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In the latest edition of Ask Me Anything, I turn the tables.
Hello, Okay History, Friends. Thanks for your support!1
In response to the Watergate scandal, Congress passed the Ethics in Government Act in 1978, a law of sweeping changes that implemented processes where federal government employees must disclose financial records, along with those of their immediate family members.
The motivation was to combat corruption—a noble cause, for sure.
As a federal constitutional republic, our nation is ruled by the basic premise of checks and balances among three branches of government. No one or institution is above reproach. We are bound by a social contract that those who serve at the highest level of government should do so with the highest levels of integrity. We elect people who, in good faith, pass, interpret and enforce our laws.
There’s a trust that those who misbehave and break that social contract will be punished, and the laws we have passed have meaning and purpose because they are enforced. If we lose that trust, what good is our social contract?2
That trust is constantly tested. It’s the pop quizzes you got back in school.3 How we respond to such tests will decide whether this federal constitutional republic remains a thing or morph into something else. Like my approach with pop quizzes, I was either going to become a scholar by acing those suckers or end up writing a history newsletter that would be described as okay.4
We have recently seen that one branch, specifically, has eroded the people’s trust by acting in ways that appear to be unethical.
What does it mean to be unethical? It’s to behave outside of the social contract.
A few weeks ago, we discovered that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas benefited from his twenty-year relationship with Harlan Crow. Crow owns Crow Holdings, a real estate development firm founded by his father and is worth an estimated $2 billion. Crow is a Republican who financially supports conservative policies and weirdly thinks owning statues of terrible people is a good reminder not to be them.5
Crow’s support has allowed him access to people at the highest levels of government; unlike regular folks like you and me, this access has allowed him the comforts of life where he sits on a bench in his back-yard staring at a statue of former Russian Premier, Joseph Stalin, worry-free.
Crow and Thomas have described their relationship as a friendship. On its surface, that is a perfectly acceptable situation. Except when you look at it, you can see something inappropriate.
How they met and became friends is unique. Crow and Thomas didn’t meet in the break room at work, join a kickball team, attend the same school, or coordinate the block party they both live on – a few examples of how regular folks meet and develop friendships.6
They met because one holds power through representative government, while the other has power because he’s rich. I’m not saying billionaires or Supreme Court Justices cannot be friends,7 but can their friendship extend further back? Couldn’t their friendship begin through an alumni association? Could they have met while sitting on the board of a national organization? Perhaps they were members of the same country club?
But they didn’t.
Now the question has to be asked about the friendship – why did the billionaire lavish this justice with gifts or comping him for vacations? Would Harlan Crow be his friend if Thomas worked in some random DC law firm? If so, would Harlan whisk Justice Thomas and his politically connected wife off to Southeast Asia anytime he wanted?8
Crow was such a good friend to Thomas that he gifted him a bible once owned by Frederick Douglass and bought the house Thomas grew up in, where his mother still lives.9 Crow flew Thomas on private jets to exotic places around the world and showed off his weird statue garden thing back in his home state of Texas.
Fine. Friends give friends gifts. You are my friends, and I give you the gift of me.10
Subscribe now to Okay History and receive your gift!
The only thing we asked of Thomas as a part of our social contract is that he disclosed this information at the time.
But this isn’t so much about perceived inappropriate friendships because we can’t control the weirdos of the Crow world and whom they decide to befriend. This is about checks and balances and our social contract.
Thomas belongs to us. He’s ours. The robe he wears, the chair he sits in, and the salary and security we provide make him ours. He is beholden to us in two ways: because the legislators we elected confirmed him and the job we asked of him of interrupting the laws we pass. We don’t have to agree with him, we don’t have to like him, but we expect him to perform the duties of a Supreme Court justice with transparency and integrity.
But Thomas and the rest of the Chief Justice John Robert’s court behave outside the agreed social contract. Thomas is a repeat offender in not telling us whom he allows access to him and providing him with financial gifts. But there are plenty of others.11
Last week we learned that Thomas’s colleague on the Court, Neil Gorsuch, benefited from a property sale with a prominent law firm that has cases appear in front of the court. Justice Gorsuch made a ton of cash off the deal, which was undisclosed.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg traveled to Israel in 2018 to receive an award, and the trip was paid for by billionaire Morris Kahn, who had business before the court. In fact, a year earlier, Kahn’s company scored a significant victory when the Supreme Court declined to hear a patent-related case. This was not reported widely at the time. Ginsburg disclosed it when required, but why is a billionaire paying her to go anywhere?
Justice Stephen Breyer racked up frequent flier miles while on the bench. He took a few trips supported by the mega-wealthy Pritzker family. Again, this was not widely reported, but it was disclosed.
Finally, Antonin Scalia died in his sleep in February 2016 at Cibolo Creek Ranch, owned by businessman John Poindexter, who had hosted the justice on numerous hunting trips. We didn’t know about any of this until after the fact.
Our Supreme Court is awash with the same dark money we see in the executive and legislative branches.
This is an issue.
