Common Cause Files Against Justice Thomas's Wife's Group

Common Cause reminds the nation that the 2011 Clarence Thomas scandals remain unresolved despite the renewed focus this week on the court during its three-day special hearing on the health insurance mandate.

Common Cause filed a complaint with the IRS against Liberty Central, a group founded by Virginia "Ginni" Thomas, wife of the associate justice and a tea party activist. The reform group alleges that Liberty Central appears to have violated federal tax laws by advocating for the defeat of political candidates, including those supporting the Affordable Care Act signed by President Obama. Its legality is now pending before the Supreme Court and widely regarded as in jeopardy from Thomas as part of an all-Republican court majority.

Thomas Swearing InJustice Byron White and the Thomases are shown at left in 1991 at a White House swearing-in ceremony staged by the Bush administration to quell criticism of Thomas after his controversial confirmation.

The media reported that Thomas had a lifetime appointment at that point, which in effect silenced critics. Chief Justice William Rehnquist administered the oath in secret the following week. Clarence and Virginia Thomas are now embroiled in a new controversy on top of revelations last year that the justice gave false sworn statements over many years that hid some $1.6 million in payments and gifts. Much of it was to his wife from wealthy backers who appreciated her advocacy as the founder and chief executive of Liberty Central, which is a 501(c)(4) “social welfare” group that the IRS permits to work in politics so long as that politics is not the primary focus. Bob Edgar

Common Cause noted that its complaint comes amid a wide-ranging IRS review of the tax status of politically active non-profit groups. The tax agency has sent questionnaires to dozens of Tea Party groups, Common Cause noted, as well as Priorities USA Action, a committee run by former aides to President Obama, and Republican-aligned committees such as Crossroads GPS, founded by Karl Rove and his allies.

“As the Internal Revenue Service examines how some of these ‘social welfare’ groups continue to enjoy tax exemptions while getting directly involved in electoral politics, it should take a close look at Liberty Central,” said Common Cause President and CEO Bob Edgar, right.

In a March 21 letter to IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman, Common Cause requested an investigation of Liberty Central’s tax status. If the agency finds that the group’s primary activity was influencing the 2010 elections, the letter urged that Liberty Central lose its tax-exemption, be reclassified as a political organization, and face taxes and penalties.

The dispute arises as the court's Republican majority seems poised to strike down the health insurance mandate that is a centerpiece of the Obama administration's landmark health care/insurance law. Headlines March 28 from the three major Capitol Hill tabloids on the Supreme Court's hearing on the mandate were: "Individual Mandate Looks Vulnerable" (Politico), "Mandate Teeters In Court" (The Hill) and "GOP Likes What It Is Hearing In Court" (Roll Call).

The Hill quoted New Yorker legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin as saying the critical second day of a special three-day court hearing appeared to be a "train wreck" for the Obama Administration as four conservative justice, including a presumed swing vote of Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, suggested via questions their opposition to the mandate, which the law's defenders say is essential to the goal of expanded coverage.

Thomas, as usual, asked no questions during the three days. But analysts generally expect him to oppose the law in keeping with his practices and because his wife's group has been opposed to political candidates who support the law.

Clarence Thomas

Furthermore, a request last fall by 52 House Democrats for a House Judiciary Committee impeachment investigation of Thomas focused heavily on the $1.6 million that Thomas failed to report in his sworn annual judicial disclosure filings. Much of the money went to his wife, who has long been active as a conservative activist. She has resigned from Liberty Central after initially filing legal papers saying she expected to make $495,000 in salary from it following a start-up donation of $500,000 from real estate tycoon Harlan Crow, a longtime opponent of federal authority.

Thomas resubmitted his sworn statements with disclosures of the money, and has suggested to his supporters that the controversy is politically motivated. House Republicans have not acted on the impeachment investigation request, and conservatives have sought to create an equivalent controversy by demanding that Associate Justice Elena Kagan recuse herself from voting on the health case because she was Solicitor General before her appointment to the court.

Neither she nor Thomas has recused, and Chief Justice John Roberts, a Republican, claims that all justices are so far above any ethics conflict that no rules should be applied to them aside from their own discretion.

In highlighting the issues, Common Cause says:

Ginni Thomas founded Liberty Central in November 2009 and filed a request for 501 (c)(4) status in January 2010. Within a few weeks, notes the letter by Common Cause counsel Elizabeth Kingsley, the organization had turned its attention to the 2010 elections and “the major focus of the group’s President, Ms. Thomas, appears to have been coordinating with Tea Party organizations and traveling around the country to districts where Liberty Central had ‘target races.’”

Meanwhile, Liberty Central’s website published A-F grades for Tea Party and incumbent candidates across the country and urged site visitors to get involved in those races, donate to Liberty Central’s favored candidates, and “ensure that certain elected officials get an early retirement.”

A major focus of Ms. Thomas’ and Liberty Central’s efforts appears to have been the defeat of Members of Congress who voted for the Affordable Care Act....At a September 2010 fundraiser for the First Coast Tea Party in Jacksonville, Fl., Ginni Thomas described that group as a satellite office of Liberty Central and base for Liberty Central staff, and called for the election of several Florida candidates. The First Coast Tea Party is one of many groups currently under investigation by the IRS; others being probed include Tea Party organizations in Virginia and Texas where Thomas addressed Tea Party rallies.

Common Cause says that "Ms. Thomas left Liberty Central after the November 2010 elections, and the group no longer appears to be active." But its letter asserts that there is “substantial evidence of large-scale political activities, certainly sufficient to prompt an inquiry from the (IRS), which is the only reliable way to establish whether Liberty Central was actually operated primarily for political purposes, as appears from external observation to be the case.”

