Clarence Thomas Quietly Accepted Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars in Luxury Travel

ProPublica has uncovered yet another scandal surrounding the corrupt right-wing Supreme Court justice.

Clarence Thomas Quietly Accepted Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars in Luxury Travel
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A new ProPublica investigation details how Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in travel from a billionaire GOP donor over the past 20 years without disclosing any of it, which is a violation of anti-corruption laws passed after Watergate. This is the same Justice who didn’t recuse himself from cases involving the 2020 election that his own wife tried to overturn. Since conservatives all of the sudden care about the mere appearance of judicial conflicts of interest, this should be a bipartisan scandal, right? Right?!

Here’s a list of the gifts Thomas accepted from a single billionaire, Texas real estate scion Harlan Crow:

  • flights on Crow’s private jet
  • at least three vacations on a 162-foot superyacht with a private chef
  • Annual stays at Crow’s private, 105-acre resort in the Adirondacks which has “25 fireplaces, three boathouses, clay tennis court, and batting cage,” and “a lifesize replica of the Harry Potter character Hagrid’s hut”

ProPublica uncovered the undisclosed gifts via flight records, documents given to Crow’s staff, and interviews with said staff.

Just one 2019 Indonesian trip alone could have cost more than $500,000 if Thomas had paid for it himself. Thomas’ salary is $285,000—no small amount, but it’s not enough to be traveling like that. (And yes, his wife Ginni, the MAGA activist, was there, too.)

Thomas, meanwhile, did not comment for the story, but he’s previously tried to appear like an everyman. In a recent interview for a documentary about his life—which Crow apparently helped finance!—Thomas said, “I prefer the RV parks. I prefer the Walmart parking lots to the beaches and things like that. There’s something normal to me about it. I come from regular stock, and I prefer that—I prefer being around that.” (This is big “My favorite meat is hot dog” energy.) It definitely feels reassuring that the same justice calling for the court to overturn the right to birth control and marriage equality is being wined and dined by some of the wealthiest conservatives alive.

Not reporting the private flights and yacht trips is a violation of disclosure laws that apply to federal officials, members of Congress, and all judges, per ProPublica:

Justices are generally required to publicly report all gifts worth more than $415, defined as “anything of value” that isn’t fully reimbursed. There are exceptions: If someone hosts a justice at their own property, free food and lodging don’t have to be disclosed. That would exempt dinner at a friend’s house. The exemption never applied to transportation, such as private jet flights, experts said, a fact that was made explicit in recently updated filing instructions for the judiciary.
Two ethics law experts told ProPublica that Thomas’ yacht cruises, a form of transportation, also required disclosure.

So, yes, the annual vacations in upstate New York appear to skirt these laws on their face because Crow owns the property, called Camp Topridge. (Though he owns it through a company, not personally.) But Supreme Court justices are still supposed to “consult” a code of conduct created for federal judges below them that requires judges to avoid even the “appearance of impropriety.” The problem is, the Supreme Court doesn’t have its own code of ethics, and any refusal to recuse from a case can’t be appealed. As the top court in the country, they answer to no one else; in effect, they police themselves.

Thomas’ stays at Topridge have overlapped with political activists and corporate executives with agendas they want the Supreme Court to protect. ProPublica reports that during just one July 2017 trip, his “fellow guests included executives at Verizon and PricewaterhouseCoopers, major Republican donors and one of the leaders of the American Enterprise Institute, a pro-business conservative think tank.” Crow proclaimed in a statement that these are merely “gatherings of friends” and that he was “unaware of any of our friends ever lobbying or seeking to influence Justice Thomas on any case.” He “would never,” he insists, “invite anyone who I believe had any intention of doing that.”

Another fun fact about Crow’s lakeside resort is that there’s a painting inside depicting Crow and Thomas smoking cigars with Leonard Leo, the Federalist Society’s former vice president and current co-chairman of the board. That gathering happened about five years ago, according to the artist Crow commissioned to paint it—so, sometime during the Trump administration. Trump chose all three of his Supreme Court appointments from a list drawn up by Leo himself.

Also in the painting? Mark Paoletta, the general counsel of Trump’s administrations Office of Management and Budget, and a friend of the Thomases. Paoletta was aboard the same 2019 cruise to Indonesia and didn’t disclose it—but he did say he reimbursed Crow for the trip on the advice of an OMB ethics lawyer. He didn’t say how much he paid. (Paoletta also represented Ginni Thomas when she testified before the House January 6th Committee.)

But wait, there’s more! It certainly looks like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) took Crow’s private plane to attend the 2018 swearing in of ultraconservative judge James Ho. Thomas, of course, conducted the ceremony.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Thursday that the committee would take action on this information. “This behavior is simply inconsistent with the ethical standards the American people expect of any public servant, let alone a Justice on the Supreme Court.”

Activist Gabe Roth of Fix the Court released a blistering statement in response to the story and called for specific reforms, like an ethics office to pre-approve free travel and disclosures filed within 30 days. It’s worth printing every single word:

The astounding reporting from ProPublica 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.
It’s clear that the personal hospitality rules the judiciary adopted last month do not go far enough: the Supreme Court and lower courts need 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. (Here’s an example of a congressional travel report.)
Remember, if a judge or justice took a flight on a private plane today, the public would not learn about it until their 2023 disclosure comes out, which would be mid-June 2024 at the earliest (assuming the jurist even reported it). Such an unnecessary delay makes real oversight impossible. And Justice Thomas should update his disclosures for every year he took a private plane, as it appears that such luxurious travel has never been included under the “personal hospitality exemption.”
Finally, when considering what steps should be taken to further investigate these trips, it might be helpful to imagine if today’s news was not about Justice Thomas and Harlan Crow but about, say, Justice Sotomayor and a major Democratic donor. My guess is that House Republicans would spring into action so quickly they’d forget about Hunter Biden for a while.

To which I repeat: Thomas should resign.

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