There’s more to Justice Thomas’s deceit. He failed to disclose the over $600,000 his wife, Ginny Thomas, made while working with the Heritage Foundation, which lists out cases the Court will hear in determining conservative outcomes.12
All of this needs to be disclosed. Everyone in the government knows this to be the case, and each branch has its audit system to enforce laws we have passed.
The Supreme Court reports their disclosure to the Judicial Conference of the United States, which the Chief Justice heads.
Chief Justice Roberts perhaps even engages in unethical behaviors by not disclosing the $10 million his wife supposedly made by recruiting talent for top law firms.13
The pushback from the Court is strong, and red and blue lines have been drawn. Thomas has shown that any criticism of him is an attack on his race and his beliefs. His defense is that he didn’t understand what he needed to disclose or forgot.
Justice Samuel Alito has quickly established a side hustle, working as the righteous arbitrator proclaiming his decisions through an interview in the Wall Street Journal, and had the audacity to suggest that we cannot question the integrity of the Court even though investigative journalism has exposed unethical behavior.
Billionaires provide protection money, and Justices turn around and protect each other from investigations.
It is unreasonable for us to expect that Roberts can set the rules, then not follow them or enforce them, and then tell us to buzz off. The media then becomes the Inspector General (Pro Publica) and the Department of the Public Defenders (WSJ).
The rules for regular folks who must comply with the Ethics in Government Act behave quite differently.
Last weekend I got to experience what it is like to dig into my finances and tell the government where I earn my money, through work and, most importantly, through investments.
Anonymous takes her responsibility seriously.15 So seriously, in fact, that she tells me in no uncertain terms that we will dot every “I” and cross every “T” when disclosing our finances.
She has filled out financial disclosure forms numerous times, but this is a daunting challenge for someone like me who thinks math is magic.16 It’s scary that the government will fine you if you screw something up. If you do something unethical and hide stuff, the government could prosecute.17
The United States Government lays out financial disclosure expectations for those in the executive and legislative branches. While I won’t go into much detail, let me assure you, it’s a lot.
For a few hours, we went through our investments, gifts from our wedding, and the number of paid subscribers to Okay History.18
In the meantime, the Supreme Court has shown itself to ignore the process of transparency, the key ingredient of ensuring trust.
Our checks and balances rely on people who believe as vigorously as Anonymous does about filling out paperwork correctly.
I’m allowed to be confused because big words are difficult. Thomas has a vast vocabulary.
Why do we accept his repeated behavior toward disclosure?
I listened to a podcast featuring former Vice President Mike Pence. He recently gave a speech at the Federalist Society, where they celebrated the coordinated effort to place justices on the court. The philosophy was to fill the courts with judges who did not worry themselves with outcomes but rather the process.
Interpreting the law is hilariously vague, but the good folks at the Federalist Society have developed branding to make it make sense.20
There is zero chance the Harlan Crows, the Federalist Society, or the Heritage Foundation and their millions upon millions of dollars that flow in Washington, DC, are more interested in process over outcomes. Maybe Harlan could ask his Stalin statue the question.21
Alexander Hamilton tried to reassure his fellow Framers that the judiciary would be the weakest of the branches. We have seen that the other branches can gain control of the entire system through that supposed weak branch, and they have gamed the system to control the social contract.
So the question I have in this edition of Ask Me Anything is directed at you, friends.
What is the purpose of being ethical?
If there is no investigation, no hearings, not even a “Hey John, come over and let us have a chat” about this entire thing, why should low-level spies22 be held accountable to standards we don’t apply to people with lifetime appointments and self-oversight?
How can we bind our social contract together if unethical behavior is tolerated?
Is being ethical even worth it anymore?23
Okay! That’s all for now. There is a ton of stuff I can write about on this subject, but I would like to see if I can get a discussion going. Please let me know your thoughts on ethics. Use big words if necessary. Hit the like button if you think my numerous questions are okay.
Please forgive me if I don’t jump right into the fray, Anonymous and I had a trip scheduled for Friday.24
I’ll be back on Monday as usual. Have an ethical weekend.
Footnotes are back!
I hated those.
We live with my choice.
I remind myself in other, normal ways.
Joining a kickball team is lame.
I am saying this.
Maybe if they were on the same kickball team. But probably not.
There are no receipts or returns. All sales are final.
Including Roberts himself. See footnote #2.
It certainly helps to have a spouse of Justice on the payroll, doesn’t it?
Once this is confirmed, whoa, Nellie, what do we plan to do about it?
She’s most likely a spy, hence my reluctance to refer to her by her given name. I love spy stuff, so that’s probably what attracted me to her in the first place.
She takes any responsibility seriously.
Prove me wrong.
The social contract still applies to the little spies.
I wish I could see the government worker who looks at that detail and is like, “What in the heck is Okay History?”
While neglecting Spy Stuff.
Originalism. So original the Federalist Society made it up.
I bet Stalin would care more about the outcomes.
Like my wife.
That’s three additional questions after the original question, which makes originalism look stupid.
I’m hoping it’s a Spy Convention.