The White House may have crippled the prospect of criminal prosecution against former President Donald Trump for his Mar-a-Lago document stash with the politically explosive discovery of classified documents in the Delaware home and an office at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement of the University of Pennsylvania in Washington, D.C. that was used by President Joe Biden.
Now, Biden is facing criticism and scrutiny after failing to list free vacations at the homes of elite businesspeople on his annual financial disclosure forms this week, an act that mirrors the ongoing controversy surrounding Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ similar non-reporting of free trips from Harlan Crow, the CEO of Crow Holdings, a real estate investment and development firm.
The failure of both Biden and Thomas to disclose these free vacations is significant evidence of wrongdoing in a government that allows too much bad behavior to go unpunished.
The revelation that Biden failed to disclose his vacations also created a political firestorm that parallels the allegations against Thomas and makes it less likely that the scandals will be adjudicated in a fair and responsible manner.
When Biden receives free lodging, he’s supposed to disclose it on annual financial disclosure forms that are released publicly each May.
The form requires the president and vice president to disclose free lodging worth more than $390. Ethics experts say the “personal hospitality” reporting exception on that form doesn’t cover instances where the homeowner isn’t present.
During the most recent reporting period, Biden enjoyed three beach getaways at the homes of wealthy and politically connected individuals.
In two instances, it is known that Biden did not pay the homeowner, and in the third case, there is suspicion that the president also did not pay.
Ethics experts, including Walter Shaub, former head of the Obama-era Office of Government Ethics, and Richard Painter, the top ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush White House, argue that free vacation homestays should be disclosed if the homeowner is not present.
They contend that a “personal hospitality” exception should not apply in such cases.
Painter, now a law professor at the University of Minnesota, stated, “The homeowner has to be a personal friend of the president or first lady and be present during the stay — otherwise, that goes on the form. There’s no excuse not to have it on the form.”
He further criticized the omissions, suggesting that intentional non-disclosure could potentially violate the false statements law, which could carry felony charges.
The extended Biden family stayed for six days at billionaire investor David Rubenstein’s Nantucket Island compound.
In August, they spent seven days at the $20 million, 10,500-square-foot, nine-bedroom oceanfront mansion of hedge fund donor Maria Allwin on Kiawah Island, South Carolina. Biden vacationed at the same Kiawah home in 2009 while he was vice president in the Obama administration.
Additionally, the first couple, along with their daughter and grandkids, stayed for seven days at the beachfront St. Croix home of wealthy business owners Bill and Connie Neville in late December and early January.
These stays were not disclosed as gifts in previous reporting periods, raising concerns about recurring non-disclosures.
Rubenstein is a billionaire who co-founded the multinational private equity firm The Carlyle Group,
The issue of non-disclosure of free vacation homes has been compared to the controversy surrounding Justice Clarence Thomas, who reportedly failed to report free trips and private jet flights provided by billionaire Harlan Crow.
While some argue that the “personal hospitality” exception applies, others believe that the statute lacks a clear mandate for disclosure in such instances.
The ongoing scrutiny of Thomas prompted the US Judicial Conference to tighten rules in March, specifying that resorts do not qualify as personal residences exempt from reporting.
The failure to disclose free vacations has sparked calls for greater transparency and accountability in government. House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) is leading an investigation into whether President Biden misused his office as vice president for personal enrichment through foreign business ventures.
Comer emphasized the need for stronger ethics laws to provide transparency to the American people, although he showed no interest in such standards when it came to the Trump White House or the Supreme Court since it was stacked with GOP extremists.
As the controversy unfolds, the White House has not responded to inquiries about the non-disclosed vacation homes.
The Office of Government Ethics, which administers executive branch ethics disclosure requirements, has not formally issued an edict on the “personal hospitality” exception.
However, ethicists and critics argue that the lack of disclosure raises concerns about the prevalence of misconduct and the need for more stringent enforcement of ethics laws.
The ongoing debate surrounding the non-disclosure of free vacations highlights the importance of ethical behavior and transparency in government. The fallout from these revelations has implications for the Biden administration’s credibility and its commitment to upholding the highest ethical standards.
As the scrutiny continues, it remains to be seen how the voters will address these concerns and whether elections will produce greater accountability in the future.
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