and is the editor of the book "Unleashing Capitalism." He says the department would lose two faculty and two graduate positions without the Kochs, but denies any promotion of the brother's companies or political agenda.

"You could look at their academic research, and it looks the same as everybody else's. There's no ideological slant to it or anything specific to do with the Koch Foundation. I doubt the Kochs have even ever seen their research."

One of those professors, Donald Lancombe, describes himself as a "free-market economist in a limited way." His research argues that the minimum wage increases unemployment and that limits on unions could boost manufacturing jobs.

WVU Institute of Technology social sciences chair John David says academics can be important in the state's battleground of ideas. He points to the way the state legislature looks to WVU and Marshall to do studies on public policy issues.

"I think they rely on those studies to pass legislation. But I think that there has been a skewed array of folks doing these studies, and to that extent it can impact the legislative outcomes."

Sobel specifically denies that any work at the WVU Department of Economics directly benefits the Koch brother's companies. But he says they do work to improve the business climate for all companies.

"Some of our research would create economic growth, which could benefit everybody. I mean, a more profitable business climate in the entire U.S. would benefit not only Koch's, but all other businesses."

Sobel's work is prominent in the state's conservative circles. He says he helped start the Public Policy Foundation of West Virginia. Calls to that think tank were not returned.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV