WASHINGTON - Nonpartisan government watchdog group, Common Cause, moved on two new fronts today to address ethics questions surrounding the U.S. Supreme Court:
In a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the U.S. Marshals Service, the group formally asked for copies of government records relating to travel by Justice Clarence Thomas.
The request is aimed at determining whether Justice Thomas traveled on a plane owned by developer and political activist Harlan Crow on seven occasions over the past four years, and if so, whether those trips were properly disclosed.
The New York Times has raised questions about three of the trips, while a Common Cause review of flight records found four additional trips made by Crow's jet that followed a similar pattern of travel from Dallas to Washington and on to Savannah, Ga., Thomas' hometown.
Federal law requires all federal officials to disclose who pays for their travel.
Also,in a letter to the president of the American Bar Association, Common Cause urged the nation's largest group of lawyers to join in efforts to persuade the Court to publicly embrace the code of conduct that all other federal judges must follow and to enforce tough ethical standards on its members.
"Americans are concerned, and rightfully so, over mounting evidence that our highest court is operating outside the ethical standards that apply to other federal judges," said Common Cause President Bob Edgar. "We are seeking records from the Marshals Service, which typically provides security for justices traveling outside Washington, to clarify whether Justice Thomas has violated federal ethics laws. We hope to engage the legal community in a larger effort to bring ethical accountability to the full court."
The New York Times last month raised questions about ties between Crow and Thomas and his wife, Ginni. Crow has given Thomas an historic Bible, valued at $19,000, and according to a report published in Politico donated $500,000 to establish a political organization, Liberty Central, that initially was run by Ginni Thomas.
Crow also reportedly spent $174,000 to add a wing named for Justice Thomas to a library in Savannah and put down $1.5 million to purchase an abandoned cannery where Thomas' mother once worked in Pin Point, Ga. In addition, the Times reported that Crow is financing redevelopment of the cannery building into a museum.
The Times also raised questions about whether Thomas has travelled on Crow's corporate jet and yacht without reporting it on financial disclosure forms.
Federal flight records indicate that a Crow-owned jet flew in April 2008 from Dallas to Washington DC and after a brief stop went on to Savannah, where Crow's yacht was docked.
During that same week, an item appeared in a South Carolina publication noting Thomas' arrival aboard Crow's yacht in Charleston, SC, a few hours north of Savannah. Thomas reported no gifts or travel reimbursements in that time period.
The Times noted two other instances in which Justice Thomas's travels corresponded to flights of a Crow-owned plane. Justice Thomas was in Savannah in early 2010 for the dedication of a building in his honor.
On the day of that event, Crow's plane flew from Washington to Savannah and returned to Washington the next day. Justice Thomas reported in his financial disclosure that his travel had been paid for by the Savannah College of Art and Design, which owned the building.
In a 2009 financial disclosure, Justice Thomas reported that Southern Methodist University in Dallas had paid for him to travel to its campus for a speech on Sept. 30. Flight records show that Crow's plane flew from Washington to Dallas that day.
In reviewing flight records, Common Cause discovered four additional trips in which a Crow-owned plane traveled from Dallas to Washington and after a brief stop went on to Savannah.
In three of those trips, the plane then reversed its route to return to Dallas, again stopping briefly at Dulles International Airport in the Washington suburbs. On one trip, the plane returned straight to Dallas.
Federal law requires that Thomas, like all federal officials, disclose who pays for his travel; intentional misreporting is a violation of both the Ethics in Government Act (5 USC 104) and 28 USC 1001.
"We don't know if Justice Thomas was travelling on Mr. Crow's plane, because neither Justice Thomas nor Mr. Crow will confirm or deny the trips. That's why we're requesting the travel records," Edgar said. "But given the relationship between Justice Thomas and Mr. Crow, it's not a stretch that he would be. And if that is the case, he was required by law to disclose it at the time, and should amend his disclosures now, just as he did with his wife's income."
Following publication of the Times' story on June 18, Common Cause wrote letters to both Thomas and Chief Justice John Roberts. The letters asked if Thomas traveled on Crow's jet and yacht, and if so, who paid for it, and whether the Supreme Court follows ethical standards that apply to every other federal judge. Neither Thomas nor Roberts responded.
"Americans are entitled to answers to these questions, which have cast a cloud over the highest court in the land," Edgar said. "The Marshals Service records we're seeking with this Freedom of Information Act request can put to rest questions about Justice Thomas' adherence to federal ethics laws."
Edgar noted that Justice Thomas has acknowledged failing to properly disclose his wife's sources of income over a 21-year span, a violation of the Ethics in Government Act.
"Now, there's evidence that the justice also may have failed to report, or misreported, travel paid for by a wealthy friend," Edgar said. "This is a serious matter. The Ethics in Government Act provides both civil and criminal penalties for willfully falsifying or failing to report required information on annual financial disclosures. The reports are the only way lawyers, litigants and the public can check to be sure that the justices and lower court judges are not taking part in cases in which they may have a conflict of interest."