Group Continues Inquiry Into Justice Thomas' Reported "Drop-By" At Political Meeting
WASHINGTON -- Common Cause raised a new ethical question about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, asking the Court for a thorough accounting of a January 2008 trip in which the justice spent four days in California for what the court has said was a single speech and a "drop-by" at a gathering of business executives and veteran political operatives.
A court spokesperson's description last month of the trip is "problematic" compared with financial disclosure reports filed by Thomas, the government watchdog group asserted.
"Justice Thomas has acknowledged spending four days in a popular resort area, with his tab covered by Federalist Society. It's difficult to square such a prolonged stay with what the court now describes as one speech to the Federalists and a 'drop-by' at a nearby Koch Industries event," said Bob Edgar, Common Cause's president and CEO.
Common Cause asked the Department of Justice last month to review the participation of Justices Thomas and Antonin Scalia in the landmark campaign finance case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, in light of reports that both jurists attended political strategy and fundraising "seminars" hosted by Koch, the nation's second-largest privately held corporation.
The justices' association with the Koch events may be grounds for a new hearing in Citizens United, with Thomas and Scalia recused from participation, Common Cause suggested.
The court's January 2010 decision in Citizens United freed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money to advocate the election or defeat of political candidates. Koch Industries was a major beneficiary of the decision; the firm, its affiliates and individuals associated with both spent more than $1.8 million on the 2010 mid-term congressional elections. Koch is believed to have invested millions more through non-profit political organizations that sprung up after the decision and do not report their donors.
In a letter sent Monday to William Suter, clerk of the Supreme Court, Edgar and Arn Pearson, Common Cause's vice president for programs, noted that Koch Industries has been holding closed door, semi-annual political strategy and fundraising sessions in Palm Springs for the past eight years. The meetings typically occur during the last weekend in January, the same time period covered by Justice Thomas' 2008 trip.
While Koch Industries has described Scalia and Thomas as "featured" guests at the meetings, court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg told the Los Angeles Times last month that neither justice has taken part in the sessions. The justices traveled to California in 2007 and '08, respectively, to speak to a Federalist Society dinner hosted by Charles Koch, Koch Industries' top executive, and Thomas was a "drop-by" at a Koch meeting after his speech, Arberg said.
But Common Cause's new letter said a review of the Federalist Society's extensive online archives of its meetings "produces no record of any Federalist Society event in Palm Springs on those dates. When Common Cause called the Federalist Society to inquire further, staff members could not recall any corresponding event," the letter asserted.
"If Justice Thomas played a larger role than the court has acknowledged in the Koch Industries political 'seminar,' it underscores our concern about his participation in the Citizens United case," Edgar said. "If he delivered just one speech in return for a four-day, cross-country trip, the bulk of his expenses should have been reported as a gift."
Common Cause is a nonpartisan, grassroots organization dedicated to restoring the core values of American democracy, reinventing an open, honest and accountable government that serves the public interest, and empowering ordinary people to make their voices heard in the political process.