Senate Democrats want special counsel to investigate Clarence Thomas

Washington — A pair of Senate Democrats have asked Attorney General Merrick Garland to appoint a special counsel to look into whether Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas violated any federal tax or ethics laws when he accepted travel and lodging from wealthy benefactors.

Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Ron Wyden of Oregon told Garland in a letter dated July 3 and made public Tuesday that Senate investigations and public reporting have revealed evidence of allegedly “repeated and willful” omissions of gifts and income from Thomas’ annual financial disclosure reports.

The two Democrats claimed that the extent of the justice’s potential ethics violations exceeds conduct from other federal officials who have been investigated by the Justice Department for similar actions. 

“Appointment of a special counsel would serve the public interest,” Whitehouse and Wyden wrote in their letter. “The public must have confidence that the judiciary and the Department of Justice execute their responsibilities fairly, impartially, and without respect to political expedience or partisan interests.”

Senate Democrats have been investigating ethics practices at the Supreme Court in the wake of news articles detailing travel Thomas accepted from Republican megadonor Harlan Crow, which he did not disclose on his financial reports. 

Justice Clarence Thomas is seen during a group photo of the justices of the Supreme Court in Washington, April 23, 2021.
Justice Clarence Thomas is seen during a group photo of the justices of the Supreme Court in Washington, April 23, 2021.

Erin Schaff-Pool/Getty Images

The two have been friends for more than two decades and have taken numerous family trips together, Thomas said in response to the scrutiny of their relationship. The conservative justice has maintained that he did not believe he was required to report the trips under rules regarding personal hospitality, but pledged to comply with new disclosure guidelines from the Judicial Conference issued last March. 

Thomas formally reported two trips he took with Crow in July 2019 — to Bali, Indonesia, and a private club in Monte Rio, California — on his latest financial disclosure filed in May. On a report made public last year, he also listed trips aboard Crow’s private plane and lodging at his property in the Adirondacks in 2022, as well as details of a real estate transaction with Crow in 2014.

Still, Senate Democrats have said in their letter to Garland that they believe Thomas accepted undisclosed gifts and income that may be worth millions of dollars.

Wyden and Whitehouse said the Senate Finance and Judiciary Committees have been investigating a $267,000 loan connected to Thomas’ purchase of a recreational vehicle in 1999. The loan was provided by Anthony Welters, a friend of Thomas’, and documents obtained by the Democratic-led Finance panel indicated that Thomas only made interest payments on the loan. The committee said Welters forgave the balance of the loan in 2008, but Thomas did not report the forgiveness as income on his financial disclosure report covering 2008.

The justice’s lawyer told Wyden and Whitehouse in a letter in January that the Thomas and his wife “made all payments to Mr. Welters on a regular basis until the terms of the agreement were satisfied in full. Justice Thomas has fully complied with all judicial disclosure rules on this matter.”

In their letter to the attorney general, the two Democrats also accused Thomas of failing to report gifts he received from Crow and others. In addition to flights aboard Crow’s private plane, they cited yacht trips and lodging Thomas received from him from 2003 to 2021. Gifts from other wealthy businessmen include private plane trips, tickets to sporting events and lodging, according to Wyden and Whitehouse.

They said federal ethics laws required him to disclose the gifts and were unlikely to fall under a disclosure exception for personal hospitality.

“Justice Thomas’s own past financial disclosure reports, combined with his later revisions, belie the notion that he was not aware of the simple requirements he was required to meet,” Wyden and Whitehouse wrote. “We contend that this pattern of filings, misfilings, and corrections provides adequate predication for further investigation by relevant authorities.”

The senators said the gifts also raise the possibility of tax violations by the businessmen if they did not report or pay any required gift tax. 

“We do not make this request lightly,” Whitehouse and Wyden wrote. “The evidence assembled thus far plainly suggests that Justice Thomas has committed numerous willful violations of federal ethics and false-statement laws and raises significant questions about whether he and his wealthy benefactors have complied with their federal tax obligations.”

A representative for Thomas did not respond to a request for comment on the letter on Tuesday.

Democrats on the Judiciary Committee are expected to release a report this summer with the findings from its investigation into ethics practices at the Supreme Court. Some of their requests for information, such as for Chief Justice John Roberts to answer questions about ethics issues, have been rebuffed due to separation of powers concerns.

Sen. Dick Durbin, the panel’s chairman, attempted last month to unanimously pass legislation that would require the Supreme Court to adopt binding ethics rules, but it was blocked by Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican.

The court adopted formal ethics rules itself in November, but its new code does not include an enforcement mechanism.

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