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What About Ginni?
Whenever there is an announcement of newly indicted defendants or a new DoJ investigation of wrongdoing in Washington, I frequently see comments and questions around this: What about Ginni Thomas?
For well over a decade, the extremist activist wife of Justice Clarence Thomas has inserted herself into politics and our legal system in unseemly and often brazenly unethical ways. She has lobbied within the White House. She has headlined at radical, conspiracy-peddling conventions. And as the January 6 Committee unearthed, she communicated frequently with former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, repeatedly urging him to find a way to halt the transfer of power, with her texts revealing her as quite bonkers over discredited and disproven QAnon election fraud conspiracies. This included one memorable gem she sent him, apparently pulled off a right-wing website:
Biden crime family & ballot fraud co-conspirators (elected officials, bureaucrats, social media censorship mongers, fake stream media reporters, etc) are being arrested & detained for ballot fraud right now & over coming days, & will be living in barges off GITMO to face military tribunals for sedition.
The problem with all of the above is this: None of it was technically illegal. The rules and laws around the political activities, and even the incomes of spouses of Supreme Court justices, are lax to the point of absurdity. Ginni Thomas has a broad First Amendment right to say and do whatever she wants, so long as she and her husband don’t discuss his work or cases (which they do, obviously, but we could never prove that). And even her InfoWars-based, Big Lie advocacy—including sending letters to Arizona legislators urging them to decertify that state’s electoral victory for Biden—wasn’t illegal in any actionable way.
Crazy, sure, but illegal, no. If it was illegal to be certifiably nuts, half of the GOP would be behind bars.
But if there’s anything I’ve learned from watching political events unfold over the past two decades, it would be surprising if, through all of this, Ginni Thomas remained squeaky clean. In my mind, the very company she keeps—palling around with and receiving unreported gifts from billionaire activists like Harlan Crow and dark money funnelers like Leonard Leo—would have made the temptation to commit illegal acts quite high. I imagine it would be almost irresistible to someone in her position, particularly when she believes she can get away with it.
That’s why an investigative report out on Sunday by Politico caught my attention. The headline wasn’t earth shattering in any way: “What Ginni Thomas and Leonard Leo wrought: How a justice’s wife and a key activist started a movement.” I nearly skipped past reading it, because that sounded like plowing old ground to me. It’s well known, after all, that Leo helped launch the Federalist Society into the stratosphere after Citizens United by directing hundreds of millions of dollars into backing judicial extremists, resulting ultimately in the capture of the U.S. Supreme Court with three hard-line Trump appointees. And it’s also well-established that Ginni Thomas and Leonard Leo are two peas in the same scary, extremist pod.
But there was a buried lede. Within the web of dark money described in the article were the kernels of what I have long been hoping for: evidence that Ginni Thomas may have committed financial fraud as part of a larger network of illegal money flows unleashed after Citizens United.
The evidence is circumstantial and requires some logical inferences. But as we saw with George Santos, following the money trail can lead to eye-popping revelations and, eventually, accountability. And there is a big and quite suspect money trail to follow here, which I hope further intrepid investigative reporting will follow, exposing new revelations.
And from what we already know, there are some familiar names in Ginni’s web that should lead any journalist to want to ask more questions and get some clarity.
Let’s take a quick look at what folks have found out so far.
Ginni Thomas sets up shop as Citizens United paves the road
Back in 2010, as we were still waiting for Citizens United to come down and undo 100 years of campaign finance laws and regulations, Talking Points Memo flagged something quite interesting. Ginni Thomas had recently created a group called “Liberty Central” to try and tap into the energy of the growing “Tea Party” movement.
TPM then looked into the corporate records of the group in Virginia and discovered an important connection: One of the directors of that new group was Leonard Leo, a top dog with the Federalist Society.
Leo was already close to the Thomases, with Justice Clarence Thomas referring to him as “my good friend” in a speech in 1995. Leo had been instrumental in moving the nominations of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito through the Senate.
