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Context of 'February 14, 2011: Watchdog Group Asks for Details of Supreme Court Justice’s Participation in Koch Brothers Retreat'

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The media reports that Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, a former Republican campaign operative and the former head of a tea party organization, has become the head of a lobbying and political consulting firm, Liberty Consulting. The firm boasts that Thomas’s “experience and connections” will assist clients with “governmental affairs efforts” and political donation strategies. Critics say Thomas is in the midst of an enormous conflict of interest, because her husband, Clarence Thomas, is a Supreme Court justice. She left the tea party group in November 2009 because of questions that her leadership of the group, Liberty Central, which actively worked to defeat Democrats, was not appropriate for the wife of a sitting Court justice. Thomas has met with almost half of the 99 Republican freshmen in the House and Senate, according to an email she sent out to congressional chiefs of staff last week in which she called herself “a self-appointed ambassador to the freshmen class and an ambassador to the tea party movement.” Ann Pearson of the government watchdog organization Common Cause says that Thomas’s position at a lobbying and consulting firm “show[s] a new level of arrogance of just not caring that the Court is being politicized and how that undermines the historic image of the Supreme Court as being above the political fray.… It raises additional questions about whether Justice Thomas can be unbiased and appear to be unbiased in cases dealing with the repeal of the health care reform law or corporate political spending when his wife is working to elect members of the tea party and also advocating for their policies.” Some Republican lawmakers are uncomfortable with Thomas’s new position, with one senior House Republican aide criticizing Thomas for attempting to “cash in” on her ties to the tea party movement. Republican House freshman David Schweikert (R-AZ), who won his election in part because of support from tea party groups and was endorsed by Liberty Central, says he has not met Thomas and knows nothing of her background. “This is the spouse of Justice Thomas?” he says when asked about the situation by a reporter. “No, I’ve never met her. It’s not something I’ve heard about. And I hang out with a lot of freshman.” So far, only one Republican freshman will publicly admit to scheduling a meeting with Thomas. Thomas used to be an aide to former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-TX), who until recently headed the tea party financing organization FreedomWorks (see August 14, 2009). She has also worked as a staffer at the US Chamber of Commerce, a trade organization that contributes heavily to Republican causes (see January 21-22, 2010), and at the conservative Heritage Foundation. In 2009 she founded Liberty Central, which she described as a group that would bridge the gap between the conservative Republican establishment and the anti-government tea party movement. She eventually stepped down after questions were raised about her position’s impact on her husband’s appearance of impartiality, and the group was merged into another tea party organization (see November 2009 - November 2010). She filed incorporation papers for Liberty Consulting within a day of news reports about her departure from Liberty Central. She has told conservative news source Daily Caller that she intends to continue working for the group that bought Liberty Central, the Patrick Henry Center for Individual Liberty, and will “help them in any way I can think of, whether it’s lobbying on the Hill or connecting with the grass roots, or helping speak or write or fundraise.” However, lobbying records show no registration for Thomas, Liberty Consulting, Liberty Central, or the Patrick Henry Center. Liberty Central general counsel Sarah Field refuses to answer questions about whether Thomas is being paid through Liberty Consulting as a consultant. A source familiar with the Thomases and with Capitol Hill Republicans says her sojourn from Liberty Central to Liberty Consulting has damaged her reputation among some conservatives. “Ginni’s reputation around town is now even more of a fake entitled woman who is only here because of her husband,” the source tells a reporter. “Now she has opened her own lobbying shop… not sure how [the] conservative circle will feel when they find that out, or if they’ll care or not.” [Politico, 2/4/2011]
Previous Conflicts of Interest - Virginia Thomas has weathered criticisms of conflict of interest before. In late 2000, as a Heritage Foundation staffer, she was helping select key members for the Bush administration even as her husband was engaged in deliberating the Bush v. Gore Court decision that installed George W. Bush as president (see 9:54 p.m. December 12, 2000). At the time she waved off criticisms, saying that she and her husband conducted “separate professional lives.” [Los Angeles Times, 3/14/2010]
'Cloud of Corruption' Surrounding Justice Thomas? - Legal analyst Ian Millhiser of the liberal news Web site Think Progress is far more blunt in his assessment than some more cautious critics, writing: “Now, Ginni Thomas appears to have found a way to earn money off her husband’s actions as a justice. Clarence Thomas released countless amounts of corporate spending on US elections [by voting with the majority in Citizens United], and Ginni Thomas can get rich advising those corporate clients on how to direct that spending. To be sure, it is possible that Ginni is somehow limiting her advice to ‘political investments’ that were legal before Clarence gave businesses like hers so many new potential customers. But if this is the case, Ginni has an obligation to explain just how she is limiting her advice—it’s the only way to remove the obvious cloud of corruption her actions have created around her husband.” [Think Progress, 2/4/2011]

