May 28, 2024

WASHINGTON – After two decades of criticism over the lavish trips and other gifts he’s accepted from billionaire GOP megadonor Harlan Crow, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas finally went public on Friday to defend himself.

In a statement, Thomas said “colleagues and others in the judiciary” not only blessed his cozy relationship with the Texas real estate developer but determined that he didn’t have to publicly disclose the gifts on his annual financial disclosure statements.

Legal experts and Democratic lawmakers, however, said Thomas’ explanation raises a lot more questions than answers.

“And these are questions that he should answer under oath, under penalty of perjury,” said Lisa Graves, the former deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy.

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“He needs to name every person he spoke with who gave him such advice, and whether they’re in government or outside the government,” Graves told USA TODAY. “Because I would be shocked if he actually told any official the specifics of what he was doing and that they said it was okay not to disclose it.”

Decades of secret gifts and “family trips”

Thomas, at times with his wife, Ginni, has accepted luxury trips virtually every year from Crow, including international travel on his private jet and yacht and annual retreats at his plush Adirondacks resort, ProPublica reported on Thursday. It said the value of a 2019 trip to Indonesia could have cost Thomas more than $500,000 if he had chartered the yacht and jet himself, and that his failure to disclose such gifts appeared to violate federal gift and travel disclosure requirements.

“The extent and frequency of Crow’s apparent gifts to Thomas have no known precedent in the modern history of the U.S. Supreme Court,” ProPublica reported.

Since 2004, such trips and other gifts from Crow appeared nowhere on Thomas’ financial disclosure reports, according to a USA TODAY review of the annual forms on Friday.

A staunch conservative, Thomas was appointed to the nation’s highest court by Republican President George H. W. Bush and has served since 1991. In his statement, he said he was “advised that this sort of personal hospitality from close personal friends, who did not have business before the court, was not reportable.”

“I have endeavored to follow that counsel throughout my tenure,” Thomas said, “and have always sought to comply with the disclosure guidelines.”

Ethics and legal experts told USA TODAY on Friday that Supreme Court law and policy is indeed vague when it comes to such gifts. While the justices are required to report gifts they have received on their annual financial disclosure reports, an exemption is allowed for hospitality from friends.

Several ethics experts, including Graves, said the hospitality exemption intended for the receipt of small personal gifts from longtime friends, not lavish gifts like weeklong resort stays and international jet and yacht trips.

“But it is true that the U.S. Supreme Court has never had a binding code of ethics, unlike every other court in the country,” said Graves, who was also chief counsel for judicial nominations for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. “And that reform is long overdue.”

Late Friday, congressional Democrats responded by calling on Chief Justice John Roberts to launch an investigation into Thomas’ “unethical, and potentially unlawful, conduct at the Supreme Court.”

“We believe that it is your duty as Chief Justice ‘to safeguard public faith in the judiciary,’ and that fulfilling that duty requires swift, thorough, independent and transparent investigation into these allegations,” the lawmakers, led by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA), wrote in a letter.

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A long history

Advocates for more transparency and accountability on the court said the new revelations once again raise serious questions about the access some conservative groups affiliated with Crow have had to Thomas and whether those connections have improperly influenced the court.

But the ProPublica report is only the latest of a series of exposés about the relationship between Crow and Thomas, which began sometime in the 1990s after Thomas joined the high court.

In 2004, the Los Angeles Times reported that Crow had given Thomas lavish gifts, a $5,000 personal check to help pay a relative’s education expenses and a free trip aboard Crow’s private jet to the exclusive Bohemian Grove club in Northern California.

At the time, Crow – already a major Republican donor – was helping run an advocacy group that filed briefs with the Supreme Court, the Times reported.

In 2011, the New York Times reported that Thomas visited a seafood cannery in his birthplace in tiny Pin Point, Ga., that had once employed his mother as a crab picker. While there, he asked proprietor Algernon Varn about his plans for the collection of crumbling buildings, “and Mr. Varn said he hoped it could be preserved.”

“And Clarence said, ‘Well, I’ve got a friend I’m going to put you in touch with,’ ” Mr. Varn told the Times, adding that he was later told by others not to identify the friend.

“The publicity-shy friend turned out to be Harlan Crow,” the Times reported. “Mr. Crow stepped in to finance the multimillion-dollar purchase and restoration of the cannery, featuring a museum about the culture and history of Pin Point that has become a pet project of Justice Thomas’s.”

Since then, the Times reported in 2011, Crow “has done many favors for the justice and his wife, Virginia,” including helping finance a Savannah library project dedicated to Justice Thomas and providing $500,000 for Ginni Thomas to start a Tea Party-related political group.

“They have also spent time together at gatherings of prominent Republicans and businesspeople at Mr. Crow’s Adirondacks estate and his camp in East Texas,” according to the Times, referencing some of the same gifts that ProPublica did in its report on Thursday.

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Calls for reform go unheeded

Over the years, legal experts have responded to such exposés by saying Crow’s gifts to Thomas were at best controversial and at worst illegal. But Thomas kept accepting them and, until Friday, not making any formal attempt to explain why.

In April 2022, Gabe Roth, the executive director of the non-partisan watchdog group Fix the Court, testified before Congress that Thomas’ continued acceptance of gifts from Crow underscored the urgent need for reforms in the way the Supreme Court policed ethics lapses.

He also said that without more stringent reporting requirements, the public has no idea whether Thomas and the other justices are being influenced by people with matters before the Supreme Court.

Roth testified that Thomas had accepted a bible from Crow that was once owned by Frederick Douglass and valued at $19,000. He also referred to Crowe’s $500,000 donation to help Thomas’ wife Ginni establish her Liberty Consulting firm, “a platform she used to lobby against laws like Obamacare that were before the Court.”

Last month, a judicial policy-making body told the Supreme Court to close a much-criticized loophole in its financial disclosure requirements, which will make it harder for Thomas and other justices to avoid reporting such lavish gifts and travel, Roth told USA TODAY on Friday.

“It is, of course, my intent to follow this guidance in the future,” Thomas said in his statement Friday in reference to the new policy.

More reforms needed

But Roth, Graves and other legal experts say the court needs to go much further and adopt the kind of stringent ethics laws that govern what members of Congress can accept and have to report.

In the meantime, the latest disclosures about Thomas and Crow – and Thomas’ response to them – have raised enough questions to merit civil and potentially criminal investigations by the Justice Department and Congress, according to Norman Eisen, a former White House counsel and ethics czar.

The Supreme Court should also launch an internal investigation into Thomas that is similar to the probe it conducted following a leak of its pending abortion rights decision, Eisen said. And congressional committees with oversight of the court should call Thomas in to testify, he said.

“We don’t have all the facts. We need answers,” said Eisen, who was special counsel to the House Judiciary Committee for the first impeachment and trial of Donald Trump. He is now a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution.

Eisen said he couldn’t recall Thomas ever issuing a response to any of the reports of his potential ethics violations in the 20 years he has come under fire for them.

“This is a sign of how uncomfortable he feels,” he told USA TODAY.  “Ours is a democracy in which public officials including judges are accountable. They can’t wave away accountability simply by claiming they got anonymous advice.”

Contributing: Michael Collins

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: GOP donor gifts to Clarence Thomas show need for Supreme Court reform