U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is under fire after a bombshell ProPublica report detailed the expensive vacations he’s been given, gifts of a Republican megadonor, for more than two decades, without disclosing certain portions of them – which legal experts say he is required by federal law to do.
At issue are important questions of ethics and law.
The vacations, revealed in ProPublica’s extensive and detailed report Thursday, from a legal standpoint appear to be worth hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars in total. From an ethical standpoint, some say, they have cost the institution of the Supreme Court further reputational damage.
Justice Thomas at times was accompanied on these lavish trips by his wife Ginni Thomas, the far-right activist and lobbyist who worked behind the scenes to try to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
Together or apart, one person who joined them on these all-expenses-paid trips to private resorts via private jets and private yachts was the gift-giver: billionaire Dallas real estate magnate and GOP mega donor Harlan Crow.
ProPublica revealed the details of one of Thomas’ almost yearly trips.
“In late June 2019, right after the U.S. Supreme Court released its final opinion of the term, Justice Clarence Thomas boarded a large private jet headed to Indonesia. He and his wife were going on vacation: nine days of island-hopping in a volcanic archipelago on a superyacht staffed by a coterie of attendants and a private chef,” ProPublica reports.
“If Thomas had chartered the plane and the 162-foot yacht himself, the total cost of the trip could have exceeded $500,000. Fortunately for him, that wasn’t necessary: He was on vacation with real estate magnate and Republican megadonor Harlan Crow, who owned the jet — and the yacht, too.”
Justice Thomas “has gone with Crow to the Bohemian Grove, the exclusive California all-male retreat, and to Crow’s sprawling ranch in East Texas. And Thomas typically spends about a week every summer at Crow’s private resort in the Adirondacks.”
Crow, who financially supports right wing causes, in 2011, according to Politico, contributed $500,000 to help Ginni Thomas start her consulting group, “Liberty Consulting, which boasts on its website using her ‘experience and connections’ to help clients with ‘governmental affairs efforts’ and political donation strategies.”
The ProPublica report includes an image of a painting that hangs at Crow’s private lakeside resort, Camp Topridge, in the Adirondacks that features shows Crow and Justice Thomas “smoking cigars at the resort. They are joined by lawyers Peter Rutledge, Leonard Leo and Mark Paoletta.”
Leonard Leo is a vice president of The Federalist Society and sits on its board. The Federalist Society was the right-wing clearing house for most of Donald Trump’s federal court appointees, including his three Supreme Court nominees, and Leo is seen as the man behind those picks.
Meanwhile, legal experts are responding to the bombshell report, confirming ProPublica’s assertion that Thomas’ “failure to report the flights appears to violate a law passed after Watergate that requires justices, judges, members of Congress and federal officials to disclose most gifts, two ethics law experts said. He also should have disclosed his trips on the yacht, these experts said.”
Slate senior writer Mark Joseph Stern, an attorney who writes about the courts and the law and wrote a book on the Roberts Supreme Court, calls Justice Thomas’ actions “corruption.”
Stern observes that “federal law DOES require justices to disclose most gifts of value.”
“It’s clear that Thomas brazenly violated this law many times. We should call this what it is: corruption,” he says.
“Just to be clear here,” Stern adds, “it was a flagrant violation of federal law for Thomas to accept this wildly expensive luxury vacation without reporting it as a gift—his conduct isn’t just unseemly, it’s illegal.”
The award-winning investigative reporter for The New Yorker, Jane Mayer, pointing to ProPublica’s report, says: “This is why public trust in the Supreme Court is cratering.”
Leah Litman, Assistant Professor of Law and The University of Michigan School of Law, says, “no one is doing a better job at making the case that the Supreme Court is broken than … the Court and its Justices.”
Top national security attorney Brad Moss offers this exercise: “Change the name of the Justice to Kagan or Sotomayor, and the name of the donor to Soros. Then think about how Fox would react.”
Imani Gandy, Editor-at-Large covering courts and the law for Rewire News Group, does not mince words.
“Clarence Thomas should be impeached,” she says. “He broke the law.”
Attorney and former Biden deputy cabinet secretary, Cristóbal Alex asks, “How do you impeach a Supreme Court Justice?
“Besides being married to someone who conspired to overthrow our government, Justice Thomas has accepted what appears to be millions of dollars in undisclosed gifts,” Alex notes.
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Chief Justice: Harder Deciding to Erect a Fence Around the Court Than Deciding to Rescind Right to Abortion (Video)
Chief Justice John Roberts says it was harder for him to decide to have a fence erected around the U.S. Supreme Court ahead of the ruling that would reverse the 49-year old Roe v. Wade decision than it was to decide that case, which stripped women of their constitutional right to abortion.
The embattled Chief Justice told the 100-year old American Law Institute, which honored him with a prestigious award at their annual meeting Tuesday night, that erecting the fence was actually the hardest decision he’s ever had to make in his nearly two decades as head of the nation’s highest court.
