Senate Democrats are poised to target Justice Clarence Thomas in a public hearing Tuesday as they consider a bill to impose ethic reforms on the Supreme Court.
Democrats heavily criticized Thomas after news reports that the justice neglected to report “luxury” travel paid for by businessman and Republican donor Harlan Crow. Reporting the trips as gifts was not required under the high court’s ethics rules at the time, though it would be now.
All 11 Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee signed on to an April 10 letter to Chief Justice John Roberts calling for an internal investigation of Thomas.
“Now the court faces a crisis of public confidence in its ethical standards that must be addressed,” the Democrat senators’ letter to Roberts says. “In the coming days, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing regarding the need to restore confidence in the Supreme Court’s ethical standards. And if the court does not resolve this issue on its own, the committee will consider legislation to resolve it.”
However, some of the Democrats leading the charge against Thomas have faced ethical problems of their own. Here’s a look at those Senate Democrats, and others.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., is the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which will conduct the hearing Tuesday.
In 2014, Durbin’s office announced that the Illinois Democrat had secured federal funding for 10 clients of the lobbying firm where his wife Loretta works. The link caught the attention of the largest newspaper in Durbin’s state, the Chicago Tribune.
Durbin’s Senate office said Dick and Loretta Durbin take great pains to keep their interests separate. It also said executive branch agencies had made the grants, but the Obama administration allowed his office to announce them as a courtesy to a state’s senior U.S. senator.
“I did nothing in terms of securing the money,” Durbin said, according to the Tribune.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., has been the most outspoken Senate critic of Thomas in recent years.
Whitehouse, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called for the Judicial Conference to refer the Thomas-Crow matter to the Justice Department for investigation of possible violations of the Ethics in Government Act. The Judicial Conference is the policy-making body of the federal courts.
Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., joined Whitehouse in a letter asking the Judicial Conference to seek a Justice Department investigation.
Whitehouse also called for Roberts, the chief justice, to launch an ethics probe into Thomas.
In February, Whitehouse reintroduced legislation called the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act, which would create a process for investigating justices and strengthen recusal standards and disclosure rules.
“First, Justice Thomas told us that he didn’t disclose free vacations on a superyacht and private jet because it was personal hospitality from a friend and that’s just what friends do,” Whitehouse said in a public statement about Thomas’ relationship with Crow.
“Well, friends don’t also buy your properties and deck them out for your family members to continue living in,” the Rhode Island Democrat said. And if all of this was on the up and up, why didn’t Justice Thomas disclose it to the American people as the law clearly requires?”
Whitehouse himself has come under scrutiny in recent years for his membership in the white-only Bailey’s Beach, a club and beach in Newport, Rhode Island. The Washington-based Capital Research Center first reported on Whitehouse’s club membership in 2019, and it gained more coverage in local media in 2021.
Members of the organization Black Lives Matter Rhode Island called for Whitehouse to cut ties with the club.
“It doesn’t matter, you know, what type of black people he brings in,” Mark Fisher, a founding member of BLM Rhode Island, told ABC 6 in Providence. “This club is a proven racist club with exclusive ties to supremacy and exclusion, and that’s something that’s not going to be tolerated by me, by my associates, my affiliates, or my organization.”
One of Whitehouse’s predecessors, the late Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I., declined an invitation to join the Bailey’s Beach club because of its white-only policy.
When Whitehouse first ran for the Senate in 2006 against Chafee’s son, Republican incumbent Sen. Lincoln Chafee, he said he would quit Bailey’s Beach club.
However, state media determined that Whitehouse was still a member in 2021.
“I think it would be nice if they [Bailey’s Beach club] changed a little bit, but it’s not my position,” Whitehouse told a reporter in 2021.
Asked if he would push for the club to change, Whitehouse replied: “I will take that up privately.”
The Daily Signal first reported that Whitehouse pressured the Internal Revenue Service and the Justice Department to go after the tax-exempt status of conservative-leaning organizations that didn’t require people to wear face masks and socially distance in 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The targeting primarily was aimed at the organization Turning Point USA, which trains young conservatives in leadership principles. Whitehouse’s correspondence, discovered by the watchdog group American Accountability Foundation, showed that then-IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig resisted Whitehouse’s demands.
