Supreme Discrepancies: Kavanaugh’s Financial Disclosure Reports Conflict With His Senate Testimony
Much has been written about Brett Kavanaugh’s high school days, when the incoming Supreme Court Justice was, in his own words, an “obnoxious drunk.” The allegation of his 1982 sexual assault captivated and polarized the nation, turning his confirmation hearing into, as Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) put it, “the most despicable thing I have seen in my time in politics.”
What should be of greater concern to Graham — and his colleagues in the Senate who declared that proof of Kavanaugh’s perjury would disqualify him from SCOTUS consideration — are the misstatements the judge made to the Senate Judiciary Committee, well before anyone knew Dr. Ford’s name. These misstatements do not involve bad behavior from the 1980s, and have nothing to do with fondness for beer, parties with Judge and Squi, or mysterious drinking games named after lurid sex acts.
Rather, Kavanaugh misrepresented himself on questions concerning his financial statements — questions about what he spent his money on, how he accumulated his substantial debt, and, most importantly, how that debt was paid off. These misrepresentations cannot be attributed to bygone days of drinking at Georgetown Prep, because Kavanaugh made these claims this year, ostensibly while sober, about financial transactions that took place not in 1982, but now — as an adult, as a sitting federal judge, and as a husband and father.
As a federal judge, Brett Kavanaugh is required by law to submit detailed financial reports. These reports are all public documents, readily available to anyone who wishes to look.
In his 2009 financial disclosure report, Kavanaugh listed four credit cards, issued by USAA, Citibank, Chase, and Bank of America:
At the time, Kavanaugh reported balances of between $5,000 and $15,000 on the first two, and balances between $15,000 and $50,000 on the second two. (The documents require a range of debt be reported, not an exact figure). At the absolute minimum, he was carrying $40,000 on his four credit cards — a significant figure — and could have accumulated up to a staggering $130,000 in credit card debt.
The following year, 2010, Kavanaugh began teaching at Harvard Law School. He added more to his Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) loan, carrying a balance between $15,000 and $50,000 — ostensibly to consolidate his credit card debt — and brought his four credit cards each into the “Code J” range of $5,000-$14,999:
Conservatively, he remained $35,000 in the red, although the actual debt figure was likely higher than that.
This pattern went on for the next several years. Although he managed to pay off the Citibank credit card and chip away at some of the others, Kavanaugh was still in debt on three cards, plus the TSP loan. By 2015, he had paid off three of the original cards, and disclosed a debt of less than $15,000 on the Chase card. The TSP loan remained. He appeared to finally be righting the ship.
The next year, his wife Ashley Estes Kavanaugh, who once worked as George W. Bush’s private secretary and had been a stay-at-home mother prior to 2016, took a job as the Town Manager of Section 5 of Chevy Chase, Maryland. Curiously, this coincided with a big spike in credit card debt, not a decline, as one might expect. In 2016, Kavanaugh was again “Code K” across three credit cards and the TSP loan. All four liabilities were between $15,000 and $50,000 each, meaning his total debt load was between $60,000 and $200,000.
What was he spending all that money on? Home improvements, Kavanaugh told the Senate:
Over the years, we have sunk a decent amount of money into our home for sometimes unanticipated repairs and improvements. As many homeowners probably appreciate, the list sometimes seems to never end, and for us it has included over the years: replacing the heating and air conditioning system and air conditioning units, replacing the water heater, painting and repairing the full exterior of the house, painting the interior of the house, replacing the porch flooring on the front and side porches with composite wood, gutter repairs, roof repairs, new refrigerator, new oven, ceiling leaks, ongoing flooding in the basement, waterproofing the basement, mold removal in the basement, drainage work because of excess water outside the house that was running into the neighbor’s property, fence repair, and so on. Maintaining a house, especially an old house like ours, can be expensive.
And this statement is where he gets into trouble. Some of the improvements listed — specifically, the HVAC, the waterproofing of the basement, and the hot water heater replacement — require permits. A thorough search of permits filed in Montgomery County, Maryland, show no approvals for Kavanaugh’s property. Thus, Kavanaugh is either perjuring himself about those repairs being the source of his debt, or he failed to obtain required permits. Both are unlawful. He’s either lying to the building inspector of Montgomery County, or to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
In 2017, despite bankrolling all those much-ballyhooed home improvements, Kavanaugh’s debts mostly vanished. All three credit cards were suddenly — and inexplicably — paid off. The only remaining liability was the TSP loan, which shrunk to less than $15,000.