“I’m asked what was the hardest thing? What was the hardest decision I had to make in 18 years? Was it this First Amendment case? Was it that death penalty case? Was it some major separation of powers case? None of those. The hardest decision I had to make was whether to erect fences and barricades around the Supreme Court. I had no choice but to go ahead and do it,” Roberts declared.
As The Washington Post noted, those fences and barricades erected around the Supreme Court were “in preparation for protests of the court’s decision that overturned the constitutional right to abortion the court had established nearly 50 years earlier in Roe v. Wade. The fences remained for months.”
Unlike the fences and barricades, the decision not only still stands, it has led to total or partial abortion bans in at least 20 states, with more being debated in other states, and some Republicans pushing for a nationwide abortion ban.
Chief Justice Roberts is leading a Supreme Court under fire on several fronts, which has led to historically low approval ratings. In September, just months after the decision to allow states to ban abortion, Gallup found that just “47% trust the judicial branch,” and noted the “previous low was 53%.”
It also found that the Court’s 40% job approval “is tied for record low,” and 42% say the Supreme Court is too conservative, a record-high.
Wednesday morning, CNN reported “Americans’ approval of the Supreme Court has fallen since the start of the year, according to a new poll released Wednesday, with 41% of the country saying it approves of the nine justices amid a barrage of media reports and watchdog complaints concerning ethics and transparency at the nation’s highest court.”
Justice Roberts has refused to implement at his Supreme Court the same ethical standards every federal judge, except the nine justices, are required to observe. He has also refused to take significant action against several justices who appear to be in violation of certain ethics reporting requirements, not to mention the appearance, some say, of corruption.
And while he gave lip-service to ethical issues Tuesday evening in his 15-minute remarks, the concerns surrounding the court’s corruption remain, as these headlines show: “A Rare Inside Look at Our Corrupt Supreme Court.” “The US supreme court’s alleged ethics issues are worse than you probably realize.” “The Stench of Corruption Is Growing Stronger Around the Supreme Court.” “Why the Supreme Court Is Blind to Its Own Corruption.”
Watch a short clip of the Chief Justice’s remarks below or at this link.
“I am committed to making certain we as a court adhere to highest standards of conduct…I am confident there are ways to do that that are consistent with our status as independent branch of government under Constitution’s separation of powers”
– #SCOTUS Chief Roberts @AmLawInst pic.twitter.com/v6CEi54NL1
— Howard Mortman (@HowardMortman) May 24, 2023
Kevin McCarthy’s Long History of Protecting George Santos: Now He Won’t Move to Expel Until ‘Outcome’ of Trial (Video)
U.S. Rep. George Santos (R-NY) after six months of revelations of lies and possible fraudulent activity, surrendered to federal authorities Wednesday morning and is facing 13 criminal charges, from wire fraud to money laundering to lying to Congress and more.
How is it he was allowed to remain a member of Congress for so long, given that many of his lies and many of the allegations of possible fraud and other criminal activity were so well known to the nation, and certainly to the Republican Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, who know possibly earlier than most, possibly as early as the summer of 2021.
Even now, after felony charges have been filed, there will be no effort from the Republican majority House of Representatives, and especially from Speaker McCarthy, to remove Santos from Congress.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy at practically every turn has been protecting Congressman George Santos.
Faced with a minuscule majority, Kevin McCarthy was quick to protect Santos even before the New York Republican representative, now facing federal criminal charges, was sworn into Congress and the California Republican was sworn in as Speaker.
Santos, elected in November of 2022 to represent the people of New York’s 3rd district – the wealthiest in the state and fourth-wealthiest in the nation – was quickly exposed as having lied about nearly his entire background, from his education and work history, to his religion, and apparently even his net worth.
(So expansive is the library of Santos’ lies, New York magazine’s Matt Stieb and Margaret Hartmann have maintained an expansive list, updated Wednesday morning: “Here’s Every Single Lie Told by George Santos.”)
McCarthy, whose goal for years has been to become Speaker of the House, refused to turn against Santos once it became clear that the freshman GOP lawmaker had tremendous power: Republicans have just a five-seat majority, meaning Santos is one of just a few protecting the balance of power, which could move to a Democratic House majority, and a Democratic Speaker of the House, should Santos and just a few other members leave Congress.
In fact, some, like Washington University in St. Louis Professor Timothy McBride note Santos cast the deciding vote that made McCarthy Speaker – on the fifteenth ballot.
— Timothy McBride 🇺🇦🕊️ (@mcbridetd) January 20, 2023
Just days after being elected Speaker, McCarthy made clear he would take no action against Santos, as bombshell after bombshell about Santos’ serial lying exploded at McCarthy’s feet.
