April 16, 2024

Justice Clarence Thomas said Friday he would begin to disclose at least part of the value of the free trips he accepts from Harlan Crow, a wealthy Texas real estate developer and a prominent Republican donor.

Thomas was responding to a ProPublica report that he and his wife, conservative activist Ginni Thomas, had enjoyed several lavish and undisclosed trips that were paid for by Crow.

Those included a 2019 visit to Indonesia that featured “nine days of island-hopping” aboard a 162-foot yacht — an excursion that would have cost the couple $500,000, the group said.

In 2004, the Los Angeles Times detailed all manner of gifts Thomas had received from Crow and others, including a Bible once owned by abolitionist Frederick Douglass valued at $19,000, and a $1,200 set of tires for his mobile home from an Omaha businessman.

The Times story was based on Thomas’ detailed disclosure statements at the time. After that, it appears Thomas continued to accept free trips from Crow — but he stopped disclosing them.

His acceptance of such gifts and failure to disclose them cast renewed scrutiny on whether judges — particularly on the Supreme Court — should face tougher regulations.

Nothing under current law or judiciary rules prevents a justice from taking luxury trips paid for by personal friends.

“Harlan and Kathy Crow are among our dearest friends, and we have been friends for over 25 years,” Thomas said in a statement issued by the court in response to ProPublica’s report. “As friends do, we have joined them on a number of family trips during the more than quarter century we have known them.”

Thomas said Friday that he believed he was not required to report such trips.

He said he “sought guidance from [his] colleagues and others in the judiciary, and was advised that this sort of personal hospitality from close personal friends, who did not have business before the court, was not reportable.”

Since 1978, the law has required federal employees, including judges, to report gifts they receive.

But “personal hospitality” is excluded from this requirement. That means a judge need not report “any food, lodging or entertainment” if it is the “personal hospitality of an individual” rather than a business.

Under a newly approved clarification of the rules, justices in the future will have to disclose the cost of private air travel they accept that is unrelated to court business.

If Crow’s resorts operate as commercial businesses rather than as a private home, Thomas will be required to report his stays there as well.

Thomas said he would abide by the new rules.

“These guidelines are now being changed,” he said. “And it is, of course, my intent to follow this guidance in the future.”

Other justices are known to have accepted gifts and free travel from admirers. The late Justice Antonin Scalia took hunting trips that were paid for in part by friends.

Crow, whose father, Trammel Crow, created a real estate empire based in Dallas, met Thomas in the mid-1990s after hearing him speak in Texas.

“We believe Justice Thomas to be one of the greatest Americans of our time, and we believe it is important to make sure as many people as possible learn about him, remember him, and understand the ideals for which he stands,” Crow and his wife said Thursday in a statement to a CBS station in Texas.

Crow’s gifts to the Thomases go beyond travel and vacation stays at his ranch in Texas and his summer home in upstate New York’s Adirondack Mountains.

The businessman donated $175,000 for a Clarence Thomas wing of the public library in the justice’s hometown of Savannah, Ga., and $500,000 for Ginni Thomas to establish the conservative advocacy nonprofit Liberty Central during the tea party era.

Some legal experts say the gifts demonstrate the need for additional changes to disclosure rules.

New York University law professor Stephen Gillers said the new guidelines make only a minor change.

“So long as the host pays for the trips personally, reporting is not required, except for [the cost of] private planes,” he said. “And we’re only talking about reporting — not whether the generosity can be accepted at all.”

Gabe Roth, executive director of the nonpartisan nonprofit Fix the Court, said Thomas’ statement confirming he would follow the new rules was “one very small step in the right direction.”

“It’s up to Congress now to do some investigating and pass some laws,” Roth added.

Thomas has been scrutinized for other disclosure issues.

In 2011, it was revealed that for six years Thomas had failed to disclose his wife’s income, as required by law. Ginni Thomas had worked for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy group in Washington, and for Hillsdale College, a Christian school in Michigan.

“It has come to my attention that information regarding my spouse’s employment required in Part III B of my financial disclosure report was inadvertently omitted due to a misunderstanding of the filing instructions,” he said at the time.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.