Federal judge says Clarence Thomas ethics complaints mishandled more than a decade ago
“In conversations, letters and reports, the committee repeatedly framed its inquiry using the wrong standard,” Wolf said. "If you address the wrong question, you’re likely to get the wrong answer.”
WASHINGTON — The federal courts’ policymaking body in 2011 mishandled ethics complaints surrounding financial disclosures by Justice Clarence Thomas, a sitting federal judge testified Wednesday.
While those complaints are more than a decade old, how the Judicial Conference of the United States approached them has fresh relevance, with Senate Democrats pushing the same body to consider recent revelations about Thomas’ close ties with Dallas real estate billionaire Harlan Crow.
“The Judicial Conference actions then are the prequel to what is in front of it now,” said Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., as he convened Wednesday’s subcommittee hearing on the topic.
A ProPublica investigation revealed Thomas accepted luxury trips from Crow without disclosing them . Crow also bought property in Georgia from the justice , which he did not publicly disclose. ProPublica reported the transactions.
ProPublica also has reported Crow paid private school tuition for Thomas’ grandnephew.
Democrats have cited the stories as the latest evidence that the Supreme Court should adopt its own formal code of ethics like the one binding lower federal courts. Republicans, including Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, have denounced the focus on Thomas and Crow as a smear job .
U.S. District Judge Mark Wolf was the lone witness to testify Wednesday. President Ronald Reagan put him on the federal bench in Massachusetts in 1985 and he served as a member of the Judicial Conference from 2010 to 2012.
In 2011, the conference received various complaints about Thomas from lawmakers and watchdog groups, focused on his failure to disclose money his wife Virginia “Ginni” Thomas received in her role as a conservative activist, including payments from the Heritage Foundation.
Thomas quickly amended the disclosures to reflect his wife’s employment, but Wolf said the conference still had an obligation to consider whether the failure to disclose had been a willful violation.
Instead, Wolf said, the complaints were essentially swallowed up by the conference’s financial disclosure committee and his efforts to have them debated by the full conference were shut down.
The conference is charged under the law with determining whether there’s “reasonable cause” to refer complaints to the Justice Department for further investigation, he said.
“In conversations, letters and reports, the committee repeatedly framed its inquiry using the wrong standard,” Wolf said. “As I frequently tell my law clerks, if you address the wrong question, you’re likely to get the wrong answer.”
Whitehouse has called on the Judicial Conference to refer Thomas to the Justice Department for “apparent brazen disregard for disclosure laws.”
In response to a letter from Whitehouse , Roslynn Mauskopf, the conference’s secretary, laid out conference procedures generally and offered a rationale for the 2011 complaints against Thomas being dismissed .
“The then-chair of the Committee, the Honorable Bobby R. Baldock, reviewed the January 2011 allegations and the amended reports and concluded that the reports were properly amended and that no further action was warranted,” Mauskopf wrote.
Crow has defended his friendship with Thomas and described them as victims of a “political hit job.”
Republicans on the subcommittee blasted the hearing and Wolf’s testimony as part of an ongoing partisan “witch hunt” and “smear job” against Thomas designed to undermine public confidence in the court and its conservative majority.
Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana, the top Republican on the subcommittee, called the hearing the “latest chapter in the fairy tale of Supreme Court corruption” spawned by court rulings anathema to Democrats.
He noted senators from both parties have routinely amended their own financial disclosure reports and said the Judicial Conference repeatedly cleared Thomas of wrongdoing.
“And that’s the perpetual political carousel that brings us here today,” Kennedy said. “It makes me want to gag.”
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., chairman of the full Senate Judiciary Committee, pushed back by saying he’s been focused on the Supreme Court ethics since long before the current conservative majority.
“This is not a witch hunt. This is not a smear. This is not a harassment,” Durbin said. “This is to try to rescue the reputation of the court from some very sordid facts that have been disclosed and proven.”
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