10/22/10

Follow the Money

AP photograph  (no photographer listed) accompanied Politico's October 19 story, "Ginni Thomas seeks Anita Hill apology."


Ginni Thomas married to Justice Clarence Thomas 23 years ago. According to a February 18 interview A long-time conservative advocate associated with endeavors including the Chamber of Commerce and the Heritage Foundation, Ms. Thomas founded Liberty Central in November 2009 to roll back Obama’s left-leaning ways.

She crossed our collective radar screen this week, when Charlie Savage reported she viewed herself as holding out an "olive branch" on October 9 when she left a voice mail for Anita Hill demanding an apology, an explanation and perhaps prayer. And on the very morning she called Hill, the New York Times page A1 featured Jackie Calmes reporting "Activism of Thomas’s Wife Could Raise Judicial Issues"

Deep Throat told Woodward and Bernstein to "follow the money." I found myself asking if Ms. Thomas were motivated by more than a desire to stand by her man? Her organization, Liberty Central (LC), organized  as a non-profit under IRS Code Section 501(c)4, can lobby, but donors can’t claim tax deductions. Poring over LC’s sole form 990, I wondered who would give $500,000 and $50,000 without such a deduction? How much will Ms. Thomas receive as CEO? (She collected no salary for FY09). And looking at LC’s website, I noticed that while claiming to be "non-partisan," its scorecard for my state graded all the Democrats "F" except one "D" and all Republicans "A."

We cannot see into the mind of Ginni Thomas as she called Hill. Unfortunately , we cannot even follow the money. The IRS shields (c)4 donors from scrutiny under NAACP v. Alabama. And, under current law, (c)4’s do not have to report electioneering-types of advertising more than 60 days before a general election or 30 days before a primary. They do not have to report non-broadcast communication--mail, Internet, telephone---nor candidate-specific issue ads that fall outside the legal definition of political speech.

We do know that in January 2010, Justice Thomas, voted in a 5-4 majority in the landmark Citizen's United decision , to equate corporate and union donations with free speech, thus allowing unlimited campaign donations. And, as NYU Law School’s Adam Scaggs wrote me in an email interview,
All eight of Justice Thomas's colleagues upheld the disclosure rules, on the grounds that the public has a real interest in knowing who spends in political races. Thomas was the sole outlier in voting against disclosure.

We do know that during this election cycle, record donations are flowing into the (c)4’s. For instance, Doyle McManus reports that one new such group, CrossroadsGPS, advised by Karl Rove,

says it's going to spend $65 million this year — much of it to try to defeat [Senate Majority Leader Harry ]Reid.

We do know that Koch Industries rallies the right twice a year to plan on how to sway public policy and that former guests include Justice Clarence Thomas.

Supreme Court reporter Lyle Denniston has suggested we could increase transparency

by more rigorous disclosure legislation, in hopes of exposing more vividly who is in fact benefiting and, perhaps, by embarrassing the beneficiaries.

The non-disclosure precedent of NAACP v. Alabama is only germane to (c)4’s, Campaign Legal Center's Trevor Potter wrote me,

IF the groups can make the arguments made by the NAACP--that their donors would be killed or beaten or their houses burned down if their identities were known."

Adam Skaggs emphasized in his interview,
it's important that Ms. Thomas doesn't lose any of her First Amendment rights just because her husband is a judge…The concern is that Justice Thomas would face a conflict of interest if...ever asked to hear a case involving the groups that have given major contributions to his wife's group. Judges — including Supreme Court justices — are ethically obligated to step aside from any cases in which they have a financial stake, and they must also step aside when their impartiality might reasonably be questioned……The public would not know that there is a conflict if the identity of the donors has not been disclosed.
In Congress, the House passed the DISCLOSE Act, (H.R. 5175). Republicans in the Senate blocked a vote, most recently on September 24. Is this how we want to run elections? If corporations have free speech, let's at least know who’s talking. It's time for Congress to let us "follow the money."