In the Shadow of His Brothers' Tea Party Fame, Bill Koch Forges a Different Legacy

Two mansions, two miles apart, spark intrigue on the island of Palm Beach. The first, on the northern end of the oceanfront street nicknamed "Billionaire's Row," is 30,000 square feet of arched windows and red, Spanish-tile roof, a villa that includes a ballroom where flappers danced and sipped moonshine in the 1920s.

This is David Koch's vacation home. The billionaire oil baron, along with his brother Charles, has gained recent notoriety as the sugar daddy of the Tea Party. In 1979, David Koch ran for vice president on the Libertarian Party ticket, and he and Charles have since given more than $100 million to right-wing causes and organizations, according to a 2010 New Yorker profile that exposed their tremendous influence in politics. David lives in New York but spends winters here.

The second mansion is a short drive south on Billionaire's Row, a narrow strip of asphalt that buffers colossal wealth from the ocean. With an open driveway and a generous front lawn, this house bears little resemblance to its neighbor up the road. The original historic villa was leveled, replaced by this 42,000-square-foot mansion built in efficient Colonial style, with square windows, gray peaked roofs, and columns framing the front door. The pool is a long rectangle, and the backyard stretches all the way west to the Intracoastal Waterway. Inside, prized artwork graces the walls, and millions of dollars worth of wine cools in the cellar.

For two decades, the owner of this $25.9 million mansion didn't speak to the owner of the first. He is David Koch's fraternal twin brother, William "Bill" Koch. A feud over the family business kept the brothers warring in court for years. Bill, a rumpled and white-haired 71-year-old chemical engineer, was labeled in the media as the black sheep of the family. One of the Forbes 400 richest people in the world and the second-richest man in Florida, he has made headlines for his salacious romantic affairs and his penchant for suing his enemies and for burning cash on historic wine bottles and a $2 million photo of Billy the Kid.

He has also earned the wrath of environmentalists. A mine owned by his energy company, Oxbow Corp., was the site of two of the three coal mining deaths in Colorado in the past 11 years. Koch poured millions of dollars into fighting America's first offshore wind farm in Massachusetts and is now angling to take over 1,800 acres of federal land in Colorado for his private ranch.

But now that Charles and David are alternately reviled and admired for their Tea Party ties, "Wild Bill" Koch has been cast in a peculiar new role: the good brother. He donates tens of thousands of dollars to mainstream Republican candidates such as John McCain and Mitt Romney but doesn't publicize his opposition to President Barack Obama. Rather than funding Tea Party groups, he gives money to impoverished kids in Palm Beach County and to hospitals and schools in Colorado, where he has another home. In September, he will open a private high school, Oxbridge Academy, in West Palm Beach. "Bill Koch isn't Charles Koch, and he isn't David Koch," says his spokesman, Brad Goldstein. "He's not his brother's keeper."

Even as a child, Bill Koch (pronounced "coke") lived in his brothers' shadow. Of the four Koch boys — David, Bill, Charles, and the eldest, Frederick — Bill was the "family nerd," he told the New York Times Magazine, which profiled the family after its legal battle in 1986. Growing up in Wichita, Kansas, Bill wasn't as skilled at basketball as Charles and David. Although he's six-foot-four, he was smaller than they. They would play together but exclude him.

By the time Bill was 6, he was so resentful of Charles that his mom said they had to send the 11-year-old Charles to boarding school. "We had to get Charles away because of the terrible jealousy that was consuming Billy," Mary Koch told the Times. "Billy had always been too emotional."

Emotion was not prized in the Koch family. The boys' father, Fred C. Koch, was a hard-nosed "monarch," a family friend told Fortune magazine. Not wanting his sons to become pampered rich kids, he put them to work on the family cattle ranches in the summers. He was a self-made man. His dad — Bill's grandfather — ran a small-town newspaper in Texas. When Fred wanted to study chemical engineering, a local businessman helped pay his tuition to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Goldstein says — a gift that would later inspire Bill's own school philanthropy.

In the 1920s, Fred Koch launched an engineering company in Wichita and invented a refining process that increased the amount of gasoline produced from crude oil. When competing oil companies sued him for patent infringement, he moved to the Soviet Union to build oil refineries under Stalin. Watching colleagues killed in the dictator's purges, Koch was horrified. By the time he returned to Kansas to grow his business and start a family, he was staunchly anti-Communist. Fred Koch became a founding member of the hard-right John Birch Society and imbued all of his sons with a strong distaste for government.

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Lisa Rab
Contact: Lisa Rab