Leaders of the policy-making body for the federal courts repeatedly failed to inform its full membership of complaints raised by lawmakers and watchdog groups about Justice Clarence Thomas’ pattern of nondisclosure on his financial reports more than 10 years ago, a sitting federal judge testified to a Senate panel on Wednesday.
In 2011, the Judicial Conference received a number of complaints from lawmakers and watchdog groups about Thomas after media reports revealed that he failed to disclose income his wife earned between 1998 and 2003 from The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
The complaints asked the conference to refer the matter to the US attorney general to probe whether the justice’s behavior ran afoul of a federal ethics law. Thomas quickly amended his reports when the allegations were brought to his attention, leading the body to conclude that no further action was needed.
But US District Judge Mark Wolf, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan, said on Wednesday that the full Judicial Conference did not receive notice of the complaints sent to leaders of the conference and therefore couldn’t decide how the body should act on them.
“This concerned me because the issues raised by the letters were serious,” Wolf said in testimony to a Senate Judiciary subcommittee looking into court ethics.
“Pursuant to established conference policies and procedures, if the committee (on financial disclosures) had considered the letters, my colleagues on the Judicial Conference and I should have been informed of them in its reports to the Conference, even if the committee was not recommending any action by the Conference,” he said.
“Such information would have afforded me and the other members of the conference the opportunity to discuss and decide whether there was reasonable cause to believe Justice Thomas had willfully violated the act and, if so, to make the required referral to the attorney general,” Wolf added.
The decade-old complaints have reentered the spotlight amid recent reports about Thomas’ decision to not disclose years of luxury travel and expensive gifts that were paid for by GOP megadonor Harlan Crow, as well as a real estate deal he and his family cut with the donor.
Those reports have fueled similar calls by lawmakers and watchdog groups for the Judicial Conference to refer the justice to the attorney general for potential violations of the ethics law, and CNN has reported that Thomas intends to amend his financial disclosure forms to reflect the 2014 real estate deal.
They’ve also put the Judicial Conference, which among other things handles financial disclosure forms submitted by justices and federal judges, in the hot seat. When the 2011 complaints were made, Wolf was serving on the conference, which is comprised of a small selection of federal judges from various courts around the country.
Earlier this week, the conference defended its decision more than 10 years ago to not refer Thomas to the DOJ to investigate allegations that his pattern of nondisclosure on his financial reports broke federal law.
Roslynn Mauskopf, the conference’s secretary, explained its reasoning in a letter Monday to Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who chairs the Senate Judiciary subcommittee looking into court ethics, noting that Thomas “immediately amended his reports” after the issue was raised with the justice.
“The then-chair of the committee, the Honorable Bobby R. Baldock, reviewed the January 2011 allegations and the amended reports and concluded that the reports were properly amended and that no further action was warranted,” Mauskopf wrote.