Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee requested a list of all gifts in excess of $415 that conservative billionaire Harlan Crow has given to Supreme Court justices after reports that Justice Clarence Thomas hid hundreds of thousands of dollars in freebies from Crow.
The request, made in a letter signed by all committee Democrats, is the first formal request by the committee as it investigates ethical misconduct on the court, which refuses to abide by a formal code of conduct.
The letter demands Crow disclose to the committee “all gifts, payments, and items of value exceeding $415” provided to justices or their families by “you, or by entities you own or control or for which you have served as a partner, director, or officer.” The committee also asks that Crow disclose any real estate transaction, travel, lodging or admission to a private club he provided to a justice or their family.
Since joining the court, Thomas failed to disclose lavish gifts from Crow in the form of private jet travel, luxury vacations and private club admissions, according to ProPublica. Crow also purchased Thomas’ ancestral home from the justice, renovated it, and allows Thomas’ mother to live there rent-free. In addition, Crow paid private school tuition for Thomas’ grandnephew, whom Thomas treated as his adopted son. Thomas failed to disclose both the sale of his family’s home and his adopted son’s covered tuition.
Thomas faced a similar scandal in 2011, when reports revealed that he failed to disclose income his wife, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, received from a collection of conservative organizations. In one case, Crow bankrolled a tea party group launched by Ginni Thomas that paid her $120,000.
The request to Crow follows the Judiciary Committee’s first hearing on the court’s ethics woes on May 2. Committee Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) initially sought testimony from Chief Justice John Roberts or a designee, but Roberts rebuffed the request with a claim that it infringed on the separation of powers.
The letter to Crow states that the committee is investigating whether the court is properly living up to a “statement on ethics principles and practices” that all justices signed on April 25. That statement asserted that justices had followed financial disclosure laws since 1991.
The committee’s goal is to “identify specific shortcomings” in the court’s statement on ethics in order to determine whether it lives up to what the current law requires, or if new legislation is needed.
The letter’s citation to possible new legislation could be a prelude to a subpoena if Crow refuses to voluntarily comply, as Congress has the broad constitutional authority to investigate in pursuit of its legislative function.
Crow has already refused to comply with a request for information from Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). Wyden asked Crow to disclose to the committee by May 8 whether he paid gift taxes on what he gave to Thomas and, if so, for which gifts and how much. Crow reportedly sent “an obstructive letter” in response.
“Mr. Crow is relying on the same baseless arguments that failed Donald Trump in his attempt to stonewall Congressional oversight,” Wyden said in a statement on Tuesday. Adding, that “nobody can expect to get away with waving off Finance Committee oversight, no matter how wealthy or well-connected they may be.”
Any subpoena to compel Crow’s testimony or disclosure information would require all Democrats on the Judiciary Committee to be available to vote. That is complicated by Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) monthslong absence as she recovers from a reported case of shingles.