WASHINGTON — A liberal organization charged Saturday that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas improperly billed the government more than a dozen times between 1982 and 1989 for travel unrelated to his duties as chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The allegations by People for the American Way came as President Bush made a radio speech extolling Thomas' rise from humble beginnings and again proclaimed the black jurist as the right man to replace Justice Thurgood Marshall.
The developments came three days before confirmation hearings by the Senate Judiciary Committee, scheduled to begin Tuesday, on the most controversial Supreme Court nomination since the defeat of Robert H. Bork in 1987.
While the latest disclosures appeared unlikely to have a major impact on the Senate, they did give opponents another talking point against Thomas, who is a circuit judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
There was no immediate reaction from the White House or Thomas, but the Associated Press quoted Nicholas M. Inzeo, associate legal counsel of the EEOC, as saying that Thomas had wide latitude to represent the agency even if he spoke on subjects not related to its mission of halting job discrimination.
People for the American Way, which opposes Thomas, made public government travel documents it said showed that the former EEOC chairman made at least 15 trips at government expense to give political speeches or make other appearances unrelated to official business.
For example, the group said, Thomas went to Los Angeles three times during 1984-86 to visit and speak at Child Help Inc., a charity that works with abused children. Its chairwoman is Nancy Reagan, who was First Lady at the time of Thomas' trips.
The group also charged that Thomas frequently traveled to college campuses in 1987 and 1988 to address chapters of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal organization, in speeches in which he sharply criticized Congress.
In an appearance at the society's chapter at the University of Virginia on March 5, 1988, the group said, Thomas praised Oliver L. North, a key figure in the Iran-Contra scandal, by saying: "As Ollie North made perfectly clear last summer, it is Congress that is out of control."
The following month, according to People for the American Way, Thomas spoke at the Gordon Public Policy Center at Brandeis University and criticized Democratic Sens. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, Paul Simon of Illinois and Howard M. Metzenbaum of Ohio because they demanded that the EEOC furnish summaries of its actions every six months to Congress.
The organization said Thomas approved his own travel in each case despite an agency guideline that states: "It is the policy of the agency to approve that amount of travel necessary to accomplish the mission of the agency efficiently--but not one bit more--and at minimum cost."
In his radio talk, however, Bush praised Thomas as a man who embodies "the promise of equality and opportunity in America . . . someone who appreciates our Constitution's timeless majesty, who understands the importance of the rule of law in our society."
Bush described the nominee as an "extraordinary man who conquered deprivation without self-pity or complaint."