Ginni Thomas claimed at the time that she “felt called to the front lines” with her fellow acitvists. Now she had a vehicle through which to do that work. Assisting her in the creation of Liberty Central was none other than Cleta Mitchell, the same lawyer who sat with Trump on his call with Raffensperger and whom the grand jury had recommended be indicted. (Willis declined to indict Mitchell for reasons as yet unknown, but she plays another fascinating role in the money trail that I’ll discuss later.)
The application to create the Liberty Central got approved just days before Citizens United came down. Interestingly, while the decision was 5-4 in favor of striking down campaign finance laws, Justice Thomas wrote a concurrence objecting even to the disclosure rules around dark money.
You can see why he might. Guess who provided the start-up funding for Liberty Central, to the tune of $500K? Here is the 2009 IRS return of Liberty Central, Inc., courtesy of ClearingTheFog @clearing_fog:
That half million in seed money came from none other than Justice Thomas’s billionaire buddy and benefactor, Harlan Crow. Yes, the same Crow who bought Thomas’s family home and restored it, sprang for Thomas’s grand-nephew’s private school tuition, and took the Thomases on previously undisclosed junkets on private planes and yachts for years. That Harlan Crow.
All this of course looks super shady in retrospect, but at the time it was just an exercise in what Citizens United would wind up allowing and facilitating: the flow of billionaire funds into political lobbying groups tied directly to the Supreme Court via a spouse of a sitting justice.
Ginni hits choppy waters, reorganizes as a “consultant”
Ginni Thomas won self-own of the year in 2010 when she came under intense media scrutiny for leaving a personal message on Anita Hill’s voicemail demanding an “apology” for her testimony about her husband, then-nominee Clarence Thomas. As the press lens shone upon her activities, her ties to Liberty Central were exposed. Then an unnamed big donor apparently got “spooked” by the attention, so Thomas stepped down as head of the company.
But she wasted no time. The very next day, according to Politico, Ginni Thomas filed incorporation papers for a new company called “Liberty Consulting.” There was just no way she was stepping off the gravy train.
Meanwhile, Leonard Leo’s network reactivated a dormant tax-exempt charitable group, the Judicial Education Project (JEP). That group proceeded to pay Thomas what she had been earning at Liberty Central. Over the next years, JEP went on to rake in millions of dollars in donations and to file amicus briefs before the Supreme Court.
So, some big legal flags here.
What types of services was Thomas being paid by JEP for? Was JEP essentially buying access to her husband? (Narrator: Yes.)
Was the price of her services a fair market rate for her skills and expertise? (Narrator: No.)
The JEP appears to have paid significant amounts of money, as a tax-exempt nonprofit, for these undisclosed services by Thomas. But as a “charitable nonprofit,” why has it so far refused to disclose the amounts when asked by reporters? (Narrator: Follow the money.)
Also, if JEP was paying Ginni Thomas money as a “consultant” while filing amicus briefs before the court on which her husband Clarence Thomas sits, isn’t that another major conflict of interest and failure to disclose by the Thomases? (Narrator: Yup.)
Ginnying up support, then cooking the books
Here’s the part where things start looking very crimey. I hope you’ll agree after reviewing this that both Thomas and Liberty Consulting’s primary benefactor, Leonard Leo’s JEP, have some ’splainin’ to do.
Politico’s reporting showed that in 2011, JEP claimed that it had received no more than $50,000, even while paying Ginni Thomas up to $100,000 between June 2011 and July 2012. Yet a group called Wellspring reported that it had paid JEP $136,000 in 2011. And that was just one organization. How much did JEP actually take in that year?
The next year, JEP reported it received $1.5 million, but the donors remained anonymous (thank you, Citizens United). Then in 2014, a former law clerk of Justice Thomas, Carrie Severino, becomes its highest paid director. That year, the group took in $9 million, up from nothing five years earlier.
