A top Senate Democrat has requested that Harlan Crow, a Texas billionaire who’s donated millions to conservative causes, provide details about the luxury gifts he gave Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas over their decades-long friendship.
On Monday, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) sent Crow a letter asking for evidence that the gifts complied with federal tax law, a month after ProPublica published its bombshell investigation into their lucrative friendship.
“This unprecedented arrangement between a wealthy benefactor and a Supreme Court justice raises serious concerns related to federal tax and ethics laws,” Wyden wrote.
The ProPublica report exposed that Thomas had received international trips on Crow’s private jet and superyacht over the years, as well as stays at exclusive retreats and Crow’s ranch in East Texas.
“Though the full extent of your largesse to Justice Thomas remains unknown, public reporting indicates that virtually every year since joining the Supreme Court, Justice Thomas accepted free flights aboard your private jet and accommodations aboard your 162-foot superyacht, the Michaela Rose,” the letter said.
Wyden noted that Thomas was aboard the Michaela Rose on trips to New Zealand and Greece, and that they’d used Crow’s private jet to fly to Indonesia. A week after the original report, ProPublica revealed that Crow had also bought three properties from Thomas, including the house the justice’s mother reportedly still lives in.
“This unusual arrangement raises a myriad of questions, not least whether Justice Thomas’s mother continued to reside at a property you have owned for nearly a decade,” Wyden wrote. “According to recent reporting, Justice Thomas’s mother has been living in the property rent-free for almost a decade.”
Thomas claimed in early April that guidance from “colleagues and others in the judiciary” advised him that the gifts qualified as “personal hospitality from close personal friends,” so he didn’t have to report them to the IRS. But Wyden disputed this claim in the letter to Crow.
“While ethics experts disagree with Justice Thomas’ assertion that these benefits provided by you qualify under the ‘personal hospitality’ exception in ethics rules, the Internal Revenue Code provides no such exceptions for transfers of a gratuitous or personal nature,” the Oregon Democrat wrote. “The federal gift tax specifically applies to transfers without full consideration, including the uncompensated use of property.”
In short, Wyden wrote, the “secrecy” surrounding Crow’s gifts to the justice is “simply unacceptable.” He provided a list of questions about their arrangements for Crow to respond to by May 8th.
The senator’s inquiry is an escalation of Congress’s recent efforts to rein in the high court, particularly the various conflicts of interest surrounding Thomas. Progressive Democrats have called for Thomas’ impeachment for at least a year, but top Dems have not followed suit.
Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin (D-IL), meanwhile, invited SCOTUS Chief Justice John Roberts—or any other justice of Roberts’ choosing—to testify at an upcoming committee hearing on ethics reform, but the justice referred the request to the Judicial Conference.
Read the full letter below: