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Koch affiliation with proposed law college program at Nebraska worries some UNL professors

A program proposed for the University of Nebraska College of Law would receive backing from the Charles Koch Foundation, which some faculty members consider troubling.

The program, approved this week by University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Ronnie Green, is called the Governance and Technology Center. It would study how emerging technology affects the law, how that technology is regulated and what challenges it creates for society and the law.

The NU Board of Regents and the State Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education still must approve the center.

The Koch Foundation has encountered criticism through the years for trying to influence hiring, curriculum, research or other elements of the programs it has funded.

A small national organization has sprouted called UnKoch My Campus.

The Koch Foundation is connected to the billionaire Koch brothers, Charles and the late David. They have been known for supporting free enterprise, hands-off capitalism and generally libertarian and conservative causes. Their donations — many millions of dollars — have gone to K-12 education, higher education, politics, foreign policy and other areas over the years.

Richard Moberly, dean of the law college, said he has received guarantees that the foundation would not exert influence over the program.

Moberly said the days of the Koch Foundation attaching strings to its academic donations are in the past. The foundation, he said, has gained a “healthy respect” for the norms of higher education.

“The university will not enter an agreement with anyone without assurances that there won’t be outside influence,” Moberly said. The UNL Colleges of Engineering and Business are expected to collaborate on work at the center. Documents describe the gift as $5.5 million from three donors over five years.

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The associate professor in the law college who is expected to oversee the program, Justin “Gus” Hurwitz, agreed that the foundation will not interfere.


hat is 100% my understanding, absolutely,” Hurwitz said. “It’s an awesome program. ... I’m optimistic that this will be reputationally very beneficial to the university.”

Some UNL professors are less convinced.

“Anytime you hear the name Koch, you get a little bit leery,” said John Bender, a professor in the UNL College of Journalism and Mass Communications.

The proposal has passed the UNL Academic Planning Committee, a group of faculty members and administrators. Bender is on that committee.

English faculty member Julia Schleck said it’s her understanding that other members of that committee expressed concern, too. Schleck, a leader of the state’s and UNL’s chapters of the American Association of University Professors, said the Kochs are “well-known within academia.”

At a forum this week at UNL, she asked the NU system’s lead presidential candidate, Walter “Ted” Carter, about his view of private donations influencing researchfindings.

Carter, the former head of the U.S. Naval Academy, said research has to be aimed at seeking truth. He said attempts to influence research outcomes with private money are unacceptable. At the Naval Academy, he said, if someone tried to do that, “We said, ‘No, thank you. Keep your money.’ ”

Schleck said the AAUP got its start early last century because of private donors’ influence on academic programs. The AAUP advocates for academic freedom and tenure, which protects professors from being fired for their speech or research findings.

The Koch Foundation has supported programs at dozens of American colleges through the years, including Creighton University’s Institute for Economic Inquiry.

Hurwitz said the Koch Foundation has also supported programs at Ohio State, Duke, Stanford, Arizona State and many other institutions. He called himself a “classical liberal,” which he defined as valuing individual liberties, among other things.

Kevin Hanrahan, head of the UNL Faculty Senate, said he raised some questions about academic freedom and the Koch gift with the Academic Planning Committee. The committee evidently was satisfied because it recently approved the plan.

“I’m at ease with it if they’re at ease with it,” Hanrahan said.

Based on his review of the foundation, Hanrahan said, “there have been some issues three or four years ago” with the Koch Foundation and academic freedom, but not recently.

A reporter’s phone calls to the Charles Koch Foundation were neither answered nor returned.

Samantha Parsons, campaign director for UnKoch My Campus, said she believes that problems with the foundation continue.

“Koch has not stopped putting problematic terms in their gift agreements,” she said. “They’re just not as explicit” as they were in the past.

Students at George Mason University sued their school for records associated with the Koch contract, Parsons said. The students lost in a lower court and have appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court, she said.

“We have universities reaching out to us once a week with concerns,” she said. “So I do not buy that they’ve turned over a new leaf.”

At Utah State two years ago, she said, a board of Koch-affiliated officials controlled the hiring of the center’s executive.

Check out nearly 100 stunning photos of Nebraska

Ringleader testifies about origins of illegal labor scheme in O'Neill

LINCOLN — The ringleader of a service that had once provided undocumented workers for companies in the O'Neill area testified Thursday that one of the firms, a tomato greenhouse, first suggested that he set up such a company.

