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Inside the consulting firm run by Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas

CNBC logo CNBC 4/5/2022 Brian Schwartz
  • Virginia "Ginni" Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, runs a little-known consulting company.
  • Some campaign watchdog groups say it could create yet another conflict of interest for her husband.
  • "It's very problematic," Richard Painter, chief White House ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush administration, told CNBC in a recent phone interview in response to Thomas' private consulting work.
(L-R) Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife and conservative activist Virginia Thomas arrive at the Heritage Foundation on October 21, 2021 in Washington, DC. © Provided by CNBC (L-R) Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife and conservative activist Virginia Thomas arrive at the Heritage Foundation on October 21, 2021 in Washington, DC.

Virginia "Ginni" Thomas runs a little-known consulting company that some campaign watchdog groups say could create yet another conflict of interest for her husband, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Ginni Thomas shot to national notoriety after text messages surfaced last month showing that she prodded former President Donald Trump's then chief of staff, Mark Meadows, in late 2020 to try to overturn the presidential election results. The messages prompted calls from top Democrats for Clarence Thomas to recuse himself from cases reviewing the Jan. 6, 2021, riot on Capitol Hill. It's also led to calls by lawmakers on Capitol hill to create a formal Supreme Court code of ethics. The House select committee investigating what took place on Jan. 6 is reportedly seeking an interview with Ginni Thomas.

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A spokeswoman for the Supreme Court did not return requests for comment. Attempts to reach Ginni Thomas through an email listed on her website were not returned. The website appears to have been wiped since the recent reports on her texts with Meadows.

Very little is known about her company, Liberty Consulting, which is listed as an asset on her husband's Supreme Court disclosures. CNBC was able to find some of her conservative-leaning clients by cross-checking Virginia business records, tax forms, Federal Election Commission filings, personal financial disclosure documents and through interviews with people familiar with her work. Even so, watchdogs say such documents may not entirely reveal who she's represented and whether those groups have ties to any cases before the court, raising increasing calls for more transparency.

'Very problematic'

"It's very problematic," Richard Painter, chief White House ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush administration, said in a recent phone interview of Ginni Thomas' work. The Supreme Court rules don't require spouses to publicly disclose how much they earn or if they are working with anyone that could have a stake in a Supreme Court case — which could create a conflict for her husband and force him to recuse himself from certain cases, Painter said.

Kedric Payne, general counsel of the watchdog Campaign Legal Center, similarly said any financial interest tied to a justice's spouse that could make it's way to the court might lead to the recusal by the judge.

"The law is clear that a justice with questionable impartiality shall recuse from a case. Cases tied to the financial or other significant interests of a justice's spouse always raise red flags that may trigger the recusal requirement," Payne told CNBC. Clarence Thomas has recused himself 54 times since the 1990s, including 17 times to avoid a potential perception of a conflict of interest created by his son, according to the Huffington Post.

Separate careers

Ginni Thomas, in a recent interview with the Washington Free Beacon, pushed back on any potential conflicts of interest from her work. "We have our own separate careers, and our own ideas and opinions too. Clarence doesn't discuss his work with me, and I don't involve him in my work," she recently told the publication. She noted her work for Liberty Consulting in that interview but didn't divulge her clients.

Still, Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, have said they want to move forward with creating an ethics code for Supreme Court justices that could include more specific disclosure requirements.

In the case of Ginni Thomas, the court's financial disclosure forms only show that she gets a salary and benefits from her firm, without disclosing the specifics, and it notes the book value of the business.

Located in a nondescript strip mall in suburban Virginia, Liberty Consulting's few known clients range from the Center for Security Policy, a nonprofit founded by a conservative activist accused of anti-Muslim rhetoric, to a political action committee titled FedUp PAC, according to a review of public filings by CNBC and researchers at watchdog Documented. The political action committee backed failed Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, according to Center for Responsive Politics' data. Moore was accused of sexual misconduct and has denied wrongdoing.

The Center for Security Policy was founded by Frank Gaffney Jr., a former Reagan administration Defense official who has since been flagged by the Anti-Defamation League for pushing "a number of anti-Muslim conspiracy theories." Both Gaffney and the Center for Security Policy were among a group of advocates who filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court backing Trump's travel ban. The center paid Liberty Consulting more than $200,000 over the course of two years, from 2017 and through 2018, according to 990 tax disclosure reports from those years. The work by the firm for the Center for Security Policy was first reported by The New Yorker.

