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Clarence Thomas could face federal investigation over property sale

More revelations from ProPublica have turned up the heat on the beleaguered justice.


Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas already faced scrutiny following a ProPublica report earlier this month that detailed years of unreported gifts from GOP megadonor Harlan Crow. The nonprofit outlet on Thursday reported yet another questionable exchange, this time about Thomas not disclosing that Crow bought property from him.

As ProPublica noted, it's the "first known instance of money flowing from Crow to the Supreme Court justice," prompting calls for not only the Supreme Court but the Justice Department to investigate.

Senate Judiciary Committee member Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, told me on Tuesday that he thought the initial Thomas revelations could be a “tipping point” for Supreme Court ethics reform. Following the latest ProPublica report, Whitehouse is pushing for Attorney General Merrick Garland to investigate Thomas. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a government watchdog organization, noted Friday that, under the Ethics in Government Act, the attorney general can bring civil actions for knowingly and willfully falsifying or knowingly and willfully failing to file or report any information that such individual is required to report, with civil penalties up to $50,000 and the possibility of criminal sanctions as well.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has also said, after the initial ProPublica report, that it’s going to hold hearings. Yet Whitehouse told me on Tuesday that he thought the hearings would focus on the broader issue of Supreme Court ethics reform, rather than on Thomas himself. Perhaps the latest report will cause the committee to add Thomas to the agenda — and to the witness list.

Whoever’s asking questions of Thomas — and an authoritative body with enforcement power should be — I’ll reiterate some questions that I noted following the initial ProPublica report that would still be good to know the answers to:

  • Does ProPublica's report detail the full extent of gifts that Crow gave you over the years? If not, what are the others?
  • Are there any undisclosed gifts from other individuals or businesses that you have failed to report? If so, what are they?
  • You said in a statement that you “sought guidance from my colleagues and others in the judiciary, and was advised that this sort of personal hospitality ... was not reportable.” Who advised you? Did you tell them everything that Crow gave you? How did you define private jet travel under the disclosure rules when you decided you didn’t need to report it? How did you analyze the real estate deal with Crow?
  • You said that you “have always sought to comply with the disclosure guidelines.” Have you ever failed to do so? If so, when?

The answers to these questions are all the more pressing following the latest ProPublica report. What’s clear is that leaving it to the Supreme Court to find answers won’t do.