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Clarence Thomas may have violated financial disclosure law, ethics experts say

A bombshell ProPublica investigation detailed allegedly unreported gifts to the Republican Supreme Court justice from a GOP billionaire.


Clarence Thomas is in the news again — and it’s not good news for him or the Supreme Court. A staggering investigation published Thursday by the nonprofit news outlet ProPublica revealed new details about Republican megadonor Harlan Crow’s relationship to the GOP justice. The report doesn’t claim that Thomas fixed cases for Crow but, rather, that Thomas failed to disclose gifts from the billionaire, who for years reportedly treated the justice to lavish trips around the world via private jet and yacht.

According to legal experts interviewed by ProPublica, Thomas' alleged reporting failures appear to violate a post-Watergate disclosure law. Kedric Payne, a senior director at the nonprofit government watchdog Campaign Legal Center, told the outlet, “If Justice Thomas received free travel on private planes and yachts, failure to report the gifts is a violation of the disclosure law." Thomas didn’t respond to a detailed list of questions for the article, ProPublica said.

The report, which is worth reading in full, is jammed with stunning details like the following anecdote that opens the story:

IN LATE JUNE 2019, right after the U.S. Supreme Court released its final opinion of the term, Justice Clarence Thomas boarded a large private jet headed to Indonesia. He and his wife were going on vacation: nine days of island-hopping in a volcanic archipelago on a superyacht staffed by a coterie of attendants and a private chef.

If Thomas had chartered the plane and the 162-foot yacht himself, the total cost of the trip could have exceeded $500,000. Fortunately for him, that wasn’t necessary: He was on vacation with real estate magnate and Republican megadonor Harlan Crow, who owned the jet — and the yacht, too.

The latest airing of Thomas' dubious ethical behavior might rally calls, yet again, for the court to adopt a formal ethics code. Of course, it’s ridiculous that the justices don’t have one while lower federal judges do. But what's a code — or any law, for that matter — worth if there’s no enforcement? It seems the only real consequence is impeachment and removal from the bench. It wouldn’t be the first time that Thomas’ impeachment has been called for.

To be sure, Republicans who control the House won't consider it, but nothing should stop Senate Democrats from investigating. According to ProPublica, "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." At the very least, that's worth looking into.

Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin, D-Ill., apparently agrees that something should be done. He said on Thursday that the report "is a call to action, and the Senate Judiciary Committee will act." What that action entails remains to be seen.