"Serious ethics issue": Wealthy friend forgave up to $267K of luxury RV loan for Clarence Thomas

"Thomas takes cash while crushing your freedoms. He's corrupt as hell," Democratic lawmaker says

Published October 27, 2023 10:43AM (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)

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The U.S. Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday released a report detailing how embattled Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas may have had a substantial amount of a loan for a luxury RV forgiven by a wealthy friend—which one watchdog called "a serious ethics issue."

The panel's probe was sparked by New York Times reporting from August about Anthony Welters loaning Thomas money to buy a used Prevost Le Mirage XL Marathon, or "the Rolls-Royce of motor coaches," which cost $267,230 in 1999. Welters told the newspaper that "the loan was satisfied" and provided a photograph of the title with his signature and a handwritten "lien release" date of November 22, 2008.

The Senate memorandum states that "while additional documents pertaining to the loan agreement may exist, documents reviewed by Democratic staff suggest that Justice Thomas did not repay a significant portion of the loan principal. In fact, none of the documents reviewed by committee staff indicated that Thomas ever made payments to Welters in excess of the annual interest on the loan."

Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said in a statement that "the committee has the answer to one of the pressing questions raised by reporting about his arrangement with Justice Thomas—was the loan ever repaid? Now we know that Justice Thomas had up to $267,230 in debt forgiven and never reported it on his ethics forms."

Wyden noted some of the "damning" details his staff uncovered in social media posts:

"Regular Americans don't get wealthy friends to forgive huge amounts of debt so they can buy a second home," the senator stressed. "Justice Thomas should inform the committee exactly how much debt was forgiven and whether he properly reported the loan forgiveness on his tax returns and paid all taxes owed."

As the Times reported Wednesday:

A lawyer for Justice Thomas, Elliot S. Berke, disputed the committee's findings, saying, "The loan was never forgiven." He added, "The Thomases made all payments to Mr. Welters on a regular basis until the terms of the agreement were satisfied in full."

But he did not to respond when the Times asked him to reconcile that statement with documents obtained by the committee and cited in its report, including a 2008 letter from Mr. Welters to Justice Thomas stating that he would not seek further payments on the loan despite being entitled to them. Nor would Mr. Berke say whether "satisfied" meant that the justice had fully repaid the $267,230 he borrowed plus interest.

Wyden also said Wednesday that he "directed the committee to share our findings with the Judiciary Committee to evaluate the ethics implications of this disclosure."

In response to the findings, More Perfect Union's Jordan Zakarin asked Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on social media: "Do you have any interest in investigating? Or are you just going to let these maniac right-wing billionaires buy the Supreme Court and trash what remains of democracy?"

Durbin said that "with each new report, the American people realize how many lavish, undisclosed gifts Justice Thomas has received from his gaggle of fawning billionaires."

Thomas has also come under fire recently for his relationships with the Koch network, fellow members of the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, and billionaire real estate developer Harlan Crow, who treated Thomas to luxury vacations, bought his mother's house, and contributed to the private school tuition for a great-nephew the right-wing justice raised.

"This latest example—an undisclosed, forgiven $250,000+ loan—further proves the need for a binding code of conduct for all Supreme Court justices," Durbin added, pledging to take the report into account as his panel presses forward with ethics reform. He also has a message for Chief John Roberts: "Just How many more bombshell reports need to drop before you act on ethics reform? Until you act, we will."

Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats advanced Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse's (D-R.I.) Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency (SCERT) Act in July, but the bill is unlikely to be passed by the full chamber or the GOP-controlled House.

Ethics concerns related to Thomas and other justices have fueled demands this year for reform legislation—including to expand the court—as well as recusals from specific cases and even Thomas' resignation.

Congressman Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) said in response to the Senate's RV report that "Thomas takes cash while crushing your freedoms. He's corrupt as hell and should resign today."

Others highlighted that Thomas in June voted to strike down President Joe Biden's student debt relief plan, which would have canceled up to $20,000 per federal borrower.

"Clarence Thomas got a rich buddy to #cancelcamperdebt," Mike Pierce of the Student Borrower Protection Center wrote on social media. "That sound you hear is the collective primal scream coming from 40 million people who just want the Corrupt Clarence deal."

By Jessica Corbett

Jessica Corbett is a staff writer for Common Dreams. Follow her on Twitter: @corbett_jessica.

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