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Scholars at the Cato Institute are waging an aggressive and methodical campaign to persuade Washington, D.C.'s conservative leaders to support them in their feud with Charles Koch, the billionaire conservative who helped found the institution.
On Wednesday, Michael Cannon, director of health policy studies at Cato, appeared before a gathering of influential conservatives to make a plea for the libertarian think tank.
He described Koch's attempt to seize control of the nonprofit as an "existential threat" to the institution and distributed a memo directing Cato's "friends" to a website headlined "Save Cato," according to sources who attended the weekly private meeting hosted by anti-tax lobbyist Grover Norquist.
"This misguided attempt at corporate control of an independent, nonpartisan think tank is bad for the Cato Institute and bad for the libertarian movement," read the memo, posted later on Cato's blog. "We hope that everyone will come to see that, soon, before any more damage is done."
Cannon stopped short of threatening mutiny, but other senior employees have said they would abandon the highly respected think tank if Charles Koch and his brother, David, do not drop their lawsuit seeking to dramatically increase their control over the organization.
Cannon declined to discuss the Norquist meeting, but he did sound an alarm in an interview with Roll Call.
"Cato's credibility would leave, and credibility is everything to a scholar," Cannon said. "It will feed the left-wing narrative — what we call Koch derangement syndrome — that the Kochs control the entire conservative movement."
Jerry Taylor, a senior fellow who has worked at Cato for 21 years, told Roll Call he would quit if the Kochs get their way.
"The Cato Institute will have a lot more crickets in it than there used to be," Taylor said in an interview Thursday. "Most of us have agreed that it is worth standing on principle because the stakes are too great."
Earlier in the week, Julian Sanchez, another researcher, posted a pre-emptive resignation letter on his website.
The outrage inside the building has become increasingly public in the last few days as staffers at all levels flood the blogosphere in support of Cato's independence.
Libertarians by definition recoil at the notion of oversight from a single powerful source. But crossing the Koch brothers, two of the nation's biggest conservative political donors, is risky, especially for young employees who want to find jobs elsewhere in conservative politics.
"After all this, if the Koch apparatus seizes control, their careers are over," Taylor said, referring to the employees who spoke out against the Koch move.