Entity Tags: Heritage Foundation, David Schweikert, Clarence Thomas, Ann Pearson, Dick Armey, George W. Bush, Sarah E. Field, FreedomWorks, Patrick Henry Center for Individual Liberty, Virginia (“Ginni”) Thomas, Liberty Consulting, Ian Millhiser, Liberty Central, US Chamber of Commerce

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The government watchdog and campaign finance advocacy group Common Cause asks the Supreme Court to explain why Justice Clarence Thomas did not completely disclose the nature of his participation in a 2008 retreat hosted by Charles and David Koch, the influential oil billionaires and conservative advocates (see 1977-Present, 1979-1980, 1997, 1981-2010, 1984 and After, Late 2004, May 6, 2006, April 15, 2009, May 29, 2009, November 2009, December 6, 2009, April 2010 and After, July 3-4, 2010, June 26-28, 2010, August 28, 2010, August 30, 2010, September 24, 2010, January 5, 2011, and October 4, 2011). According to a Court spokesperson, Thomas made a “brief drop-by” at a four-day event in Palm Springs, California, held in January 2008, and gave a talk. But disclosure reports filed by Thomas show that he was reimbursed an undisclosed amount for four days of “transportation, meals, and accommodations” over the weekend of the retreat. The reimbursement came from the Federalist Society, an influential conservative legal group. Today Common Cause sends a letter to the Court asking for “further clarification” as to why the two statements are at odds. Common Cause official Arn Pearson says, “I don’t think the explanation they’ve given is credible.” If Thomas’s visit was a “four-day, all-expenses paid trip in sunny Palm Springs,” Thomas should have reported it as a gift under federal law. The Court, the Federalist Society, and Koch Industries all refuse to comment on the issue. Common Cause has said that because of Thomas’s past appearances at the Koch retreats, and the conservative political work done by his wife Virginia Thomas (see November 2009 - November 2010 and February 4, 2011), he should have recused himself from the 2010 Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010). Common Cause notes that both Thomas and Justice Antonin Scalia have appeared at Koch-hosted retreats. Both Thomas and Scalia voted as part of the 5-4 majority that decided the case. Political analysts say the Koch brothers have been some of the main beneficiaries of the decision. [New York Times, 2/14/2011]

Entity Tags: David Koch, Antonin Scalia, Arn Pearson, Charles Koch, Federalist Society, US Supreme Court, Virginia (“Ginni”) Thomas, Common Cause, Clarence Thomas

