Justice Clarence Thomas disclosed Thursday that Republican megadonor Harlan Crow paid for private jet trips for Thomas in 2022 to attend a speech in Texas and a vacation at Crow’s luxurious New York estate, as ethics questions continue to rock the Supreme Court.
In one instance, Thomas said he took the private transportation in May because of “increased security risk” following the leak of the Dobbs opinion overturning Roe v. Wade that had occurred a few days earlier.
Newly released financial disclosure forms Thursday also amend prior reports to include information that had been “inadvertently omitted” from past forms including a real estate deal between Thomas and Crow back in 2014.
Thomas made the disclosures after receiving an extension to file the yearly reports that were originally due in May 2023. Justice Samuel Alito released his financial disclosures Thursday as well.
The filing comes as Thomas has been under fire from critics who say he has skirted ethics laws for years by failing to properly disclose luxury trips, real estate transactions and other gifts bankrolled by wealthy friends.
A lawyer for Thomas released a statement and executive summary and said that there had been “no willful ethics transgressions” and that prior reporting errors were “strictly inadvertent.” The lawyer also refuted what he called a “partisan feeding frenzy” against the justice that he said amounted to “political blood sport.”
ProPublica was the first to report Thomas’ long-time friendship with Crow and the extent of their travel over the years. In a statement after the ProPublica report, Thomas acknowledged the friendship but stressed that Crow did not have business before the court. He said that he had not disclosed the years of travel because he was advised at the time that he did not have to report it. In the statement, he noted however, that the Judicial Conference had recently changed the rules. “It is, of course, my intent to follow this guidance in the future,” Thomas wrote.
The new change, which applies to activity covered by the 2023 report, makes clear that travel by private jets as well as stays in commercial properties are no longer considered a part of a hospitality exception.
Additional disclosures from Thomas includes real estate deal
Thomas also disclosed Thursday that he had “inadvertently omitted” other information in past reports including a life insurance policy for his spouse, conservative activist Virginia Thomas that had a cash value under $100,000 and a bank account valued at under $70,000 in 2018.
In addition, he said that he should have disclosed a 2014 private real estate deal between Crow, Thomas and members of Thomas’ family.
It involved the sale of three Georgia properties including the home where Thomas’ mother currently lives. The deal was not listed on his financial disclosure forms.
A source close to Thomas told CNN in April that Thomas initially believed he didn’t have to disclose because he lost money on the deal. The real estate deal was first reported by ProPublica, a nonprofit news organization.
The three properties in Savannah, Georgia, were owned by Thomas, his mother, Leola Williams, and his late brother’s family.
As a part of the negotiated sale price, Williams, who was 85 at the time of the deal, was given an occupancy agreement to be able to live in the home for the rest of her life, the source said. She lives rent free but is responsible for paying the property taxes and insurance.
Section VII of the financial disclosure form clearly indicates, however, that a “transaction” needs to be listed irrespective if there was a loss.
As for the travel that Crow paid for in 2022, it included a private jet for Thomas who gave a talk at the Old Parkland Conference sponsored by the Hoover Institution, the Manhattan Institute and the American Enterprise Institute. The event – an assembly of scholars and lawyers – was billed as a gathering to explore alternative solutions to the economic and social advancement of Black Americans. The conference was held at a building owned by Crow Holdings.
According to the disclosure, Thomas flew down to be the keynote speaker of the event in February, but returned via private jet “due to an unexpected ice storm.”
The talk was rescheduled in May and Thomas rode round trip on Crow’s plane. In the financial disclosure form Thomas notes that “because of increased security risk following the Dobbs opinion leak, the May flights were by private plane for official travel as filer’s security detail recommended noncommerical travel whenever possible.”
In addition, in July, Thomas traveled to Crow’s private Adirondack resort for vacation.
An attorney for Thomas, Elliot S. Berke, released a statement Thursday saying that Thomas “has always strived for full transparency and adherence to the law.” He noted that after new guidance was issued by the Judicial Conference in March, Thomas received an extension.
He also referenced ethics complaints that have been filed against Thomas by “left wing” organizations. “We look forward to answering any additional questions or addressing any remaining issues,” he said for “sensationalized allegations.”
The new reports are likely to fuel key Senate Democrats who are pushing for legislation that would implement a series of ethics and transparency reforms at the Supreme Court, including a code of ethics directed at the justices themselves. Although the justices have discussed amongst themselves whether they should commit to an ethics code aimed specifically at the high court, they have yet to come to a consensus.
“This late-come effort at ‘Clean-up on Aisle Three’ won’t deter us from fully investigating the massive, secret, right-wing billionaire influence in which this Court is enmired,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary subcommittee looking into court ethics, in a statement.
Justice Elena Kagan confirmed in an appearance in late July that the justices have been discussing possible reforms, although they have not yet reached an agreement on whether to move forward with a formal code.
For his part, Alito told The Wall Street Journal in July that Congress should stop trying to impose ethics rules on the high court.
“No provision in the Constitution gives them the authority to regulate the Supreme Court – period,” Alito said in the interview.
As things stand, public approval ratings of the court have held steady at historic lows.
Gabe Roth, who heads the organization Fix the Court, said Thursday that although Thomas “says he plans on more closely following the disclosure laws moving forward, his penchant for living a lifestyle few of us can only dream of is not reflected in today’s report.”
“To be fully compliant with the law, he should go back and amend earlier disclosures to recount the full extent of the lavish gifts he’s received over the years,” Roth said.
Alito acknowledges paid trip to Rome
Alito also released his 2022 financial disclosure forms on Thursday after receiving an extension from the May 15 deadline.
Alito’s 13-page report confirms reporting by CNN earlier this year that a trip the justice took to Rome in 2022 to give a keynote speech to Notre Dame Law School’s Religious Liberty Initiative was paid for by the conservative group. The initiative’s legal clinic has filed a series of “friend-of-the-court” briefs in religious liberty cases before the Supreme Court since its founding in 2020.
Though the report doesn’t detail how much the trip to Rome cost, it notes that the law school covered Alito’s transportation, lodging and meals so he could speak at the Religious Liberty Summit.
The forms also note that Alito was paid to teach courses at two law schools: Regent University School of Law and Duke Law School. For the Regent gig, the justice was paid $9,000, according to the disclosure, while Duke paid him $20,250 for a pair of teaching jobs. The school also covered Alito’s lodging and meals.
This story has been updated with additional details.