Associate Justice Clarence Thomas during the formal group photo at the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, U.S. on Friday, October 7, 2022.
Eric Lee | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has accepted secret luxury trips from Republican mega-spender Harlan Crow for more than two decades in apparent violation of a financial disclosure law, a ProPublica report revealed Thursday.
Thomas has vacationed on Crow’s 162-foot superyacht, flown on the real estate developer’s private jet and spent time at the GOP donor’s private resort and other exclusive retreats, ProPublica reported, citing documents and dozens of interviews.
Thomas, the 74-year-old conservative justice who has served on the country’s top court since 1991, did not report the trips to his financial statements as required by law, the nonprofit newsroom reported.
The probe offers more fuel for Thomas’s critics, who say his refusal to back down from cases related to issues related to his wife’s political work in conservative circles – including her involvement in plans to overthrow the election of 2020 – constitutes a conflict of interest.
Ethics experts and former judges interviewed by ProPublica were incredulous. Thomas “appears to have completely disregarded his higher ethical obligations,” Virginia Canter, chief ethicist for watchdog group CREW, told the outlet.
“When a judge’s lifestyle is subsidized by the rich and famous, it undermines public confidence,” Canter said.
Supreme Court spokesmen and Crow did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment on the investigation.
Harlan Crow, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Crow Holdings LLC sits for a photo at the offices of the Old Parkland Estate in Dallas, Texas, on Friday, October 2, 2015.
Chris Goodney | Bloomberg | Getty Images
In a statement to ProPublica, Crow said, “The hospitality we have shown to the Thomas’s over the years is no different than the hospitality we have shown to our many other dear friends.”
Thomas and his wife Ginni Thomas “never asked for any of the gifts,” nor for any of the contributions the Crows have made to projects celebrating the “life and legacy” of Justice, the mega-donor said. Crow added that he and his wife “never asked about any pending or lower court case, and Judge Thomas never discussed any, and we never attempted to influence Judge Thomas on any legal or political matter.”
Crow, a Texas real estate magnate, befriended Thomas after he joined the Supreme Court. He has given more than $10 million in publicly disclosed political donations and undisclosed amounts to groups that are not required to disclose their donors, ProPublica reported.
Thomas typically spends about a week each summer at Topridge, Crow’s private lakeside resort in the Adirondacks, and flight records show he has used Crow’s plane numerous times, according to the news outlet.
In 2019, shortly after the court delivered its final tenure verdict, Clarence and Ginni Thomas took off on Crow’s private jet for a nine-day vacation in Indonesia aboard the donor’s yacht — a trip that cost more than $500,000, according to ProPublica cost.
The report also cited records showing that during a July 2017 trip, Thomas had been with Topridge at the same time as key GOP donors, corporate executives and a director of the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
A painting hanging at the lakeside resort shows Thomas and Crow smoking cigars and chatting with conservative figures, the report said. These include Leonard Leo, the influential leader of the Federalist Society, who is credited with helping former President Donald Trump select his judge nominations and shift federal courts to the right.
Crow claimed in his statement that he “was not aware that any of our friends ever lobbied or attempted to influence Judge Thomas on any matter.”
Supreme Court justices are subject to fewer ethical constraints than the lower echelons of the judiciary. Some groups have called for a code of ethics for the Supreme Court.
But judges are still making financial disclosures, and experts say they must disclose any gifts worth more than $415. While there are exceptions to this requirement, transportation is not one of them.
“Where Judge Thomas has been granted free travel on private planes and yachts, failure to report the gifts constitutes a violation of the Disclosure Act,” Kedric Payne, senior ethics director for the Campaign Legal Center, told the outlet.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., later Thursday morning called for an “enforceable code of conduct” for Supreme Court justices as he slammed Thomas over the reported clandestine travel.
“The highest court in the country shouldn’t have the lowest ethical standards,” Durbin said in response to the report. “This behavior is simply not consistent with the ethical standards that the American people expect of any government official, let alone a Supreme Court judge.”
Read ProPublica’s full report.