After rebranding in 2020 as the 85 Fund, also ironically known as the Honest Elections Project, it went on a spree of anonymous donor collecting, and in 2021, fueled by the Big Lie, it collected $117.3 million in anonymous funds.
Over the past 13 years, JEP has spent $25 million on grants and expenses to unidentified contractors. How much of that money went to Ginni Thomas? We don’t know. At least, not yet. The IRS rules only require that nonprofits disclose their top five highest paid contractors making more than $100,000 annually, leaving many expenses and names off the list. (If this reminds you of something, Rep. George Santos (R-NY) also had a habit of charging expenses just under the reporting requirement, leaving investigators looking at a multitude of improbable $199 charges.)
What we do know is that some of the vendors who received funds from groups like JEP were for profit businesses of which Leonard Leo is the chairman. According to Politico, these amount to tens of millions of dollars from his nonprofit network.
We also know, thanks to reporting by the Washington Post earlier this spring, that Leo ordered one of the recipients of JEP’s funds, Kellyanne Conway, the former campaign manager and senior counselor to ex-president Trump, to make payments to Ginni Thomas for unspecified work.
And yes, that should be another big flashing warning sign. If the routing of payment through Conway’s company wasn’t suspicious enough, Leo insisted that Ginni Thomas’s name be left off the billing paperwork. “No mention of Ginni, of course,” Leo wrote to Conway, as he instructed her to “give” her “another $25K.”
Conway’s firm, the Polling Company, sent a bill to Leo’s JEP for $25K that same day, listing as its purpose “Supplement for Constitutional Polling and Opinion Consulting.” Records reviewed by the Post showed that Ginni Thomas’s Liberty Consulting received $80,000 from the Conway’s Polling Company between June 2011 and June 2012, with another $20K to come by the end of 2012.
This sure looks like Leo and Conway were funneling money to Ginni Thomas, finding any way they could to cook the books to make it seem legit.
An aside: Hamstringing the investigators
I would be remiss if I didn’t include a short section here, again courtesy of reporting by ClearingTheFog, on why these nonprofits seem to get away with all this with no oversight from the government. To understand this, we need look no farther than Cleta Mitchell—the same lawyer who helped Ginni Thomas set up shop.
When the Obama administration started investigating these nonprofits, Mitchell went on the attack. She claimed that conservatives were being persecuted by the IRS, and she led a full-out media assault, supported by the GOP in Congress, to slow down the investigations.
In September 2010, the chief of the Justice Department’s public integrity section’s criminal division was leading the charge, warning that conservative organizations were misusing nonprofit money. He emailed his superior asking if they could ever charge them with a conspiracy to get around existing campaign laws and limits. That didn’t happen, but he still began covening meetings on a possible investigation into criminal violations of Section 501, given the evolving landscape of campaign laws after Citizens United.
That lawyer was Jack Smith.
It’s time to crack this wide open
Okay, back to the Thomases. A review of Justice Clarence Thomas’s financial disclosure amendments by Open Secrets raised some more troubling holes in the full financial picture.
In 2011, Justice Thomas amended 20 years of filings since assuming his role on the Supreme Court. Those amended disclosures revealed that his wife was paid nearly $700,000 between 2003 and 2007 by the Heritage Foundation, another extremist group that participated in justices’ nomination processes and has filed amicus briefs and even had cases before the Supreme Court.
Since those amendments, the only income to Ginni Thomas that Clarence Thomas has reported came from her own company, Liberty Consulting. Because she is hiding the amount of her pay behind an entity, the rules don’t require the disclosure of the amount she actually received, and the sources remain hidden.
Perhaps not for long. Liberty Consulting is now the subject of congressional inquiries looking into ethics disclosures. Senate Democrats have demanded an accounting of the financial gifts that Leo and Crow have showered on the Thomases. And perhaps most importantly, a Justice Department investigation into Leo’s vast network has now been officially launched.
A key question is now this: Did Leonard Leo use millions in nonprofit contributions in a conspiracy with others to illegally enrich himself and his friends, including the Thomases? (Narrator: Duh.)