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Virginia Thomas builds tea party network

By KENNETH P. VOGEL | 4/12/11 5:47 PM EDT

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s wife Virginia “Ginni” Thomas has a new job in conservative journalism that keeps her involved with the recent focus of her political activism and business dealings – the tea party movement.

As a part-time special correspondent for the Daily Caller, Thomas plans to tap into the movement, according to emails sent this month to top tea party organizers around the country, to build a list of “leaders from the grassroots in each state … who have their ear to the ground” and are willing to be surveyed weekly by two “prominent pollsters.” The results will be published on the Daily Caller website.

Thomas’s involvement with the tea party and the conservative movement in general has been a continuing source of controversy both for her and her husband.

Ginni Thomas’s 2009 creation of a tea party non-profit group for which she raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in undisclosed contributions, as well as her subsequent creation of a tea party consulting firm last year, has become the basis for allegations by some liberals that her husband’s impartiality has been compromised.

And her attendance at an annual summit of major conservative donors organized by the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch – revealed in a recent speech by a federal judge and Thomas family ally – can be expected to draw even more scrutiny.

In remarks prepared for delivery last month to the San Francisco branch of the conservative Federalist Society, Laurence Silberman, a senior judge on the federal appeals court in Washington, blasted critics of the Thomases as “hypocrites” pushing “phony concerns” about judicial ethics, while ignoring real ones and getting their facts wrong.

Silberman disputed the characterizations of Common Cause and media that Thomas and fellow conservative Justice Antonin Scalia had attended the Koch brothers’ Palm Springs, Calif., donor conferences in 2008 and 2007, respectively.

The justices, Silberman asserted, were in Palm Springs on the tab of the Federalist Society to attend a society dinner, which he said was “at a different location, presumably to emphasize its separation from the (Koch) conference,” according to prepared text of his speech obtained by POLITICO.

“Now, it’s likely that the dinner was attended largely by members of the (Koch) conference,” said Silberman, a staunch conservative who voted to overturn Oliver North’s Iran contra conviction and worked during Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings to discredit Anita Hill, who had accused Thomas of sexual harassment.

“But that hardly converts the dinner into a political event, so long as the dinner itself was not political,” he added, asserting Scalia remarks at the dinner focused on “the influence of foreign law,” while Thomas “spoke about his autobiographical sketches and his book.”

But, he said, Thomas “dropped by to pick up his wife, Virginia, who did attend.”

Still, Silberman called criticism of Ginni Thomas’s “openly political” activities “bogus.”

Asserting that judicial ethics cannons “explicitly recognize that a judge’s spouse’s political activities are entirely separate from the judge,” Silberman cited other federal judges with politically active spouses, including federal appeals court Judge Marjorie Rendell, whose estranged husband is former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, and 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt, whose wife, Ramona Ripston, stepped down in February after decades running the Southern California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.

And Silberman said retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s involvement in a campaign opposing state judicial elections – which drew recent scrutiny from the Associated Press – poses “a real ethical concern.”

Silberman, a representative from the Federalist Society and Ginni Thomas did not respond to requests for comment about Silberman’s characterization of the dinners or Ginni Thomas’s attendance at the Koch conference.

Responding on Tuesday to a series of questions about Thomas’s Daily Caller work, including whether she or the publication would own the polling list, Tucker Carlson, the Daily Caller’s co-founder and top editor, responded with a list of his own questions about the finances of POLITICO and its employees, including a request for this reporter’s “most recent tax return.”

In an interview last month after announcing Thomas’s hiring, Carlson shrugged off questions about how her activities impacted her husband’s objectivity, telling POLITICO “that’s his business. He’s not writing for us. I wish he were.”

Generally, he asserted, “Spouses have a right to have their own lives.”

After stepping down late last year as head of Liberty Central, Thomas started a firm called Liberty Consulting, which she advertised as helping Republican congressmen “establish even better connections with your own grassroots citizens” and “find ways to increase your reputation amongst the right conservatives beyond and inside the Beltway.”

One conservative who is familiar with Thomas’s work at Liberty Central and Liberty Consulting and who received emails this month soliciting participation in Thomas’s list, asserted Thomas “has desperately wanted to be the person in D.C. who has access to the Tea Party, so she can be a power player.”

But Billie Tucker, a Jacksonville, Fla., tea party organizer who also serves an official at Liberty Central, told POLITICO that – to her knowledge – Thomas hasn’t been involved at Liberty Central since she stepped down.

In an email to tea party leaders on Thomas’s behalf, Tucker urged activists to submit their contact information to Thomas for her “confidential list of those who will be polled” by the Daily Caller. Thomas “hopes that this weekly poll … will find that those outside the beltway are more reliable than the INSIDERS frequently polled by such established organs as National Journal, who does weekly ‘insider’ polls,” Tucker wrote.

And, in a separate email plea to activists last week, Ginni Thomas herself touted her effort as an “exclusive list of prominent outsiders” and said that joining the Daily Caller “has been an exhilarating experience. … the team here is a blast!”

She indicated her first contribution to the website – a web video – is being edited and is likely to post this week.

And she boasted that the 14-month old site is logging 2 million unique viewers per month, adding the website is “poised to talk with the center-right of the country.”

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