Free stuff and the public trust
Clarence Thomas should have known better than accept gifts and compromise his reputation
Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas sits with his wife and conservative activist Virginia Thomas while he waits to speak at the Heritage Foundation on Oct. 21, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Drew Angerer | Getty Images)
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ documented gift-receiving behavior made me recall a personal 1974 Montana event.
In November that year, I was working in the governor’s office when I was approached by a lobbyist for the Anaconda Company, a nice guy I liked. He asked me what my favorite liquor was, as the “company” would provide me with a bottle for Christmas, no matter how expensive. He explained that the company always had given the governor’s staff and many, many others this annual token of appreciation.
I asked him to let me think about it. I then went to a good friend of mine, also on the governor’s staff, and we chatted about whether it was appropriate to accept the gifts.
We both concluded that acceptance was inappropriate. So, very courteously, we alerted the lobbyist that we couldn’t accept the gift.
Apparently that hadn’t happened before. The lobbyist went to his boss to report it. It was passed up the line to the lawyers who headed the company’s lobbying department. A week later the lobbyist returned and announced that the company would no longer provide the liquor bottle to anyone in the governor’s office as they had determined it was inappropriate, if not illegal. To say that some of the staff were unhappy with the two of us would be an understatement.
But we felt we had done the right thing.
We had talked about the so-called Billings Gazette Rule: “If you wouldn’t feel comfortable having your mother read about it on the front page of The Billings Gazette – don’t do it!”
Somehow, The Washington Post version of that rule seems to have escaped Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
Thomas is in the news a lot lately, and not about his very conservative opinions on important Supreme Court cases.
Beyond his confirmation hearings 32 years ago that involved charges of sexual harassment by Anita Hill, Thomas is best known on the court for saying nothing and not even asking questions. He went one 10-year period without saying a single word in any of the court proceedings.
But recent investigative revelations from ProPublica show that while Clarence Thomas might keep his mouth shut, he seems to have his hand perpetually open, palm up. His palm is greased most regularly by billionaire GOP donor Harlan Crow and the “grease” was almost always not reported, not disclosed.
Thomas and his spouse were on the receiving end of lavish vacations for 20 years on Crow’s super-yacht, his private jet and his private resort, the total cost which could have exceeded $500,000. Crow purchased a house partially owned by Thomas and occupied by his mother; Crow then refurbished the house and Thomas’s mother lives there rent free, all this unreported. Crow also paid the private school tuition for Thomas’ grandnephew who Thomas was “raising as a son,” the value of which could have exceeded $150,000, again, not disclosed.
Thomas says he didn’t have to disclose because the gifts came from a close personal friend, even though Crow did not befriend Thomas until he was a Supreme Court Justice, not before. Harkening back to my 1974 story, I think the rule ought to be that if you want free stuff, you probably shouldn’t be a public servant. But as most of us know, if you’re not a public servant you probably won’t be offered or given free stuff.
And while federal gift rules are more lax than I think they should be, at least a Supreme Court Justice who is paid $268,000 a year by taxpayers ought to understand the rules of disclosure.
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