Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has accepted luxury gifts from a prominent Republican donor for more than 20 years without disclosing them, possibly violating a law that requires justices, judges and members of Congress to disclose most gifts, according to a new report.
ProPublica reported Thursday on a series of lavish trips Thomas has taken over more than two decades, which have been funded by billionaire and GOP megadonor Harlan Crow.
This investigation comes as the nation’s high court fends off requests for a code of ethics, which would likely address similar instances.
The disclosures are the latest ethics controversy to dog Thomas, who also has faced tough questions about his incomplete financial disclosure forms and appearances at other political gatherings of wealthy conservative donors and influencers.
Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, his wife, also has come under scrutiny for her back-channel efforts to help former President Donald Trump stay in power despite losing the 2020 presidential election to Joe Biden.
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Thomas accepted luxury gifts without disclosing them, according to report
Thomas has accepted lavish gifts from the billionaire Dallas businessman nearly every year, which had included vacations on Crow’s superyacht and trips on the billionaire’s Bombardier Global 5000 jet as well as a week each summer at Crow’s private resort in the Adirondacks, ProPublica reported, citing flight records, internal documents and interviews with Crow’s employees.
The report also found that flight records from the Federal Aviation Administration and FlightAware suggests that Thomas makes “regular use” of Crow’s jet, noting that Thomas used the private plane for a three-hour trip in 2016.
Thomas’ frequent trips to Crow’s private lakeside report, Camp Topridge, in the Adirondacks in upstate New York has also subjected Thomas to Crow’s extensive guestlist of corporate executives and political activists.
More: Supreme Court justices don’t have a code of ethics. Hundreds of judges say that’s a problem
Thomas vacationed with executives at Verizon and PricewaterhouseCoopers, major GOP donors, a leader of the American Enterprise Institute during a July 2017 trip, according to ProPublica.
What did Thomas, Crow say?
Thomas didn’t respond to ProPublica’s request for comment, but Crow in a statement said he and his wife’s “hospitality” to Thomas and his wife “over the years is no different from the hospitality we have extended to our many other dear friends.”
Crow, in his statement, also emphasized that he has never asked Thomas about any pending or lower court case, nor has Thomas discussed one, adding that “we have never sought to influence Justice Thomas on any legal or political issue” nor is aware of “any of our friends ever lobbying or seeking to influence” Thomas.
Renewed calls for code of ethics
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a longtime advocate for more transparency and accountability on the Supreme Court, issued a series of tweets following the ProPublica story saying it underscores why an overhaul of court ethics laws and requirements is urgently needed.
“A picture worth a thousand words,” Whitehouse said, including a painting in his tweet from the ProPublica report that allegedly hangs at Crow’s Adirondacks resort, Camp Topridge. It shows Thomas smoking cigars with Crow and other prominent conservatives.
Whitehouse outlined some of the connections between those in what he calls “the ‘cigar boys’ painting,” saying one of them, Leonard Leo, runs a “constellation of front groups” whose goal is to secretly influence the High Court.
As one example, Whitehouse said that an organization called the Judicial Crisis Network “raised anonymous money in checks as big as $17 million to fund political ads for (Supreme Court justices) Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Barrett.”
“The donor(s) who funded ads to help Leo’s Judicial Crisis Network front group pack the Court, and the donor’s(s’) business or interests before the Court, have never been disclosed,” Whitehouse said.
“This secrecy is toxic and wrong,” he added. “The Court should not protect it any longer, and the Judicial Conference should look diligently and with urgency into this mess of front group briefs.”
Whitehouse, a lawyer and former top federal prosecutor, is a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees Supreme Court nominations.
The least accountable part of the U.S. government?
Gabe Roth, executive director of the non-partisan group Fix the Court, said the ProPublica story “leads to a conclusion we’ve all come to expect: the Supreme Court is the least accountable part of our government, and nothing is going to change without a wholesale, lawmaker-led reimagining of its responsibilities when it comes to basic measures of oversight.”
Roth said the disclosures in the report underscore that ‘personal hospitality rules’ adopted by the judiciary last month do not go far enough, and that Supreme Court and lower courts need to adopt “the same, if not stricter, gift and travel rules than what members of Congress have.”
“That means a judicial ethics office to pre-approve sponsored trips, no matter who — even a ‘friend’ — is footing the bill, and judges and justices should be required to file a report within 30 days of their return listing the names of other guests and the dollar amounts for every mode of transportation taken, plus lodging and meals.”
Roth also called on Thomas to update his disclosure reports “for every year he took a private plane, as it appears that such luxurious travel has never been included under the ‘personal hospitality exemption.’”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Clarence Thomas secretly accepted lavish gifts from GOP donor: report