Payments made to Justice Thomas’ wife raise more ethical questions about Supreme Court

For the fourth time in a month, a report raises questions about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his rich friends. This time it’s money going to Ginni Thomas, the justice's wife. According to the Washington Post, Leonard Leo directed pollster Kellyanne Conway to give Ginni Thomas “another $25k” and bill it to a nonprofit that Leo advised. John Yang discussed the report with Emma Brown.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    For the fourth time in a month, a news report is raising ethics questions about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his financial dealings with rich friends.

    John Yang has the story.

  • John Yang:

    Geoff, this time, it's about money going to Thomas' wife, Ginni Thomas, at the direction of Leonard Leo, whose work has been devoted to getting more conservative federal judges.

    According to The Washington Post, in 2012, Leo told Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway that he wanted to give Ginni Thomas another $25,000, the money should be billed to a nonprofit group that Leo advised, and that there was to be "no mention of Ginni," of course.

    Washington Post investigative reporter Emma Brown was on the team that uncovered this.

    Emma, first of all, why would Leonard Leo, who's perhaps best known as the head of the Federalist Society, the conservative legal network, why would he be in touch with Kellyanne Conway about sending money to Ginni Thomas?

  • Emma Brown, The Washington Post:

    Well, that is a great question.

    And the documents that we reviewed that we based our reporting upon don't fully answer that question. I mean, what we can see is that he is arranging these payments. He is seeking to keep Ginni Thomas' name off the billing paperwork. But we don't know — we don't know why he's doing this.

  • John Yang:

    Ginni Thomas, of course, is a conservative activist, but she's also a consultant, had a consulting firm, didn't she?

  • Emma Brown:

    So, she — yes, she has a long career in politics. And, in 2009, she established this — a nonprofit, actually, to try to sort of harness the energy of this gathering Tea Party movement.

    She ended up stepping away from that, amid sort of conflict of interest questions, because there was a large anonymous donation to that group, and she founded a for-profit consulting firm, Liberty Consulting.

    And that is the firm that has paid her for many years, according to Thomas' — Clarence Thomas' disclosure forms. But that's all we really know. He doesn't need to disclose how much money she makes through her consulting firm, nor who her clients are.

  • John Yang:

    You talked to ethics experts about this. What did they have to say?

  • Emma Brown:

    So, the Judicial Education Project, which was the source of the money paid to Ginni Thomas, according to this arrangement, as laid out by Leonard Leo, filed its first amicus brief before the Supreme Court in 2012. So that's the same year as these payments.

    And, in that brief, it was — it was in Shelby v. Holder, which, of course, is the landmark voting rights case in which the court struck down a provision that was meant to protect minority voters. Thomas agreed with that outcome, but he said: I would have gone further and struck down a broader provision, which is the same position taken by JEP, Judicial Education Project.

    And this was not a new position for Clarence Thomas. It's not as if our reporting shows that he was swayed in some way by this organization that was apparently — had — had been asked to pay his wife. But the standard for recusal is not showing that someone was swayed. It's showing that there's a reasonable basis to question the impartiality of the justice.

    And so we spoke to ethics experts who said — who were divided on the question of whether this was a close enough connection with the payments to his wife that it should have required his recusal.

  • John Yang:

    We reached out to the Thomases for comment. We never heard back. We did get a comment from Leonard Leo.

    "The work she did here did not involve anything connected with either the court's business or with other legal issues. Knowing how disrespectful, malicious and gossipy people can be, I have always tried to protect the privacy of Justice Thomas and Ginni."

    That was explaining why he wanted Ginni's name kept off.

    Emma, when you take everything we have learned about Clarence Thomas in the past month, the luxury vacations with Harlan Crow, Crow buying Thomas' mother's house from the — from the justice and his family, paying the private school tuition of his of — his great-nephew — or grandnephew, rather, and now this payment to his wife, what's the significance of all of this? Why should people be concerned about this?

  • Emma Brown:

    I think we're in a moment of just great scrutiny on the court and on potential conflicts of interest.

    And the reason that matters is because, if people don't have confidence that the justices are acting on the basis of law, rather than under some other influence, then the court can't function, and we — our nation sort of depends on people trusting the court in order for a republic to function in the way — the way it's supposed to.

  • John Yang:

    Emma Brown of The Washington Post, thank you very much.

  • Emma Brown:

    Thank you.

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