 

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Related News Coverage

Common Cause, Common Cause Files IRS Complaint Against Liberty Central, Group campaigned aggressively against Members of Congress who voted for the Affordable Care Act. Press Release Contact: Mary Boyle, March 21, 2012. Extensive political activity in the 2010 elections by a nonprofit group founded and formerly run by lobbyist and Tea Party activist Virginia “Ginni” Thomas appears to have violated federal tax laws, Common Cause said.

Washington Post, Health-care case brings fight over which Supreme Court justices should decide it, Robert Barnes, Nov. 27, 2011. Just a little more than an hour after some House Democrats recently demanded an inquiry into Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s ethics, Senate Republicans stepped up the pressure on Justice Elena Kagan to take herself out of the court’s decision on the health-care reform act. The process repeated itself a few days later. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) called for the release of more documents about Kagan’s role as President Obama’s solicitor general; the liberal group People for the American Way came out with another broadside against Thomas.

Washington Post, How ethical are these Supreme Court justices? Online Q&A With Ethics Expert John Steele, Nov. 28, 2011.

Justice Integrity Project, 52 House Dems Seek Thomas Impeachment Probe, Andrew Kreig, Nov. 21, 2011. The movement to investigate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas Slaughter for impeachable offenses continues to gather momentum even as he thumbed his nose at critics in recent days by fund-raising for ultra-right critics and presiding over a celebration of his own heritage orchestrated by one of his billionaire financial supporters.

Savannah Now / Savannah Morning News, A monumental day at Pin Point, Chuck Mobley, Nov. 20, 2011. With a powerful and poignant mixture of preaching and preservation, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and the community of Pin Point celebrated the unveiling of a historical marker and the dedication of a heritage museum Saturday. I am a son of Pin Point,” said Thomas, who was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1991.

Washington Post, Clarence Thomas attends hometown museum dedication; source of funding for institution prompts questions, Robert Barnes, Nov. 20, 2011. On a crisp morning, Thomas helped dedicate a Georgia historical marker noting the importance of Pin Point, where his birth and elevation to the Supreme Court was not the first accomplishment but simply the most recent. And then, with the rest of the crowd, he walked the 7/10s of a mile to the other end of a community too small to be called a town.
 
There, a whitewashed new Pin Point Heritage Museum has taken the place of the seafood cannery where his mother once worked while her baby rested in a crab basket. Its aim is to tell the rich story of the freed Sea Islands slaves who founded Pin Point, and to preserve what some historians say is the last piece of Georgia coastline still owned mostly by African Americans.  “Let us just savor this miracle,” Thomas said when it was his turn at the pulpit of his mother’s packed Sweetfield of Eden Baptist Church. “Pin Point has a chance to survive.”  Pin Point is the world into which Thomas was born, but the museum is owed to the world in which Thomas now lives. His friend Harlan Crow, a wealthy Dallas developer who also donates to conservative political causes, has spent millions of dollars on the project. Comment section.
 
Common Cause, Hours after considering challenges to health care reform, Supreme Court justices are honored at fundraiser sponsored by law firms representing reform opponents, Mary Boyle, Nov. 14, 2011. Hours after considering whether to hear challenges to national health care reform, Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia were honored Thursday at a fundraiser sponsored in part by law firms engaged in the litigation.
 
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Protect our Elections.org: Clarence and Virginia Thomas: Bought By Billionaires, Oct. 25, 2011. Virginia, Harlan, Clarence and David have been having a good laugh at our expense. How much longer will we let this go on? America’s citizens have had it with people in power who violate the law. That includes Clarence Thomas who has used his position as a Supreme Court Justice to flout the law and enrich himself, his wife and their cronies through corrupt backroom deals with billionaires Harlan Crow, and Charles and David Koch.
 
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Clarence ThomasNew Yorker / Annals of Law, Partners: Will Clarence and Virginia Thomas succeed in killing Obama’s health-care plan? Jeffrey Toobin, Aug. 29, 2011. As the Justice has assumed an influential role on the Roberts Court, his wife has helped lead the public war against the Administration. It has been, in certain respects, a difficult year for Clarence Thomas. These tempests obscure a larger truth about Thomas: that this year has also been, for him, a moment of triumph.

In several of the most important areas of constitutional law, Thomas has emerged as an intellectual leader of the Supreme Court. Since the arrival of Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., in 2005, and Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., in 2006, the Court has moved to the right when it comes to the free-speech rights of corporations, the rights of gun owners, and, potentially, the powers of the federal government; in each of these areas, the majority has followed where Thomas has been leading for a decade or more. Rarely has a Supreme Court Justice enjoyed such broad or significant vindication.

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New York Times, Thomas' ties to a Texas real-estate baron named Harlan, Mike McIntire, June 27, 2011. The two men met in the mid-1990s, a few years after Justice Thomas joined the court. Since then, Mr. Crow has done many favors for the justice and his wife, Virginia, helping finance a Savannah library project dedicated to Justice Thomas, presenting him with a Bible that belonged to Frederick Douglass and reportedly providing $500,000 for Ms. Thomas to start a Tea Party-related group. They have also spent time together at gatherings of prominent Republicans and businesspeople at Mr. Crow’s Adirondacks estate and his camp in East Texas.

In several instances, news reports of Mr. Crow’s largess provoked controversy and questions, adding fuel to a rising debate about Supreme Court ethics. But Mr. Crow’s financing of the museum, his largest such act of generosity, previously unreported, raises the sharpest questions yet — both about Justice Thomas’s extrajudicial activities and about the extent to which the justices should remain exempt from the code of conduct for federal judges.

 

Other Justice and Integrity News Catching Our Attention

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