Mob Ethics: Enterprise Rent-A-Justice And The Shame Of Clarence Thomas

Mob Ethics: Enterprise Rent-A-Justice And The Shame Of Clarence Thomas

From left, Peter Rutledge, Leonard Leo, Mark Paoletta, Clarence Thomas and Harlan Crow at Topridge

Painting by Sharif Tarabay

There was a famous meeting of mob bosses in Apalachin, New York on November 14, 1957. Held at the home of Mafia chieftain Joseph “Joe the Barber” Barbara, the meeting was called by Vito Genovese after he had ordered his lieutenant Joey Gallo to murder a rival mob boss, Umberto “Albert” Anastasia as he sat in a barber’s chair at the barbershop in the Park Sheraton Hotel in New York on October 25, just three weeks earlier.

Genovese held the meeting to consolidate his power after he had taken control of the Luciano crime family from Frank Costello. Some of the top mobsters in the U.S. were present that night: Santo Trafficante, the boss of the Pennsylvania family; Frank DiSimone of Los Angeles; Carlos “Little Man” Marcello from New Orleans; Joe Bonnano and Carmine Galante from New York, as well as Carlo Gambino, Joseph Profaci, and mob money-man Meyer Lansky.

The meeting was held at Barbara’s 53-acre estate about 200 miles northwest from New York City on the banks of the Susquehanna River. On the schedule for discussion by the mob bosses was carving up the mob’s business in the U.S. into regional fiefdoms, and within the East Coast region, the burgeoning drug trade; control of the trucking industry servicing the garment business in the city; control of labor unions including the longshoremen’s locals on the Manhattan and Brooklyn waterfronts; and the private carting business, which handled waste from restaurants, businesses, and the construction industry.

Over one hundred mobsters were present in all. When New York state troopers broke up the meeting, between 50 and 60 mobsters escaped by high-tailing it through the woods.

It was a famous meeting, about which much has become known over the years since. In fact, the only thing missing from the history of the Apalachin meeting is a photograph of the major mob bosses sitting around at Barbara’s lodge smoking cigars as they divided up the spoils of La Cosa Nostra.

That’s exactly what is not missing from the gathering of political mob bosses who met at Topridge, Harlan Crow’s lodge and summer encampment about 200 miles north of Apalachin in the Adirondacks. On the agenda of this mob-meet was a conspiracy of another sort: planning the makeup of the Supreme Court and direction it would take during the years of the Donald Trump White House and afterwards. Leonard Leo had already run interference for one vacancy on the court filled by Donald Trump by conspiring with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to stall Barack Obama’s appointment in 2016 of Merrick Garland so the Republican Party could wait for the election of Trump to put another Federalist Society-approved hack, Neil Gorsuch, on the court.

Crow sat down with his personally-owned Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas, and Thomas' Federalist Society master, Leonard Leo. Also there were lawyer Peter Rutledge, an attorney who had appeared over 30 times before the Supreme Court, and Mark Paoletta, once chief counsel to former Vice President Mike Pence, who has represented Justice Thomas’ wife, Ginni. Leo and Rutledge had worked together on the confirmation hearings for several Republican appointees to the court, including Thomas himself, making it appear that the cigar-smoke-scented outdoor gathering was to celebrate the appointments of Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh and look forward to putting Christian Nationalist Amy Coney Barrett on the court with them.

Astoundingly, Crow was so proud of his own Little Apalachin meeting that he wasn’t satisfied with memorializing it in a mere photograph. He commissioned an artist, Sharif Tarabay, to paint the scene of the now infamous mob-meet. There they are, in Bermuda shorts and casual pants, wearing sneakers and sandals, seated on rustic Adirondack rockers, smoking cigars around a little table hand-crafted from a tree stump, with a statue of a Native American man, arms outstretched, looking into the skies behind them.

The words self-satisfied come to mind but are inadequate to describe what was going on with Crow’s informal gathering of power-brokers that day. Why not commemorate the occasion with a painting and hang it on the wall of your lodge for all your friends to see? The conspiracy it depicts was not a secret. Leonard Leo and the Federalist Society had been hand-picking right-wing hacks to appoint to federal court vacancies for at least three decades by that time. Chief Justice John Roberts was among their picks, as was the man who fulfilled a decades-long campaign by the Federalist Society to overturn Roe v Wade, Samuel Alito. In fact, of the nine justices currently on the Supreme Court, the six appointed by Republican presidents are all members of the Federalist Society. During the Trump administration alone, 43 out of 51 of his appointees to appellate courts were Federalist Society members.

You would think that having what amounts to an iron grip on the judiciary in this country would be enough for Leonard Leo, a long-time leader of the Federalist Society, who at the time of the meeting depicted in the painting was being paid $400,000 a year as its president, according to the Washington Post. Unfortunately, however, you would be wrong. ProPublica reported last week that Leo arranged for Ginni Thomas, the wife of Justice Clarence Thomas, to be paid a total of $100,000 for so-called “consulting work” through her firm, Liberty Consulting. The money was funneled from a cleverly named front-group for Leo and conservative money he controls called the Judicial Education Project. Leo set up the payments so they were initially made to a company owned by former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, The Polling Company. From there, they were funneled to Ginni Thomas’ company, although under instructions from Leo, Ginni Thomas’ name was to be left off the paperwork involved.