Liberty Central

Thomas is also said to have done past work for companies tied to conservative judicial advisor Leonard Leo, according to a person familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named to speak freely on the matter. Ginni Thomas counts Leo as a mentor, according to The Washington Post. Leo previously served as a director for a Ginni Thomas-led a conservative nonprofit named Liberty Central during former President Barack Obama's administration, according to 990 tax disclosures. Ginni Thomas once boasted that she wanted the organization to be "bigger than the tea party," and was taking aim at Obama's agenda, including the Affordable Care Act, the Post reported.

In 2010, Ginni Thomas made more than $120,000 as president and CEO of Liberty Central that year, according to a 990 tax filing. The nonprofit has since been closed. Clarence Thomas was among the group of Supreme Court justices who dissented in 2012 from the majority opinion, which upheld Obama's signature health insurance law, the Affordable Care Act, as constitutional. He later sided with the majority to uphold the law against a Republican challenge in 2021.

Leo has been involved with helping shape the Supreme Court to what it is today, including advising Trump on who best to select for the high court. Trump's court picks of Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett saw support from groups backed by Leo and his allies when they were in the midst of Senate battles over their nominations. The Daily Beast reported that CRC Advisors, Leo's firm, has been tasked at promoting a documentary on Clarence Thomas.

Supporting Trump

Outside groups run by Leo's allies advocated in support of Trump's nominees and have since taken aim at President Joe Biden's court picks, including Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. Like their opposing progressive groups, the Leo-tied organizations are known as "dark money" nonprofits who don't reveal their donors to the public. Leo's recently created 85 Fund is part of his extensive network of organizations that seek to influence policy, judicial nominations and the larger conservative movement.

The FedUp PAC, which is chaired by conservative political ad veteran Richard Viguerie, paid Liberty Consulting $5,000 during the 2018 election cycle for what it describes on the PAC's filing as video production. The name Liberty Consulting and the address listed on the Federal Election Commission disclosure matches that of the firm run by Ginni Thomas. The PAC later backed Trump during the 2020 election cycle, spending more than $100,000 supporting the then commander in chief. Liberty Consulting was not paid for any work by the PAC that cycle, federal campaign disclosure data shows.

Bob Mills, who is listed as director for the super PAC on its website, did not recall what specific work Liberty Consulting conducted for the organization when initially reached by CNBC and didn't respond to follow up emails requesting further details.

Ginni Thomas' LinkedIn profile says she's worked since 2010 as the founder and president of Liberty Consulting with "citizen activists, leaders and nonprofits to succeed and have impact in defending the principles that have made America an exceptional nation. — offer strategic advice, build coalitions, connect people and projects (this is my passion and joy!)." Thomas notes on her page that she's not a lobbyist, even though a Virginia state record shows that the firm was once called Liberty Lobby.

Beth Rotman, national director of money in politics and ethics at watchdog Common Cause, told CNBC that new ethics laws governing Supreme Court justices should require them to disclose more details of their spouses' consulting contracts.

"Disclosure must be robust for it to be truly meaningful in this context so financial disclosures should include consulting contracts. As you have seen already, when justices complete their annual reports, they list information that does not give a complete view of their spouse's financial ties," Rotman said in an email. "It is key to meaningful disclosure that the rules be updated to include the source and amount of any spouse's consulting contracts over a reasonable minimum threshold."

Leo and representatives for most of the group's mentioned in this story also did not return requests for comment. A spokesman for the Jan. 6 House Select Committee declined to comment.

Business boom

Though it's unclear how much Ginni Thomas has made from the consulting firm, Liberty Consulting appeared to see a boom in business in the run-up to Trump's 2016 win.

Clarence Thomas' financial disclosure reports show that in 2014, the firm's cash market value was listed as being worth up to $15,000.

Yet, in 2015 and the subsequent years, the firm's listed book value jumped, according to the public disclosures. Thomas' disclosure report from 2015 shows that the firm was worth between $15,001 and $50,000. It held at that value until 2019, when the business appears to have had it's best year ever with a book value of between $100,001 and $250,000

Trump was impeached that year by the Democratic-led House of Representatives for pressuring Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy into launching a probe into the U.S. president's political opponents in the buildup to the 2020 election. Trump was later acquitted by the Senate, which at the time was controlled by Republicans. Trump has said the call with Zelenskyy was "perfect" and denied wrongdoing.

The value of her firm dropped back to between $15,001 and $50,000 in 2020, the same year Trump lost the White House.

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