“It’s the voters who made that decision, and he has to answer to the voters,” McCarthy said in mid-January, refusing calls to expel him, and just “hours after Nassau County Republican Party Chairman Joseph Cairo Jr. said Santos ‘disgraced the House of Representatives,'” as Bloomberg reported.
That same day, January 11, McCarthy said Santos not only would not be expelled, he would be given committee assignments, because as Speaker he “tries to stick to the Constitution,” despite the Constitution not mentioning committee assignments.
McCarthy used the “Constitution” claim as if that were preventing him from expelling Santos, even though the majority of his constituents and the head of Santos’ local party were demanding his expulsion. (Unlike the Speaker of the House in Tennessee, who orchestrated the expulsion of two Black Democrats in violation of what some legal experts say actually were their First Amendment rights.)
NBC News senior Capitol Hill correspondent Garrett Haake at the time also reported that McCarthy “note[d] that Santos hasn’t been charged with a crime,” implying had he been he might move to expel him.
McCarthy’s protection of Santos continued throughout January.
Just one week after ensuring the scandal-laden New York Republican would get committee assignments, McCarthy appeared to casually brush off reports over the past week or more that a Santos campaign aide reportedly had impersonated McCarthy’s chief of staff in fundraising efforts over a period of several years.
“Wealthy donors received calls and emails from a man who said he was Dan Meyer, McCarthy’s chief of staff, during the 2020 and 2022 election cycles, according to people familiar with the matter. His name was actually Sam Miele, and he worked for Santos raising money for his campaign, according to one GOP donor who contributed to Santos’ campaign,” CNBC reported in January.
It’s unclear when and how McCarthy first learned of the possibly unlawful impersonation, and it’s also unknown if or when he reported it to law enforcement authorities.
“You know, I didn’t know about that, it happened. They corrected but I was not notified about that until a later date,” McCarthy claimed to reporters when asked. “I didn’t know about it until a later date though, unfortunately,” he said, repeating himself.
Also in January, before McCarthy claimed he had not known about the impersonation but after reports detailing the deception and that it had been known in McCarthy’s office as early as last August, conservative Bill Kristol observed: “McCarthy seems to have known in 2021 a Santos staffer was impersonating McCarthy’s chief of staff, and he did nothing to inform those who were duped or the public. Nor did he stop Santos from running in 2022. The Santos scandal is also a McCarthy scandal.”
By this point, just halfway into January, McCarthy had taken the posture of not only protecting Santos by refusing to take action against him, he had taken the posture of defending him as if he were Santos’ spokesperson.
On January 17, one day after repeatedly insisting he did not know about a Santos staffer impersonating his chief of staff, Speaker McCarthy became even more involved. Rather than directing reporters’ questions to Santos’ office, he offered remarks that appeared to provide protection to the embattled New York congressman.
CNN’s Manu Raju reported: “Asked if he had concerns before the election about Santos, McCarthy said: ‘My staff had concerns when he had a staff member impersonate my chief of staff and that individual was let go when Mr. Santos found out about it.’”
That not only appeared to possibly conflict with the timeline, but gave Santos direct cover.
Of course, McCarthy had little need to worry about Santos being fully investigated by the Ethics Committee, because after becoming Speaker, in the House Republican majority’s “first official vote, they approved a House rules package that effectively gutted the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), the independent body that helps ensure that members of the House don’t abuse their positions,” reported Just Security‘s Gabe Lezra. “It was a striking decision that sent a clear message: the new far-right majority will demand that the other branches of government live up to ethical standards and practices that they themselves have no intention of following.”
By early February it was known that Santos was facing numerous ongoing, pending, or possible investigations, including from the U.S. Dept. of Justice (DOJ), the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the Nassau District Attorney, the Queens District Attorney, the New York State Attorney General, and the House Ethics Committee.
And McCarthy protecting Santos continued into February, when, to the anger and shock of many, the Speaker insisted Rep. Santos – already apparently under multiple state and federal investigations, and even a criminal fraud investigation in Brazil – would be allowed to attend a classified briefing by the Pentagon on threats from China.
Government accountability and national security experts blasted McCarthy’s decision to once again protect Santos – who by that point had already stepped down from the committees McCarthy had allowed him on. One expert, retired U.S. Naval War College professor Tom Nichols, an academic specialist on international affairs including Russia, nuclear weapons, and national security, tweeted in response to McCarthy allowing Santos into a classified briefing: “This is insane.”
One day later, February 9, U.S. Rep. Robert Garcia (D-CA) said McCarthy‘s decision to allow Rep. Santos access to classified intelligence was the “final straw” that moved him and two other freshmen Democratic lawmakers to file a resolution to expel the New York Republican from Congress.
The resolution, HR 114, on Feb. 9 was referred to the House Ethics Committee – which McCarthy and his GOP caucus had gutted. It has sat there, no action taken for the past three months. Not action at all. No action despite, in addition to all the lies Santos has told, some of which he has even admitted, there is one allegation that should have brought an immediate investigation.