In 2019, Whitehouse filed a friend of the court brief in a Second Amendment case before the Supreme Court that seemed to threaten court packing if justices did not rule the way he preferred.
“Perhaps the court can heal itself before the public demands it be ‘restructured in order to reduce the influence of politics,’” Whitehouse wrote. “Particularly on the urgent issue of gun control, a nation desperately needs it to heal.”
The barely veiled threat prompted conservative watchdog Judicial Watch to file an ethics complaint with the Rhode Island Supreme Court. The complaint noted that Whitehouse wasn’t licensed to practice law in Washington, D.C., and maintained an “inactive” status with the Rhode Island Bar Association.
So, if Whitehouse composed the brief in Rhode Island or in his Washington offices, the Rhode Island Democrat may have broken rules barring unauthorized legal work, Judicial Watch suggested.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., another member of the Judiciary Committee, criticized Thomas during an April 16 interview on ABC News’ “This Week.”
“Another year he reported when he was given tires,” Klobuchar said of Thomas on the show. “But he doesn’t report this? And he didn’t report the lavish vacation on yachts?”
There should be “ethics rules in the Supreme Court that are clear and enforceable,” she said.
Klobuchar previously was a Minnesota state prosecutor, holding the elected office of Hennepin County attorney.
Peter Schweizer’s 2020 book “Profiles in Corruption” notes that employees of Petters Group Worldwide constituted Klobuchar’s largest donors when she was a prosecutor. The company, owned by well-connected businessman Tom Petters, employed many of Minnesota’s political elite.
Klobuchar prosecuted Petters associates in a fraud case in 1999, but not Petters himself, Schweizer notes in the book. One of those associates and investors later alleged that Klobuchar was aware of Petters’ involvement in the fraud scheme, but opted not to prosecute him.
The Daily Caller reported in 2012 that Petters presided over companies with employees who contributed $8,500 to Klobuchar’s campaign for county prosecutor and contributed a total of $120,000 for her first campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2006.
In 2009, Petters was convicted of money laundering, fraud, and other charges in federal court in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and sent to prison in a separate matter from the state case.
After state Rep. Kurt Bills, Klobuchar’s Republican challenger in 2012, ran an attack ad about Petters and Klobuchar, the Klobuchar campaign denied the allegations.
In an official statement at the time, Klobuchar’s campaign said:
Representative Bills’s ad is absolutely untrue and the people of Minnesota deserve better than last-minute and desperate attacks based on inaccurate allegations from a convicted felon. He is flat-out wrong on the facts—Senator Klobuchar did not ask her county attorney staff or law enforcement to refrain from prosecuting or investigating Tom Petters. Like many other Minnesota elected officials, she returned the campaign contributions and was praised for her cooperation by the court-appointed trustee.
The day that ProPublica’s report about Thomas came out, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., joined other Democrats in calling for legislation to impose ethics rules on Supreme Court justices.
“Today’s report about Justice Thomas’ failure to disclose extravagant travel and gifts raises serious questions about potential conflicts,” Booker said in a written statement April 6. “It underscores why we must implement a binding, enforceable code of conduct for the Supreme Court.”
Booker served as mayor of Newark, New Jersey, from July 2006 through October 2013. During his administration, an audit by the New Jersey state comptroller’s office found multiple corruption issues in a publicly funded water treatment and reservoir management agency.
The audit concluded that the agency’s director was a donor to Booker’s mayoral campaign and made $1.98 million over seven years, when her government salary should have totaled $1.16 million, according to The Daily Beast. The director also allegedly issued millions of dollars in no-bid contracts to her friends and her husband.
Booker wasn’t implicated in the audit, but Elnardo Webster, his former partner at the law firm of Trenk, DiPasquale, Webster, was counsel to the water treatment agency.
Although Booker resigned from the law firm after becoming mayor of Newark, it reportedly continued paying him from 2007 through 2011 for a total of almost $700,000, the New York Post reported.
In 2014, a Senate campaign spokesperson for Booker told The Daily Beast: “He was paid out by the firm as part of his separation agreement for work he performed before he became
While Booker was mayor, the law firm also did work for Newark’s Housing Authority and the Watershed Conservation Development Corp., getting paid about $2 million.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., expressed outrage about Thomas’ undisclosed gifts from Crow and demanded that the justice resign.
