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Biden hides free vacations from financial disclosure even after Justice Thomas pummelled for it

It's not an Air BnB: “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."

Published: August 28, 2023 3:55am

Under growing pressure over alleged financial improprieties and a special counsel investigating the handling of classified material, President Joe Biden is receiving additional scrutiny for his failure to list free vacations at the homes of businesspeople on his annual financial disclosure form this week.  

Travel magazine Travel Noire ran a recent headline declaring that "Biden Has Been on Vacation for 40% of His Presidency". Political analyst/editorialist Phillip Bump of The Washington Post tried to minimize the significance, mentioning that "Biden stayed at the homes of donors. His Virgin Islands trip was to a home owned by billionaire Democratic donors Bill and Connie Neville. Twice, he’s stayed at a Martha’s Vineyard compound owned by billionaire David Rubenstein."

"This is not an ideal situation, certainly, the president of the United States receiving favors from wealthy allies" Bump continued. "But these trips make up only 24 of the 250-plus days Biden has been away from the White House" Bump said. 

Biden had three beach vacations at the homes of "wealthy and politically connected" owners during the past-year reporting period, according to The New York Post.

Biden did not pay the owner in at least two of those three getaways, said the Post, and in the third case it’s suspected the president did not pay.

The president is receiving criticism from ethicists and Republicans for actions similar for what Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is currently being pilloried — non-reporting of free trips from a businessman. The left-leaning ProPublica has published almost a dozen stories about Thomas' trips and relationships with the wealthy. A search of ProPublica's archives found no stories about Biden's stays at billionaire homes.

Among professional ethicists, the issue is non-partisan: Walter Shaub, an ethics expert who led the Obama-era Office of Government Ethics, and Richard Painter, the top ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush White House, both told the New York Post that free vacation-home stays need to be disclosed if the homeowner isn’t present — and it appears they were not — because a ‘personal hospitality’ exception would not apply, according to the Post.

“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,” Painter added.

“You can’t have the president just going around using people’s houses for free without disclosure. That’s no better than a Supreme Court justice staying on a yacht for free without disclosure,” Painter said.

Painter says when he was working there, the presidential counsel’s office in the West Wing kept a close watch on such gifts. But Biden reported accepting no gifts of any kind on the annual disclosure form he signed May 14.

“I think whoever is preparing these forms is not focusing. And if it’s intentionally left off, then you get into the [criminal] false statements law … and that could be a felony,” said Painter, who was a frequent critic of former President Donald Trump on ethics issues.

Painter said the pattern of non-reporting could cause some political problems for the president.

“If you have multiple disclosure lapses, particularly involving the same donor or friend, that’s where you get into a situation where Clarence Thomas has been criticized for,” Painter said. “Once you might say it is a really careless mistake. You start to get into the second and third times and you start to wonder, ‘What the heck is going on here?'”

“President Biden has stayed at donors’ lavish vacation homes and he’s not being honest with the American people,” said House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.), who is leading the investigation into the financial impropriety investigation of the alleged misuse of his office as vice president to enrich his family through various foreign business transactions.

“Americans deserve the truth about the President and first family’s influence peddling,” Comer told the Post. “That is why we are pursuing legislation as part of our investigation into the Biden family’s financial schemes to strengthen ethics laws to provide greater transparency to the American people.”

The same laws govern presidential and judicial ethics disclosures, though they are enforced by different entities.

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