The week before the resolution to expel Santos was filed, the week before he was allowed to participate in a classified briefing by the Pentagon, a prospective staffer who says he worked without pay for several days in Santos’ Capitol Hill congressional office, accused him of sexual assault.
Derek Myers filed a formal complaint against Santos, alleging the Congressman invited him to a karaoke club on his second day of work, then “proceeded to take his hand and move it down my leg into my inner-thigh and proceeded to touch my groin.”
Santos denied the allegation, calling it “comical.” One article, last week, claims “George Santos appears to be cleared of charges of sexual harassment,” a claim Myers says is false. There have been no other reports.
On Tuesday, the popular liberal political action committee MeidasTouch posted a video comparing McCarthy’s comments in January about Santos to those earlier that day. They show how McCarthy has shifted positions, from suggesting once criminally charged a member of Congress should be expelled, to saying Santos should be allowed to have a trial before any action is taken.
Kevin McCarthy before and after the indictment of George Santos. What a complete and utter coward. pic.twitter.com/Sb6Nresf6D
— MeidasTouch (@MeidasTouch) May 10, 2023
And now, Wednesday morning, McCarthy dug his heels in even more.
Surrounded by aides, mobbed by reporters, McCarthy extends his protection of Santos even further. The Speaker’s position is now Santos is safe until he is found guilty in a federal trial. And possibly even after.
Santos, McCarthy declares, will “go through his time in trial and we’ll find out how the outcome is.”
McCarthy is now not even committing to expelling Santos if he is found guilty of the criminal charges he is facing.
Watch video from CBS News’ Cristina Corujo below or at this link.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy reacts to the 13 federal counts charges made to Rep. @Santos4Congress by saying that “he’ll go through his time in trial and we’ll find out how the outcome is.”
Santos was charged with wire fraud, money laundering, theft of public funds & false statements. pic.twitter.com/iW6IVqWPzH
— Cristina Corujo (@cristina_corujo) May 10, 2023
Clarence Thomas in 2001: Being a Supreme Court Justice Is ‘Not Worth Doing for What They Pay’
Ten years into his tenure as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas said the job wasn’t worth the money, while adding it was for the “principle.” Now, two decades later, his commentary offers insight into the jurist whose recently exposed actions have led many Americans including legal and ethics experts to label as “corruption.”
“The job is not worth doing for what they pay,” Justice Thomas told the the Bar Association in Savannah, Georgia in a 2001 speech, reported then by The New York Post, according to Insider. “The job is not worth doing for the grief. But it is worth doing for the principle.”
Insider credits The Nation’s Jeet Heer for resurfacing Justice Thomas’ remarks.
At the time, the nation’s taxpayers gave U.S. Supreme Court justices (technically, their title is associate justice) an annual salary of $178,300. Over the years they’ve received a substantial increase, to $285,400.
Justices also appear to have substantial time to travel, as allegations of corruption swirl around Justice Thomas for not disclosing at least hundreds of thousands of dollars of travel (which some experts say he was required to disclose) not to mention lavish luxury all-expenses-paid vacations including food, lodging, even clothing.
In 2010 ABC News spoke with several former Supreme Court clerks, including Supreme Court historian and University of Texas law professor Lucas “Scot” Powe, who said that in many ways “it’s the cushiest job in the world.”
“There’s also not that much required work, and they’ve made it less over time,” Powe said.
“The court’s nine-month term also means abundant free time during the summer,” ABC added, “when justices don’t hear oral arguments or meet to decide cases. Many choose to travel the world, giving legal seminars in hot spots like Venice, Italy, or Salzburg, Austria.”
ABC claimed that justices’ annual pay “hasn’t kept pace with inflation over the years and pales in comparison to what a lawyer of similar experience and stature might earn at a private firm. Partners at the top 42 U.S. firms earned more than million dollars each in 2008, according to the trade publication American Lawyer.”
In 2008, associate justices were paid $208,100.
ProPublica has recently reported Justice Thomas over the course of more than two decades was the beneficiary of annual vacations, which he did not disclose. One, the investigative news outlet said, was worth an estimated $500,000.
Billionaire Harlan Crow, a conservative activist who admitted his friendship with Thomas began by offering the justice a free flight on his airplane, hosted both Clarence and Ginni Thomas, the far-right wing activist who worked to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Crow also purchased Thomas’ mother’s house, ProPublica has reported. She continues to live in it, rent free.
This week ProPublica added to its portfolio of investigations into Thomas, revealing that Harlan Crow paid the private school tuition of Thomas’ legal ward, his grandnephew, who the Thomases have cared for since he was six years old. Those tuition payments, also never disclosed, could be worth up to $150,000, ProPublica reported.
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