"Hogwash": Experts say Clarence Thomas' belated Harlan Crow disclosures are "too little too late"

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas acknowledged that he took three trips aboard the GOP megadonor's plane

By Tatyana Tandanpolie

Staff Writer

Published August 31, 2023 6:59PM (EDT)

Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas speaks at the Heritage Foundation on October 21, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas speaks at the Heritage Foundation on October 21, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas on Thursday acknowledged that he took three trips aboard Republican megadonor Harlan Crow's private plane last year as he rejected widespread criticism of his failure to report trips on his annual financial disclosures in previous years, the Associated Press reports

One of Thomas' trips he was to Crow's lodge in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York, while the others were to Dallas, where he spoke at conferences sponsored by the conservative American Enterprise Institute. 

This year's disclosures mark the first time Thomas has reported receiving any gifts or hospitality from Crow. According to the filing, the justice said he was following new guidelines from the federal judiciary for reporting travel but omitted earlier travel Crow funded, including a 2019 trip to Indonesia on the GOP benefactor's yacht.

The financial report comes amid intensified focus on the ethics of the Supreme Court and fervent calls from legislators seeking to impose an ethics code on the justices. The mistrust of the highest court stems from a series of reports from ProPublica earlier this year revealing that Thomas has failed to disclose decades' worth of luxury travel from Crow.

The billionaire also purchased the Georgia house where Thomas' mother resides and footed the bill for two years of private school tuition for the justice's great nephew, who he and his wife, Ginni Thomas, raised.

"After years of non reporting and an extension this year, Justice Thomas provides some basic information the public deserved to know long ago, adding a defense that he had 'adhered to the then existing judicial regulations,'" former U.S. Attorney Harry Litman wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. 

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The annual financial reports for Thomas and Justice Samuel Alito, who ProPublica also revealed failed to disclose a private trip he took to Alaska in 2008 that was funded by two Republican donors, were released nearly three months after those of the other seven justices. The two conservative justices were granted 90-day extensions.

In the newly released forms, Thomas also acknowledges that he "inadvertently omitted" financial information from previous reports, including a life insurance policy for his wife valued at less than $100,000 and combined bank account balances at the Federal Credit Union worth $100,000 to $250,000.

He amended the reports for 2017 through 2019 in the filing as a result, also recognizing that he "inadvertently failed to realize" that his 2014 real estate dealings with Crow — in which the billionaire purchased two other properties from the Thomas' in addition to his mother's home — constituted a new reportable transaction even though it resulted in a capital loss.

"By amending his prior reports, Justice Thomas is necessarily conceding that he made mistakes—and that the press scrutiny mattered," Steve Vladeck, the Wright Chair in Federal Courts at University of Texas Law, tweeted. "Whether you think his mistakes were malicious or negligent may well depend on your priors, but let's not overlook that they're mistakes *either way.*"

Thomas noted that he is considering whether to amend reports from years prior. A lawyer representing the justice, Elliot Berke, released a statement defending Thomas' conduct and blasting his critics.

"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 said. "Justice Thomas's amended report answers — and utterly refutes— the charges trumped up in this partisan feeding frenzy."

Though Supreme Court justices do not have a binding code of ethics and have rejected the notion that they need to adopt one or have one imposed, the Democrat-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee approved an ethics code for the high court on a party-line vote in July. The legislation, however, has a slim chance of passing the Senate as it would need at least nine GOP votes, and Republicans have strongly opposed it.

Legal experts, however, pushed back against Thomas' defense of his omissions in the filing, telling the AP that the expectation of reporting travel on private planes has been clear to them for years.

"You report the free trips on the jets, the private jets, if you take them. I don't get this idea that, 'Gee, the rules changed on us.' That's just a lot of hogwash," Richard Painter, the White House's chief ethics lawyer at the time Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts were nominated to the Supreme Court, told the outlet.

Eric Segall, the Ashe Professor of Law at Georgia State University, also pointed out on X that Thomas "made amends before for failing to report Ginny's income."

"I think that the Thomas report and the Alito report, even more so, are too little too late," former White House ethics Czar Norm Eisen told CNN Thursday afternoon, acknowledging Thomas' disclosures and the older amendments.

"But there are many more trips — luxury travel, yacht trips, visits to Crow's properties, payment of a family member's tuition — those are not disclosed in here," Eisen continued, echoing other experts assertions that it was clear Thomas was required to disclose the travel years ago and criticizing Alito's "much skimpier" disclosure form for not discussing a luxury fishing trip he took years ago that's been scrutinized. 

"It does speak to the issue that Boris was asking Joan about: How is it possible that we do not have a code of ethics that is binding upon the highest court in the land?" he added, referring to anchor Boris Sanchez and legal analyst Joan Biskupic.

"Not only would I have required anything like this to be disclosed, I wouldn't have allowed it in the first place," Eisen concluded, evoking his time working on ethics in the White House. "Harlan Crow has had a case with interest before the court, and he has ideological interest as a prominent conservative. So there is an ethics crisis at the court."

By Tatyana Tandanpolie

Tatyana Tandanpolie is a staff writer at Salon. Born and raised in central Ohio, she moved to New York City in 2018 to pursue degrees in Journalism and Africana Studies at New York University. She is currently based in her home state and has previously written for local Columbus publications, including Columbus Monthly, CityScene Magazine and The Columbus Dispatch.

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