Jeff Danziger lives in New York City. He is represented by CWS Syndicate and the Washington Post Writers Group. He is the recipient of the Herblock Prize and the Thomas Nast (Landau) Prize. He served in the US Army in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Medal. He has published eleven books of cartoons, a novel and a memoir. Visit him at DanzigerCartoons.
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Former President Trump’s many scandals and compounding legal troubles — though consolidating his base — have wrought a financial blowback that’s wrecking business entities affiliated with him, the latest of which is the company organizing his paid speeches.
According to the Washington Post, the American Freedom Tour, a company that’s promoted a slate of paid appearances by the twice-impeached ex-president, is now financially hard-pressed to pay its vendors, investors, and employees.
The company organized glitzy events that allowed Trump supporters to see the former president and a host of right-wing pundits and conspiracy theorists for a fee ranging from $55 to over $4,000.
The proceeds of the Trump for-profit speeches organized by the American Freedom Tour — part of a multimillion-dollar deal with the former president — went directly into Trump’s pockets, the Post reported last July, citing unnamed sources privy to the matter.
Trump, who advisers say joined the tour with little vetting, is one of the few people who have reportedly seen a payday from the beleaguered company. Several other speakers have yet to be paid in full, if at all.
The tour’s failure to pay its bills had led to the exit of two of its executives, mass cancellation of previously scheduled events, and condemnation from a slate of angry investors, speakers, and even Trump allies who had thrown their support behind the company, according to the Post.
At the start of the tour, investors were promised a 20 percent return on their investments, but when the payments were due six months later, the American Freedom Tour failed to remit the payments, the Post noted, citing an internal loan document.
The tour’s organizer, Brian J. Forte — much like the company’s most celebrated patron, Trump — is a motivational speaker and promoter with a litany of bankruptcy filings and business disputes across the country.
Forte pleaded with investors in March for more time to make payments, but by August, the tour still hadn’t made its payments.
“We needed a little more time,” Forte said. “The investment is intact. Please bear with us a couple of weeks.”
Unpaid investors soon threatened legal action against the tour if it didn’t pay their investments and promised interest in full. “If the company doesn’t pay, the group wants Forte to step aside and give them control of the company… Otherwise, they said they will sue,” the Post wrote.
“We are awaiting payment and now four months overdue,” a consultant leading the local GOP in Austin, Matt Mackowiak, warned via email, per the Post. “I will get loud and litigious if not paid by [the] end of [the] week.”
Republican media consultant Larry Ward, a spokesperson for the tour, has tried to play down the crisis as an unfortunate outcome of “unforeseen scheduling issues.”
“Unforeseen scheduling issues for the programs caused a delay, and we asked a limited number of investors if their payment could be delayed until November,” Ward said.“We are working very hard to make them whole, and we are confident they will be made whole very soon.”
Financial pressure bearing down on the business caused it to adopt deplorable practices, said the Post, including selling tickets online for events it knew were unlikely to hold, one of which was its planned August 20 event in Milwaukee.
Dale Ainge, the tour’s former chief financial officer, one of the aforementioned executives who left the company, told the Post that before his exit, the tour defaulted on two of its loans, incurring the outcry of its lenders.
“They had to cancel a couple events, which caused some financial issues,” he said. “They were behind on things. They were behind on payments. So for me to say, what kind of financial position they’re in? They were a little bit behind in a couple of the notes. There were a couple accounts payable that were past 60 days.”
The other executive who left, Chris Widener, the company’s former president, directed requests for repayment to the company as he had already resigned. “As you know from reaching out a few weeks ago looking for your payment, I resigned from the American freedom tour on August 3rd,” Widener said. “You are definitely owed the money and should be paid promptly.”
The American Freedom Tour is hinging its hopes for a comeback on an upcoming black-tie gala at Mar-a-Lago, where the FBI raided in August and seized thousands of secret government records, including over a hundred classified documents, that the former president had retained illegally after his tenure.
Spending time with the former President at the event, which includes a poolside reception and a formal ballroom dinner, could cost eventgoers $10,000, while dinner and a photo with Trump would cost a whopping $40,000. According to the Post, “a private library meeting with Trump [at the event] is so pricey that it’s only listed as: ‘INQUIRE BELOW.’”
More than a decade ago, Ginni Thomas’s political activities drew scrutiny to her more public husband. More to the point, the failure of that husband, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, to declare decades of his wife’s income from that political activity drew attention, resulting in him revising 20 years’ worth of financial disclosure forms. That included $686,589 she earned between 2003 and 2007 from the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.
It also included her work at Liberty Central, a conservative “political education” group she co-founded in January 2009. It ceased operations in 2012. The timing of the organization’s existence is critical, because its primary mission seemed to be opposing President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Ginni Thomas wrote an article for the organization’s website in 2010 declaring that the new law was unconstitutional. Guess how hubby Clarence voted on that in the Supreme Court? That was in 2012, when one tenuous vote from Chief Justice John Roberts saved the ACA, and when Liberty Central disbanded.
Fast forward 10 years and the Supreme Court code of ethics, transparency, and disclosure that good government groups have been clamoring for has yet to be enacted, and Clarence and Ginni Thomas are in the news again because she helped try to overthrow the government. Thomas reportedly told the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection that “she has ‘never’ spoken to her husband about pending cases before the Supreme Court, calling it an ‘iron clad rule in our home.’” Maybe she also never told him about all the money she was earning from conservative groups thanks to her proximity to a Supreme Court justice.
