Virginia Thomas and Conflict of Interest


Last week my colleague Bill Allison wrote about the new role of Virginia Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, as a lobbyist for her newly formed Liberty Consulting. This follows Thomas’ role as the head of a post-Citizens United nonprofit known as Liberty Central. Allison noted that Virginia Thomas has left a “paperless, pixel-less” trail behind her:

The filing shows that, at least during its first two months, Liberty Central did not pay salaries to any of its officials, including Thomas, who is listed as the organization’s president.

Liberty Central did not disclose any activity to the Federal Election Commission, which tracks the independent expenditures and electioneering communications of outside organizations, nor did it register as an independent expenditure committee–groups that, in the wake of the Citizens United ruling, can raise and spend unlimited funds attempting to influence federal elections as long as they do not coordinate with candidates.

Because federal election and lobbying disclosure laws explicitly state the kinds of activity that require disclosure, groups that have a political purpose can influence elections and lobby while avoiding disclosure.

Thomas’ paper trail may not only be paperless and pixel-less, according to Slate’s Dave Weigel it may also be needless. Weigel’s contention is that Liberty Central, Thomas’ Tea Party-inspired nonprofit, did little to nothing during the 2010 midterms. The lack of disclosure that Allison notes shows that Liberty Central did not engage in the same types of electoral activities as the other conservative groups that played hard in last fall’s elections. Trusting Weigel’s knowledge of internal conservative group advocacy, I’m going to believe his contention that Liberty Central did little grassroots organizing as well. It really doesn’t look like Liberty Central did much of anything.

Why write about this? Weigel ends his post on Thomas with a question, “But what if she’s not much of a conspirator? What if she’s more of a dilettante?” What if she’s more a dilettante, indeed!

If she is totally ineffective and a complete non-player in actual conservative politics, than I am inclined to conclude that she is playing her marriage to a Supreme Court justice to her financial advantage. And to what advantage do contributors to her “political” efforts seek?

This, I believe, is a serious question. Should a Supreme Court justice’s spouse use their marriage as a way to gain donor support for political causes? What more should be disclosed to assuage the public’s concern of a conflict of interest?

Considering that Clarence Thomas failed to report his wife’s salary on his public financial disclosure for years, I find this issue to be in need of a serious response. In other cases, including that of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, more disclosure than mandated was asked of a person appointed to office to assuage public concerns about conflicts of interest. This is one of those times.