“Justice Thomas should resign—to uphold the [Supreme] Court and American justice,” Blumenthal said in a public statement April 21. “The unavoidable, sickening appearance of impropriety stains trust and credibility in our whole judiciary.”
It’s a trust issue—Clarence Thomas has betrayed it, judges need it, accountability must restore it. Trust is the judiciary’s prime calling card. If Thomas were on a lower court, an investigation would already be underway—to uphold trust.
Blumenthal has faced criticism for misleading statements about serving in combat during the Vietnam War, when he in fact never went to Vietnam during the war nor saw combat there. He was in the Marine Corps Reserve at the time.
Blumenthal received at least five draft deferments, according to a New York Times article in 2010, when he was first running for Senate. The Times cataloged numerous statements from Blumenthal over seven years, including false claims about returning from war and serving in Vietnam. The Times also noted that the Connecticut press corps reported over a course of 10 years that Blumenthal was a Vietnam veteran.
The Times article said:
The deferments allowed Mr. Blumenthal to complete his studies at Harvard; pursue a graduate fellowship in England; serve as a special assistant to The Washington Post’s publisher, Katharine Graham; and ultimately take a job in the Nixon White House. …
But what is striking about Mr. Blumenthal’s record is the contrast between the many steps he took that allowed him to avoid Vietnam, and the misleading way he often speaks about that period of his life now, especially when he is speaking at veterans’ ceremonies or other patriotic events. …
And the idea that he served in Vietnam has become such an accepted part of his public biography that when a national outlet, Slate magazine, produced a profile of Mr. Blumenthal in 2000, it said he had “enlisted in the Marines rather than duck the Vietnam draft.”
After being caught in his lies by the Times, Blumenthal apologized for misrepresenting his military service. He said he should have clarified that he served in the Marine Reserve “during” Vietnam rather than saying “in” Vietnam.
In what The Wall Street Journal called “The other Blumenthal scandal,” as Connecticut attorney general he filed a $1.7 million lawsuit in 2003 against a company called Computers Plus, alleging that it failed to install the proper “network interface cards” in computers under a state contract. The company’s owner, Gina Kolb, countersued the state, alleging that it violated her constitutional rights, abused its power, and ruined her business.
In 2010, “a jury agreed that Mr. Blumenthal made false claims about Mrs. Kolb and her business, awarding her $18 million,” the Journal reported. However, in 2013, the Connecticut Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s ruling and dismissed the defamation claim.
The Judiciary Committee’s hearing Tuesday would focus on Thomas, Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., said on Twitter.
“BREAKING: @JudiciaryDems will hold hearings to investigate reports that Justice Clarence Thomas took millions of dollars in gifts from a wealthy Republican donor,” Padilla tweeted. “Justices are responsible for upholding the law—and they must be held to rigorous and enforceable ethical standards.
While serving as California’s secretary of state, Padilla oversaw a questionable, $35 million deal with SKDK (formerly SKDKnickerbocker) to run a statewide public relations campaign, Vote Safe California, informing voters about the logistics of the 2020 election.
SKDK, which had a longstanding relationship with the Democratic Party, was a client of Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign.
Further, about $12 million of the total $35 million came from federal funds, according to Republican members of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee. Using federal funds for a get-out-the-vote operation or to help one political party over another would violate federal law, the lawmakers say.
At the time of the California contract, SKDK leadership included CEO Josh Isay, who ran Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer’s first Senate campaign in New York in 1998, as well as former Obama White House officials Anita Dunn and Hilary Rosen. (Dunn went to work for the Biden White House in 2021.)
Paula Valle, an SKDK spokeswoman, told The Sacramento Bee in August 2020 that company personnel working on the Vote Safe California project were nonpartisan and didn’t have ties to specific politicians.
The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, a conservative group in California, sued Padilla in his capacity as secretary of state for more information.
It wasn’t just Republicans who raised questions.
Then-California State Controller Betty Yee, a Democrat responsible for approving state government payments, said Padilla’s office planned to take the $35 million from funds intended to support the county government’s voter outreach efforts.
Padilla argued that SKDK’s publicity campaign was done “on behalf of counties.”
Despite the controversy, California Gov. Gavin Newsom—after appointing Padilla to fill the vacant U.S. Senate seat of newly elected Vice President Kamala Harris—overrode Yee and decided in late February 2021 to make the full payment to SKDK.
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