The Thomases are the most enduringly egregious examples of why there needs to be not just an expansion of the Supreme Court, but real reforms that include finally making the court comply with a code of ethics—just like every other branch of the judiciary is compelled to do. But the Thomases are definitely not the only Supreme culprits in fishy spousal entanglements.
Meet Jesse M. Barrett and Jane Roberts, spouses to Justice Amy Coney Barrett and Chief Justice John Roberts, and subject to a deep investigative dive by Politico
Jesse Barrett’s law firm, SouthBank Legal, just happened to expand from its South Bend, Indiana, base to Washington, D.C., a year after his wife reached the Supreme Court. His specialties are “white-collar criminal defense, internal investigations, and complex commercial litigation.” His firm of fewer than 20 lawyers has clients in “virtually every industry,” including “over 25 Fortune 500 companies and over 15 in the Fortune 100.” Chances are pretty darned good that at some point, a case involving one of those companies has come before the Supreme Court.
But we don’t know, because Barrett doesn’t have to disclose any of her husband’s clients in her disclosure documents, much less recuse herself in any of those cases. Politico reports that in her most recent disclosure, she redacted the name of her husband’s firm. On his law firm bio Barrett says he has “tried several dozen federal cases to jury verdict and has handled numerous appeals, including successful arguments in state and federal appellate courts.” So his own work, and his firm’s, could definitely come before the Supreme Court. But in those appellate courts, every judge is going to know who is arguing in front of them: a Supreme Court justice’s husband, just one wrinkle in the complicated judicial ethics/spousal debate.
In 2007, Jane Roberts quit her job as a partner at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman to become a legal recruiter—a headhunter for law firms. John Roberts became chief justice in 2005. The other Roberts in now managing partner at the Washington, D.C., office of Macrae, a firm which exists for the purpose of placing high-powered attorneys with high-powered firms. “Macrae knows law firms,” their website boasts. “Their practices. Their geographic markets. Their cultures. Our passion built an inclusive transatlantic network to identify optimal affinities.”
It’s a lucrative business. Politico reports that “A single placement of a superstar lawyer can yield $500,000 or more for the firm.” A superstar lawyer and a high-powered law firm can only be helped by having that connection made by someone in such proximity to real power. The guy who hired Jane Roberts for her previous job admitted it freely, telling Politico that they wanted the benefits of having the wife of the chief on their staff because “her network is his network and vice versa.”
Robert does list the name of her company on his disclosures, but not the lawyers and the firms she’s worked with, “even though her clients include firms that have done Supreme Court work, according to multiple people with knowledge of the arrangements with those firms,” Politico found in its investigation of Supreme spouses and ethical conflicts.
Politico contacted both Barrett’s and Roberts’ firms, and heard back from a Supreme Court spokesperson in the case of Barrett: “Justice Barrett complies with the Ethics in Government Act in filing financial disclosure reports.” Which is the crux of the problem: She’s complying with the Swiss cheese of judicial ethics requirements, and taking full advantage of all the holes.
Pushed further on the broader question of disclosures by justices of their spouses work, the spokesperson pointed to a statement the court issued in 1993, rejecting the idea that there could be any kind of conflict of interest for a justice in a spouse’s work.
“We do not think it would serve the public interest to go beyond the requirements of the statute, and to recuse ourselves, out of an excess of caution, whenever a relative is a partner in the firm before us or acted as a lawyer at an earlier stage,” the seven justices who adopted the policy declared. “Even one unnecessary recusal impairs the functioning of the court.”
That was back when 80% of the population had at least some confidence in the Supreme Court, and 47% had a great deal/quite a lot of confidence in it. Now 68% express some degree of confidence, but just 25% say a great deal or quite a lot, and 30% of people now have very little confidence in it. That might be because the modern Supreme Court has done little to show that it’s anything but a partisan political entity intent on imposing its out-of-the-mainstream will on the American people.
The arrogance the court showed in 1993 is still on display today. Earlier this year, Barrett participated in an interview with Fred Ryan, former Politico chief executive officer and current publisher of The Washington Post. He asked about the potential for conflict with her husband’s work, and Barrett said that it wasn’t the court that had to change, but public expectations.
“But you know, I think we’re living in a time when we have a lot of couples who are both, are working, and so I think that the court and, you know, society has to adjust to expect that,” Barrett said. Asked about whether the court should adopt some guidelines to address the problem of spousal conflicts, she blew the question off. “I don’t think most of the spouses would be very happy about those guidelines,” she answered. “Certainly when I try to give my husband guidelines about what to do and not to do in the house even that doesn’t go over very well.”
That kind of arrogance and untouchability makes trusting the justices to do the right thing difficult. As does the work of the people they share their personal lives—and finances—with. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) puts it succinctly: “The ethical rot at the court continues to spread, and public faith in the court erodes along with it.”
“The questions about financial conflicts of interest are one area of concern among many. There’s also the flood of dark-money influence bearing down on the court, from the nameless donors behind judicial selection to the orchestrated flotillas of anonymous amici curiae lobbying the justices to the spate of partisan decisions handing wins to corporations and big donor interests,” Whitehouse said.
After the last term of absolutely trash decisions out of the court (with the next term promising more of the same), the other two branches of government need to get serious about fixing it. That means imposing a code of ethics and expanding the court.
Good judges are more important now than ever. In some states, judges are on the ballot this November. Tune in to The Downballot to listen to Justice Richard Bernstein talk about what being on the Michigan Supreme Court has been like, and how his re-election campaign is shaping up.
Reprinted with permission from Daily Kos.
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