“Too many hats” sounds like an admonition of a person who takes on so many different roles that they perform all of them badly. Equally, for those of my readers who are British, it is a reminder of the British comedian, Tommy Cooper’s, hat routine, where he changed hats every few words during a particular story. However, the new version of “Too many hats” appears to describe someone who has so many layers of business interests that it’s impossible to tie them, or make them responsible, for any of those layers, or even identify them as part of the layers. U.S. Supreme Court justices, and their corporate sponsors, seem to be very adept at playing this “too many hats” game.
In 2017, Ginni Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, was lavishing praise on dark-money kingpin, and judicial impresario, Leonard Leo, at an awards ceremony for far-right leaders. “He has many hats,” Thomas said of Leo. “That isn’t even all he does. He doesn’t really tell all that he does.” It was said, and accepted, as a compliment but the ramifications for influence peddling were, and are, enormous.
Fortunately, it’s becoming harder and harder to hide all that Leo does, thanks in part to yet more new Politico reporting by Heidi Przybyla. While it’s possible to read her report as a byzantine labyrinth of phony charitable groups, unreported donations, troughs of dark money, and multimillion-dollar campaigns, even the most confused reader can still connect the blacked-out dots to its inevitable conclusion. Successful influence peddling at its worst and in the highest court in the land.
It seems that at precisely the same moment the Supreme Court was poised to decide the 2010 Citizens United case that would set aside a century of campaign finance regulations under the novel theory that money is speech, Thomas, wife of a sitting justice, in concert with Leo, was secretly building the sort of dark-money front group that would soon benefit by the court’s decision. That group would be funded by Harlan Crow, the billionaire who spent decades secretly enriching the same justice who would sit on the case, and the same spouse who would benefit from the outcome of the case; Clarence and Ginni Thomas. And, the dark-money group founded by Ginni Thomas would go on to advocate for other cases argued before the court as her husband heard those cases.
Of course, this system of “too many hats” is all designed to be as intentionally elaborate and complex as possible to hide the fact that a handful of millionaires and billionaires bought, and paid for, the wife of a sitting Supreme Court justice to push their ideas and cases. And it’s not just Justice Clarence Thomas.
It turns out that Justice Samuel Alito doesn’t feel he has to recuse himself from the biggest tax case of the upcoming term despite his extreme entanglements with one of the attorneys arguing the case. That’s because David Rivkin is, all at once, a “journalist”, using the pages of the Wall Street Journal to defend Alito’s time spent with billionaires, Alito’s private public relations guru, and a Supreme Court litigator in a tax case filed on behalf of other billionaires. AND he is also, somehow, Leonard Leo’s attorney……..“Too many hats”.
Or take the “many hats” of Mark Paoletta, who is simultaneously Ginni Thomas’ lawyer, Clarence Thomas’ writing partner, and also the beneficiary of funding from assorted billionaires with business before the court. Also, amazingly, he claims to be a neutral and disinterested expert on ethics rules. You have to be joking!
You can also apply the “hats” defense to Thomas’ benefactor Harlan Crow, whose financial dealings are supposedly so deliberately complicated that nobody should have known he had business before the court. Or, ditto, Alito’s pal, billionaire Paul Singer, who may still have business before the court this year.
It stinks. We know it stinks because, even if we can’t begin to follow the maze of missed filings, incomplete disclosures, and mysterious shell organizations that operate out of P.O. boxes, we do know that when they are lying about it, they’re hiding something.
In the end, don’t let the millions, and billions, of dollars that are spent on bribes, distract you from the story. That story is no less horrifying just because we can’t ever seem to fully understand it.
Indeed, the horror is that the people who have bought the judiciary, and the judges who defend the many-hat-wearing oligarchs, are counting on us to be too confused to do anything about it.