By Pam Martens and Russ Martens: May 20, 2018 ~
According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, a kleptocracy is “a society whose leaders make themselves rich and powerful by stealing from the rest of the people.” Stealing can also be interpreted as a public official depriving citizens of their right to honest services, as defined under 18 U.S.C. § 1346.
Two men serving in the highest offices of the United States, one man black and one man white, are now the poster children for a government that more closely resembles a kleptocracy than a democracy. The two men also have three other things in common: they are both shameless in flaunting their disregard for conflicts of interest; their previous Federal financial disclosure reports contained serious falsehoods; and neither has been removed from their high office.
Last week Donald Trump, the President of the United States, released his financial disclosure form for calendar year 2017. It showed that the President had not reported a $130,000 liability he owed in 2016 to reimburse his personal attorney, Michael Cohen, for the hush money payment he made in 2016 to porn star Stormy Daniels, who has alleged a sexual affair with Trump. Only after much publicity about the failure to report the payment was the reimbursement of the liability disclosed on this year’s financial disclosure report.
Equally alarming, Trump’s 2017 financial disclosure report indicates that the President of the United States still holds ownership interests in 565 corporations and LLCs, many of which benefit from foreign money. Unlike previous presidents who sold their business interests or put them in a blind trust to avoid conflicts of interest, Trump flagrantly retains these massive ownership stakes.
At Trump International Hotels Management, revenues went from less than $3 million in 2016 to over $17 million in 2017 when Trump occupied the Oval Office. The Trump Old Post Office LLC which holds the license for the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. reported over $40 million in revenue in 2017, its first full year of operation. The hotel has benefited from foreign dignitaries potentially currying favor with the President of the United States by paying large sums for themselves and their entourage to stay at the hotel.
NBC reports that since Trump took office on January 20, 2017 “Kuwait has twice held its annual ‘National Day’ celebration” at the Trump International Hotel in D.C.; Bahrain has held a similar celebration at the hotel; a public relations firm working for Saudi Arabia has stayed there; and the government of the Philippines is planning an Independence Day celebration there in June as the country pushes for a free-trade agreement with the U.S.
The situation is so appalling that the Attorney General for the State of Maryland, Brian Frosh, and the D.C. Attorney General, Karl Racine, have filed a Federal lawsuit charging that the President is violating the emoluments clause of the U.S. constitution by accepting foreign gifts via hotel payments. In March, U.S. District Court Judge Peter J. Messitte ruled that the case can proceed. The Judge wrote: “Plaintiffs have alleged sufficient facts to show that the president’s ownership interest in the hotel has had and almost certainly will continue to have an unlawful effect on competition.” The U.S. Justice Department, the highest law enforcement office in the United States, attempted to have the case thrown out on behalf of the Trump administration.
The conduct of sitting Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has been equally kleptocratic. In 2011 the watchdog group, Protect our Elections (POE), filed a bar complaint with the Missouri Supreme Court (Thomas was admitted to practice law in the state). The complaint asked for the disbarment of Thomas on the following grounds:
“Clarence Thomas breached his legal duty and violated the Rules of Professional Conduct by knowingly and willfully failing for 20 years to state truthfully on required AO 10 Financial Disclosure Forms that his wife Virginia earned non-investment income. Clarence Thomas further labored under a financial conflict of interest by failing to disclose $100,000 in support for his nomination by the Citizens United Foundation when he sat in judgment of a case involving Citizens United. Finally, he made rulings that his wife benefited from financially and professionally, and by extension, that benefited him. In short, this unethical and criminal conduct violates the Rules of Professional Conduct, and undermines the rule of law, respect for the law and confidence in the law.”
In fact, Thomas failed to report at least $1,051,214 that his wife Virginia Thomas had received in compensation from the Heritage Foundation from 1999 through 2007. Heritage, in turn, was heavily funded by the billionaire Koch brothers.
But Thomas went much further in flaunting the integrity of the Supreme Court. In the same year that the Supreme Court would accept the Citizens United case (which opened the spigots to corporate money flooding political campaigns) Thomas dined with one of the Koch brothers, Charles, and his wife, Elizabeth, at their private club in Indian Wells, California. As the owners of one of the largest private corporations in the world, Koch Industries, the Koch brothers had a vested interest in removing restrictions on corporate funding of political campaigns.
While the Citizens United case was pending before the Supreme Court, Virginia Thomas created a tax exempt organization called Liberty Central, Inc., with a former lawyer for the Charles G. Koch Foundation, Sarah Field, acting as her General Counsel and a former Koch lobbyist, Matt Schlapp, serving on her board at inception.
From 2009 to 2011, Liberty Central took in more than $1.5 million in donations from anonymous sources. Politico would eventually ferret out that the initial $500,000 of funding came from Harlan Crow, a real estate magnate in Dallas. According to Liberty Central’s 2010 public tax filing, it paid Virginia Thomas $120,511 in compensation that year. In 2015, Justice Thomas noted on his financial disclosure report that Crow had presented him with a gift of a $6500 bronze bust of Frederick Douglass. Crow had also previously presented a $19,000 Frederick Douglass bible to the sitting Justice. Apparently, Clarence Thomas just doesn’t know how to say no to expensive gifts nor can he apparently remember $1 million in income to his wife.