If that sounds like a payoff to a Supreme Court justice through his right-wing activist wife, you are absolutely correct. The Judicial Education Project, after funneling the money to Ginni Thomas, filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court in the case of Shelby County v Holder. In a decision written by yet another Federalist Society member, Chief Justice John Roberts, the Shelby case defenestrated Article Five of the Voting Rights Act (VRS), taking away the single most important tool voting rights activists had to insure that the rights of voters, particularly in the Deep South, were protected. Within days of the passage of Shelby, states like Alabama and Mississippi passed voting restrictions that started with requiring state issued photo ID cards in order to register to vote, and went on from there. Today, more than half the states have restrictions on voting that would have been illegal under Article Five of the VRA.

If the payment to Ginni Thomas sounds like money laundering, you would be correct there too. When you take money intended for one person and move it through two companies with instructions that it end up with that person, Ginni Thomas, without her name attached to it, you’re laundering money and perhaps violating wire fraud statutes as well.

But Leonard Leo wasn’t any more worried about being caught bribing Justice Thomas than his friend and benefactor Harlan Crow was. A Texas multi-billionaire, Crow had been funding right-wing causes for decades, including the Federalist Society and the Judicial Education Project. Not only that, but for 20 years, Crow had funneled money and benefits to Justice Thomas in various ways: Crow let Thomas fly on his corporate jet; he invited Thomas and his wife on luxurious trips around the world on his luxury yacht; he had Thomas as his guest every summer at his Camp For Big Boys, Topridge, where Thomas met regularly with major Republican donors, political consultants and activists within the Republican Party. Some of Crow’s guests at his summer retreat would even go on to have cases before the Supreme Court, or had had them already.

If you think that sounds like a good reason that Justice Thomas should have recused himself from cases brought by those people, or supported by donations from organizations controlled by Leonard Leo, you would be right again. But if you think that actually happened, you would be wrong.

Crow found other ways to funnel money to Justice Thomas: He paid for the private education of a nephew over whom Thomas had guardianship. He bought Thomas’ mother’s house in Georgia and poured thousands of dollars of improvements into the house and allowed her to live there rent-free for the rest of her life…which is ongoing as I write this. And Crow supported -- with millions of dollars of donations -- organizations like the Heritage Foundation that heve employed Ginni Thomas over the years.

All of these financial machinations behind the scenes to put money into the accounts of Clarence Thomas and his wife Ginni were kept hidden from the public. The rent-a-justice conspiracy run by Harlan Crow and Leonard Leo was completely secret until recently when ProPublica began uncovering the payoffs to Thomas and the luxury travel and accommodations that would have cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, over the years. All of which went unreported on Thomas’ mandatory federal financial declarations, incidentally.

So, what’s going on here? We can see that all the money funneled to Thomas and all the invitations to luxury travel and flights on private jets weren’t done out of the goodness of their hearts by billionaire Crow and his factotum Leo. We have seen the evidence that both men were linked to cases that were heard by the Supreme Court. In fact, that is what’s going on here.

The right-wing in this country, which now controls one of its two major political parties, the Republican Party, are aware of two dangerous trends that they believe will eventually cripple their political control over the major levers of power: the federal government and all of its various agencies; the White House; and the Congress. They know demographics are against them. They know that the policies they are pushing are unpopular by huge margins among voters, sometimes even among Republican voters. Large majorities favor abortion rights. Even larger majorities favor Social Security, long a billionaire bete noir, and Medicare and Medicaid. A majority even favors continuing to allow immigration from foreign countries – the infamous “Great Replacement” which conservatives believe is a plot to dilute their voting power. Other majorities favor protecting the environment, clean air, clean water, and the gradual switch to sustainable energy that is already underway.

Billionaires and their party, the Republican Party, know they’re losing the war on these issues and others, so what is their plan? Well, they’re gerrymandering their control of state governments and congressional districts all over the country so they can hang onto legislative control as long as possible. That’s one. They’re limiting the voting rights of the majorities who support all the stuff they oppose, like abortion and the environment. And they’ve stacked the Supreme Court with justices who will vote their way in cases they bring to dilute environmental regulations, the switch-over of energy production to sustainable sources, and all the political rules they’ve put in place to dilute voting rights and allow them to gerrymander their way to electoral victories.

That’s what’s going on. The Supreme Court doesn’t face the demographic majorities that are driving Republicans crazy. They aren’t elected. They’re appointed. Right now and for the foreseeable future the justices whom the right has been able to groom and get onto the court are there for one reason and one reason only: to do the bidding of the Harlan Crows and the Leonard Leos of this world.

If that sounds depressing, well, it is, except for the fact that ProPublica and the Washington Post and the New York Times are now catching them conspiring to take over the Supreme Court and non-democratically enforcing their will upon the rest of us.

Shame at getting caught isn’t going to drive Clarence Thomas off the court. Shame is not in his vocabulary, or in the vocabulary of his fellow right-wing justices either, including Chief Justice John Roberts, who recently refused to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee at a hearing about – you guessed it – judicial ethics.

It appears that we are headed for a new frontier in our democracy, one in which there is no longer a separation of powers between three co-equal branches of government. If neither John Roberts nor Clarence Thomas believes they are answerable to the body that confirmed them onto the court, the U.S. Senate, then to whom are they responsible?

For the answer to that question, I’m afraid we are left to ask Harlan Crow and Leonard Leo, the co-chief executives of Enterprise Rent-a-Justice. I don’t advise holding your breath as we await their answer.

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