by Joshua Kaplan, Justin Elliott and Alex Mierjeski
ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.
Series: Friends of the Court:SCOTUS Justices’ Beneficial Relationships With Billionaire Donors
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ decadeslong friendship with real estate tycoon Harlan Crow and Samuel Alito’s luxury travel with billionaire Paul Singer have raised questions about influence and ethics at the nation's highest court.
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas for the first time acknowledged that he should have reported selling real estate to billionaire political donor Harlan Crow in 2014, a transaction revealed by ProPublica earlier this year. Writing in his annual financial disclosure form, Thomas said that he “inadvertently failed to realize” that the deal needed to be publicly disclosed.
In the form, which was made public Thursday after he’d received an extension on the filing deadline, Thomas also disclosed receiving three private jet trips last year from Crow. ProPublica reported on two of those trips.
Thomas defended his previous practice of not disclosing private jet flights provided to him over the years.
In a statement Thursday, an attorney for Thomas, Elliot Berke, said that “after reviewing Justice Thomas’s records, I am confident there has been no willful ethics transgression, and any prior reporting errors were strictly inadvertent.”
Thomas’ expanded disclosures for 2022 follow a series of ProPublica stories that documented an array of undisclosed luxury vacations and other gifts Thomas has received over the years from a cadre of billionaires, including Crow. ProPublica revealed Texas real estate magnate Crow’s generosity toward Thomas, including yacht cruises, private jet flights, the purchase of his mother’s house in Georgia and tuition payments. Subsequently, we reported that Thomas has received at least 38 destination vacations and 26 private jet flights from multiple billionaires. Thomas’ latest filing brings the total number of jet flights he’s received even higher.
In its initial story, ProPublica reported Thomas took a trip to Crow’s private resort in the Adirondacks last July and to a conservative think tank conference in Dallas last May, noting that flight records suggested he flew to and from both places on Crow’s jet. In his new form, Thomas confirmed that Crow provided the private plane travel.
In the form, Thomas said that his security detail recommended he fly private whenever possible “because of the increased security risk following the Dobbs opinion leak.” The Supreme Court did not respond to a question about whether all justices are now advised to take private jet flights for security purposes.
Thomas also disclosed one previously unknown private jet trip he received from Crow. He reported taking a private plane on the way home from a February conference in Dallas because of an “unexpected ice storm.”
In his form, Thomas wrote that he “continues to work” with judiciary staff to determine “whether he should further amend his reports from any prior years.”
The disclosure contains Thomas’ first public comments on his failure to disclose a 2014 real estate deal with Crow. As ProPublica reported this spring, Crow purchased Thomas’ mother’s house and two nearby vacant lots from Thomas and his relatives for $133,363. Thomas’ mother continues to live at the property, which Crow now owns. Crow has said he plans to someday turn the house, which was Thomas’ childhood home, into a museum.
In the form, Thomas said he took a loss on the deal because he and his wife “put between $50,000 to $75,000 into his mother’s home in capital improvements over the years.”
Thomas also defended his practice for more than two decades of not disclosing private jet trips provided by Crow and other wealthy businessmen.
Justices are required by a federal ethics law passed after Watergate to publicly disclose most gifts. Thomas’ defense centers on a carve-out in the law known as the “personal hospitality” exemption. The exemption states that gifts of “food, lodging, or entertainment received as personal hospitality” don’t have to be disclosed. The judiciary updated its guidelines earlier this year to make explicit that the exemption doesn’t apply to private jet travel.
Seven ethics law experts told ProPublica that even before the update, both the law and the judiciary’s regulations have required that gifts of transportation, such as private jet travel, be disclosed because they are not food, lodging or entertainment. Reviewing other federal judges’ financial disclosure filings, ProPublica found at least six examples of judges disclosing gifts of private jet travel in recent years prior to the update.
In the new filing, Thomas for the first time said he got advice that he did not have to disclose such flights from staff at the Judicial Conference, the policymaking arm of the federal judiciary. He said he received that advice from “Conference staff, and in conversations with court officers and colleagues early in his tenure on the Court.” In his previous statement on the matter, Thomas did not say he had consulted the ethics staff.
Prior to his most recent disclosure, Thomas had reported receiving one private jet trip from Crow in 1997, the year after the pair met.
Thomas also pointed to advice received in 2006 by a lower court federal judge, Ray Randolph, that a private jet flight to Alaska didn’t need to be disclosed.
A judiciary spokesperson declined to comment Thursday on whether it has ever been the Judicial Conference’s position that judges can accept gifts of private jet travel without disclosing them.
She also declined to confirm Thomas’ account of past advice he’d received from conference staff. “Advice sought by any filer is confidential and we do not discuss that advice publicly,” the spokesperson said.
The Supreme Court press office did not immediately respond to a request for more details on the advice Thomas said he received.
Thomas’ attorney criticized watchdog groups and Democratic members of Congress who have called for Thomas to be investigated.
“The attacks on Justice Thomas are nothing less than ridiculous and dangerous, and they set a terrible precedent for political blood sport through federal ethics filings,” Berke wrote.
Justice Samuel Alito’s filing was also released Thursday. His did not contain any new disclosures of gifts. Earlier this year, ProPublica reported that in 2008, Alito accepted a private jet flight to Alaska from a hedge fund billionaire who later had cases before the Supreme Court. Alito said that he was not required to disclose the gift, and that when the billionaire’s companies came before the court, Alito was unaware of his connection to the cases.
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