The Kavanaughs showed pre-tax income of about $287,000 that year — significantly more than most Americans earn, but not enough to absorb so much credit card debt on top of their other financial responsibilities. The mortgage payments on his $1.2 million home come to roughly $60,000 a year, the property taxes something like $10,000. Tuition for his two daughters to attend Blessed Sacrament is $20,000. Throw in $110,000 of credit card debt repayment, and the outlay just for those expenses is an even $200,000. That means that, after taxes, the Kavanaugh family of four, living in tony Chevy Chase, managed to spend about $3000 a month on all other expenses — health insurance, life insurance, homeowners insurance, auto insurance, cell phones, automobiles, cable, internet, as well as food and entertainment. This last category famously includes MLB baseball tickets, as well as membership to not one but two exclusive country clubs, the Congressional and the Chevy Chase Club. “We paid the full price of the club’s entry fee,” Kavanaugh testified about the latter, “and we pay regular dues in the same amount that other members pay. We did not and do not receive any discounts.”
Million dollar mortgage, two country clubs, private school tuition, myriad home improvements, and sizable debt repayment…Something doesn’t add up.
When asked about Kavanaugh’s hefty liabilities, White House spokesman Raj Shah told Amy Brittain of The Washington Post that “Kavanaugh built up the debt by buying Washington Nationals season tickets and tickets for playoff games for himself and a ‘handful’ of friends. Shah said some of the debts were also for home improvements.” The White House spokesman explained that Kavanaugh’s “friends” reimbursed him for said tickets, but did not identify who these “friends” were. Further, Brittain writes: “Shah said the payments for the tickets were made at the end of 2016 and paid off early the next year. ‘He did not carry that kind of debt year over year,’ Shah said.”
On its face, this “baseball tickets” explanation is absurd. First, as his financial disclosure statements make clear, Kavanaugh did, in fact, “carry that kind of debt year over year” — meaning that the White House spokesman flat-out lied. Second, if he was living on $3000 a month for all his expenses, he couldn’t afford even his share of the tickets. Third, for Kavanaugh to be the purchaser of the tickets is financially reckless. If you add big purchases to credit cards that are already carrying large balances, you increase the principal on which the credit card company charges interest. Why would Kavanaugh offer to front the cash for the tickets — and why would he do it across three credit cards? Does he really like the Nationals that much?
In subsequent written answers to the Senate, Kavanaugh downplayed the Raj Shah claim:
As is typical with baseball season tickets, I had a group of old friends who would split games with me. We would usually divide the tickets in a “ticket draft” at my house. Everyone in the group paid me for their tickets based on the cost of the tickets, to the dollar. No one overpaid or underpaid me for tickets. No loans were given in either direction.
Baseball ticket reimbursement, Kavanaugh explains, do not explain the sudden uptick in fortune. Rather:
Our annual income and financial worth substantially increased in the last few years as a result of a significant annual salary increase for federal judges; a substantial back pay award in the wake of class litigation over pay for the Federal Judiciary; and my wife’s return to the paid workforce following the many years that she took off from paid work in order to stay with and care for our daughters. The back pay award was excluded from disclosure on my previous financial disclosure report based on the Filing Instructions for Judicial Officers and Employees, which excludes income from the Federal Government.
This statement is not a lie, per se, but it does skirt the truth. First, while his family income did increase, the Kavanaughs simply do not generate enough to cover their ample expenses (they own no stocks at all, so they don’t make money in other ways). Second, Ashley Kavanaugh went back to work in 2016, a year when their credit card debts went sharply up, not down. Too, the “substantial back pay” — approximately $150,000 before taxes — was issued in 2014. This squares with his financial disclosure statement of 2015, which shows a sharp reduction in credit card debt. However, the overall picture is of a family mired in debt, given an infusion of unexpected cash, taking on more work…and still struggling to make ends meet.
And then, poof, in 2017, those debts vanished. Absent an undisclosed loan or a gift, this is not possible — not with the fixed expenses he’s disclosed. He says:
We have not received financial gifts other than from our family which are excluded from disclosure in judicial financial disclosure reports. Nor have we received other kinds of gifts from anyone outside of our family, apart from ordinary non-reportable gifts related to, for example, birthdays, Christmas, or personal hospitality. On the 2018 financial disclosure report, I correctly listed “exempt” for gifts and reimbursements because those are the explicit instructions in the 2018 Filing Instructions for Judicial Officers and Employees.
How did Kavanaugh, who lived for a decade above his means, swimming in massive credit card debt, manage to get back in black in a single year — the year before his surprise nomination to the Supreme Court? Did his parents or his in-laws (“our family”) bail him out, and if so, did he report this largesse on his federal tax return? And if they didn’t…who did?
The Senate has known about these financial discrepancies for months. The press reported on some of them, but the “follow the money” angle was quickly overshadowed by the sexual assault allegations against Judge Kavanaugh. Building permits and baseball ticket reimbursements don’t capture the imagination like a rollicking game of Devil’s Triangle, after all. But a lie is a lie, and perjury is perjury.
Furthermore, a judge in debt to mysterious creditors (the “friends” who “reimbursed” the “baseball tickets”) is a judge susceptible to blackmail. And that is not acceptable on the Supreme Court, where impartiality is king. Now that Brett Kavanaugh prepares to succeed Justice Kennedy, the American people deserve an answer to the question: Who owns Kavanaugh?