An attorney who is featured in a now-popular painting of Clarence Thomas vacationing at a GOP megadonor's exclusive resort argued that the justice was not legally obligated to disclose any of these trips.
Mark Paoletta, a partner at Schaeer Jaffe and close friend of Thomas, wrote in the right-leaning National Review article published Thursday arguing that Thomas had "acted properly and consistent with the rules" of financial disclosures for Supreme Court Justices. The column was in response to an investigative story from ProPublica which revealed how Thomas had, for years, accepted stays at a luxury resort in upstate New York and chartered flights in private jets — all at the expense of his longtime friend and Republican donor, Harlan Crow.
"This latest effort by the Left has nothing to do with 'ethics.' It has everything to do with trying to destroy the Supreme Court now that there is a working majority of justices moving the Court firmly in an originalist direction," Paoletta wrote, calling the ProPublica story a "hit piece."
Paoletta discloses in the article that he was Thomas's lawyer during the justice's confirmation in 1991, co-edited a book with him, and "remain close friends."
But the attorney is also featured in a painting that was commissioned by Crow and depicts Thomas vacationing at the luxury resort that is central to the renewed scrutiny of Thomas' financial disclosure forms.
The painting features Thomas smoking a cigar at Camp Topridge, where the artwork also hangs, next to Crow on the far right, according to ProPublica. There are also lawyers Peter Rutledge, Leonard Leo, and, sitting above and in the center of everyone, Paoletta.
Sharif Tarabay, the artist of the painting, told ProPublica that the piece depicts a moment at Topridge from about five years ago. The publication reported that Thomas vacationed at the remote resort almost every summer for more than two decades.
Paoletta did not respond to a request for comment.
Legal experts said Thomas may have violated a law that dictates how judicial officers and employers must report gifts in their financial disclosure forms. Steve Vladeck, a University of Texas School of Law professor, told Insider that the recent string of allegations against Thomas, including a Bloomberg report that revealed that the justice did not recuse himself from an appeals case involving the Crow family business, points to the larger issue of the lack of proper mechanisms to enforce laws that are supposed to hold courts accountable.
In his defense, Paoletta claimed however that recent rule changes regardings gifts that were adopted in March by the Judicial Conference of the United States vindicate Thomas.
Prior to the changes, rules around travel that are considered "personal hospitality" were not explicitly defined, The New York Times reported. The financial disclosure committee of the Judicial Conference added more stipulations last month to include what kinds of gifts need to be disclosed, including travel by private jet and stays at resorts or hotels.
Paoletta's argument appears to hinge on the idea that the lack of clarity around gift disclosures means Thomas "correctly interpreted the rule."
As one of two of his "pieces of evidence," Paoletta cited an exchange between Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and the Senate Judiciary Committee witness, Kedric Payne, who is the general counsel for the Campaign Legal Center.
Payne said that a justice could "try to" rely on an exemption to disclose personal hospitality gifts because the rules around it are not made clear by the courts.
"Senator Whitehouse and Kedric Payne do not like the way this rule was implemented. But that is immaterial to the conclusion that Justice Thomas had no obligation to disclose these innocuous trips," Paoletta wrote. "The simple fact is that this was permissible."