Froma Harrop | Justice Thomas and His Wife

I’m not going to waste everyone’s time treating Virginia Thomas’ message on Anita Hill’s office voice mail as a genuine request for an apology. Hill had famously accused Ginni’s husband, Clarence Thomas, of sexual harassment at his confirmation hearing for Supreme Court justice. That was 19 years ago.

No, Ginni Thomas has bigger fish to fry than to rehash her grievances with Anita Hill. She’s raised hundreds of thousands for her lucrative political brainchild, Liberty Central. The group’s mission is to co-opt tea party types and deliver them to the Republican establishment. What better way for Ginni to profit from right-wing anger than to portray herself as the victim of a left-wing smear campaign?

By all means, let’s keep the spotlight on her and follow it to Liberty Central. You think that big money has already taken over Washington? You have no idea how much worse it could get. The Thomases’ activities provide a number of scary potential scenarios.

But before going there, let’s dispose of the phone-call stunt. The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette says, “If you have something important or special to say to a friend, don’t leave it on an answering machine.”

Had Ginni really wanted a woman-to-woman chat with Anita Hill, she would have said in her message: “Anita, we need to talk. Could you ring me Thursday between 3 and 5?” Instead, she left the message at 7:30 a.m., when Anita would surely not be in her office. It was perfectly composed for public consumption, complete with a call to prayer.

Left out of Ginni’s equation was the sudden appearance of Lillian McEwan, one of Clarence’s old girlfriends. A former Securities and Exchange Commission lawyer, McEwan confirms Anita’s charges — that Clarence was indeed a porn-freak, who hit on women at work with sexy remarks. Clarence had denied it all.

Let’s make my position clear. Although no admirer of Clarence Thomas, I did find the 11th-hour accusations an act of grave unfairness. You’d think that if Hill had been that offended, she would have sued him for sexual harassment.

Furthermore, watching pornography is legal.

Clarence Thomas’ more serious brush with indecency involved his role last January in the obscene Citizens United ruling. Joining the conservative majority, he helped open the stable doors for 501(c)(4) groups, like Ginni’s Liberty Central, to collect millions from unidentified donors, then use the money to run political ads.

Now, Ginni is a private citizen who has every right to be politically active. Liberals can play the same game. But here’s the problem — and it goes way beyond possibly compromising the electoral process.

Clarence rules on cases that affect powerful economic interests. We have no idea whether those interests are simultaneously enriching Ginni’s political group and, by extension, the Thomas household. But Ginni knows.

What’s to stop her from saying over breakfast: “Honey, Megamogul Hedge Fund Partners has just given Liberty Central $500,000. They need your help at court today.” Or to better protect her husband from possible conflict-of-interest charges, she could take an indirect approach: “Honey, I don’t care for the plaintiff’s argument in today’s case,” followed by a wink.

Perhaps the Thomases are sterling servants of the public good. Still, how can we assess whether a justice has a conflict of interest without knowing where the family’s money comes from?

The classic conservative cure for keeping elections honest while allowing unlimited campaign spending was to disclose the names of the spenders. Now we can’t even tell who may be paying people off.

Thank you, Ginni Thomas, for keeping us focused on these dangers to the democracy. You may have done our civic culture a great service even if you had no intention of doing it.

Copyright 2010 The Providence Journal Co. Distributed by