Juan Pablo Sanchez-Delgado said that two secretaries from the greenhouse first approached him around 2013 at the Mexican restaurant he owned in O'Neill and complained about their difficulty in finding workers to pick and sort tomatoes in the humid greenhouse.

They told him, he said, that they needed someone in the "middle" between their company and the federal government to provide workers, which he understood to mean illegal immigrants.

At a subsequent meeting, Sanchez-Delgado said, "they explained how much I was going to be paid and how much I was going to make."

The business flourished for several years in a labor-short region of rural Nebraska, providing up to 60 workers for the greenhouse and dozens of others to hog confinements and other businesses until a raid in August 2018 by the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. 

Wiretapped phone calls, played in court Thursday, revealed that in the weeks before the raid, Sanchez-Delgado and a secretary at the greenhouse were growing more anxious about the day when "there's not going to be any Mexicans" to fill the jobs.

"One day, ICE will pick us all up," Sanchez-Delgado said. 

His testimony highlighted the fourth day of the federal trial of three people, all customers or friends of Sanchez-Delgado. They are charged with participating in the conspiracy to harbor illegal workers, or launder money for the multimillion businesses headed by the man known as "Pablo" in O'Neill.

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He, along with members of his family, were among 130 people detained in the ICE raid in O'Neill. Only three contested their arrests: Atkinson businessman John Good; John Glidden, the manager of hog confinement operations in Ainsworth and Long Pine; and Mayra Jimenez, a secretary at the greenhouse.

Sanchez-Delgado, a Mexican national who had lived in O'Neill for 15 years, has pleaded guilty and faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. He agreed, as part of a plea deal, to testify for prosecutors. His testimony Thursday is key to prosecutors' allegations that the trio knew he was providing illegal workers and they were active assistants in the scheme.

Among testimony Thursday:

» A state liquor regulator said that Good had registered in 2007 as the sole owner and manager of the Mexican restaurant run by Sanchez-Delgado and his wife in O'Neill even though, according to Sanchez-Delgado, Good never worked an hour in the La Herradura or took any pay.

Sanchez-Delgado testified that he knew he and his wife couldn't obtain a liquor license because they were in the country illegally. Testifying somberly in Spanish through an interpreter, he described Good as a "great friend" who had not only obtained the liquor license for them, but had sold them vehicles and kept his name on the deed of their home in O'Neill.

» Glidden, according to Sanchez-Delgado, had to realize that he was getting illegal workers for his hog barns after one of the employees said he'd just obtained paperwork to become a legal U.S. citizen. 

"Did (Glidden) ever ask you to verify the (immigration) status of your workers?" federal prosecutor Lesely Woods asked. "No," responded Sanchez-Delgado. 

Jurors were shown a transcript of a wire-tapped conversation between Sanchez-Delgado and one of his provided employees in which the worker is encouraged to "put in more hours," and on weekends. Others, Sanchez-Delgado said, are working 130-140 hours per week.

Sanchez-Delgado later said that while his workers toiled more hours than the legal employees of the hog barns, the overtime was voluntary. 

» In one wire-tapped phone call, Jimenez, the tomato greenhouse secretary, expressed heightened anxiety that an ICE raid was imminent, and that the greenhouse will have to close. In another call, Good suggested that Sanchez-Delgado just shut down his restaurant for a while and post an "on vacation" sign if he suspected a raid was coming.

But testimony came to a halt shortly after Sanchez-Delgado testified that the idea of creating a company to provide illegal workers had been suggested by Jimenez, who was interpreting for another secretary then working at the greenhouse named "Marilou."

That prompted one of the defense attorneys, Dave Domina, to ask for a mistrial.

Domina said that "Marilou" — whose last name was not revealed in court and who was not indicted after the ICE raid — had not been revealed to defense attorneys as a possible co-conspirator, and thus defense lawyers were prevented from questioning her prior to the trial and preparing for her role.

Woods, the lead federal prosecutor, disputed that Marilou was a surprise, saying that she had been mentioned in pre-trial statements provided by Sanchez-Delgado. Marilou, she added, could be a co-conspirator without being indicted.

After more argument, U.S. District Judge John Gerrard ruled that the mistrial motion was "premature" and that the trial should continue.

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