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Politico reporters Kenneth P. Vogel and Tarini Parti report on the difficulty of getting solid information about the donors being organized by the billionaire Koch brothers. Oil magnates Charles and David Koch (see 1977-Present, 1979-1980, 1981-2010, 1984 and After, Late 2004, May 6, 2006, April 15, 2009, May 29, 2009, December 6, 2009, November 2009, July 3-4, 2010, August 28, 2010, August 30, 2010, September 24, 2010, January 5, 2011, October 4, 2011, and February 14, 2011) intend to raise at least $400 million to defeat President Obama in the 2012 election (see Late May 2012), and to ensure victory for Republicans in state and local races around the nation (see February 21, 2012). Vogel and Parti call the Koch political operation “its own political party,” almost, even going so far as to hold its own semi-annual conventions, including one scheduled for late June in San Diego. That convention will bring together dozens of millionaire and billionaire conservatives, who will write big checks for the Koch efforts. Additionally, the Kochs will unveil their new voter database, Themis (see April 2010 and After), which they expect will help in targeting potential Republican voters around the country. Themis played a big part in a recent successful effort to stop Governor Scott Walker (R-WI) from being recalled, as did huge amounts of Koch-organized donations on behalf of Walker. Three of the prime figures in the Koch efforts are convention “emcee” Kevin Gentry and political operatives Marc Short and Tim Phillips (see May 29, 2009); the operation is orchestrated primarily by Koch advisor and operative Richard Fink. Additionally, the Koch brothers intend to take over the Cato Institute think tank (see February 29, 2012) and make it more politically active. Minnesota television station owner Stanley Hubbard, a longtime Koch supporter, says: “They ask for support—and they get it because we all love our country and we have a different vision than do the liberals. I’ve gotten friends to be involved, and I think others have, too, so I would guess, yes, that’s expanding.” Vogel and Parti expand on how secretive the Koch network (which they call “Koch World”) actually is. They are unable to find out where the San Diego convention is to be held, though they did determine that it is scheduled to take place over the weekend of June 23. A Republican who has worked with Koch-backed groups says: “The Koch groups are very complex in the way they do things. They’re difficult to penetrate from the outside, which is smart. You often need a Sherpa.” The conventions are heavily patrolled by hired security guards, who at one recent convention threw out a Politico reporter under threat of arrest. Participants are required not to discuss the convention with outsiders, including making posts on Facebook or Web blogs. (The winter 2011 convention in Rancho Mirage, California, leaked to the press, sparking what Politico calls “raucous protests” outside the exclusive resort hosting the conference.) According to Vogel and Parti, Phillips runs the lobbying organization Americans for Prosperity (AFP—see Late 2004 and November 2009). Short oversees the spending of Koch network monies by other approved groups, some of which air television ads attacking Democrats. Gentry raises money for the Koch network. Gentry often uses urgent and even apocalyptic rhetoric in his fundraising appeals, warning potential donors of “dangerous and imminent threats” to American society and comparing the Koch conventions to the Continental Congress of 1776. One recent email lauded efforts by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to help the Koch brothers’ fundraising. Gentry also spearheads the fundraising efforts for an informal network of conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, AFP, and the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Some conservatives are uncomfortable with the Koch brothers’ attempts to gain dominance in conservative party politics. “Koch has been angling for the last three or four years to consolidate more of the conservative movement within their network,” says one conservative operative. “That’s why they do these seminars—to try to consolidate more big donors’ money and direct it into their projects.” The operative admits that the Koch fundraising efforts are very effective, saying, “Some of the donors believe giving to one source makes it easier for them instead of having to give to a dozen different places, and others just want to come out to hang with the billionaire brothers and be part of a very elite universe.” Koch conventions regularly feature prominent conservatives like Thomas and fellow Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Texas Governor Rick Perry, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Virginia Governor Bob McConnell, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), and right-wing radio hosts Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. While federal documents track some $120 million in donations from recent Koch summit donors, most of the money raised and spent goes untracked, instead being hidden away by “nonprofit” groups that purport to be non-political social advocacy groups. Gentry has assured donors, “There is anonymity that we can protect.” [Politico, 6/15/2012]

Entity Tags: Cato Institute, Stanley Hubbard, Scott Kevin Walker, Tarini Parti, Texas Public Policy Foundation, Themis, Tim Phillips, Rush Limbaugh, Americans for Prosperity, Antonin Scalia, Bob McConnell, Richard Fink, Marc Short, Clarence Thomas, Christopher J. (“Chris”) Christie, Charles Koch, Politico, Eric Cantor, David Koch, Heritage Foundation, Barack Obama, Kenneth Vogel, James Richard (“Rick”) Perry, Kevin Gentry, Glenn Beck

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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