SUPREME PAYOLA - Progressives on Thursday urged congressional Democrats to immediately push for investigations and impeachment proceedings after bombshell reporting by ProPublica revealed that right-wing Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has been taking luxury trips funded by a billionaire Republican megadonor for more than 20 years without formally disclosing them—a likely violation of federal law.
The investigative outlet reported Thursday that "for more than two decades, Thomas has accepted luxury trips virtually every year" from Dallas-based real estate magnate Harlan Crow.
According to ProPublica, Thomas "has vacationed on Crow's superyacht around the globe. He flies on Crow's Bombardier Global 5000 jet. He has gone with Crow to the Bohemian Grove, the exclusive California all-male retreat, and to Crow's sprawling ranch in East Texas. And Thomas typically spends about a week every summer at Crow's private resort in the Adirondacks."
"These trips appeared nowhere on Thomas' financial disclosures," the outlet noted. "His failure to report the flights appears to violate a law passed after Watergate that requires justices, judges, members of Congress, and federal officials to disclose most gifts, two ethics law experts said. He also should have disclosed his trips on the yacht, these experts said."
Virginia Canter, a former government ethics lawyer who is now with the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), told ProPublica that the justice "seems to have completely disregarded his higher ethical obligations."
"When a justice's lifestyle is being subsidized by the rich and famous, it absolutely corrodes public trust," said Canter. "Quite frankly, it makes my heart sink."
"It's not just the undisclosed gifts of hospitality, it's the undisclosed company of political operatives—particularly Leonard Leo, the operative who helped the billionaires capture the court."
The luxury trip revelation is just the latest scandal for Thomas, who has faced mounting scrutiny over the past year for alleged ethics violations, including his decision not to recuse himself from cases involving the 2020 presidential election despite his wife's direct involvement in efforts to overturn the results of that contest.
"Democrats should force an impeachment vote of Justice Thomas on the House floor," Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch argued Thursday in response to the ProPublica reporting. "It won't pass, obviously, but put Republicans on the record supporting this level of corruption, and make the corrupt judiciary a campaign issue."
It's unclear how House Democrats would go about forcing an impeachment vote given GOP control of the chamber. Republicans have repeatedly defended Thomas as he's faced backlash over his failure to recuse from election-related cases.
Brian Fallon, executive director of the advocacy group Demand Justice, said in a statement Thursday that the Senate—which is narrowly controlled by Democrats—"cannot let this extraordinary display of corruption and lawbreaking go unanswered."
"Senate Democrats cannot force Thomas to resign or give him the impeachment trial he clearly deserves, but they can hold hearings to further expose Justice Thomas’ apparent lawbreaking and the Republican justices' deep ties to far-right donors," said Fallon. "As long as we are stuck with a Supreme Court made up of corrupt idealogues in the pocket of far-right donors, the American people deserve to know the truth."
ProPublica stressed that "the extent and frequency of Crow's apparent gifts to Thomas have no known precedent in the modern history of the U.S. Supreme Court."
"Crow's access to the justice extends to anyone the businessman chooses to invite along," the outlet reported. "Thomas' frequent vacations at Topridge have brought him into contact with corporate executives and political activists. During just one trip in July 2017, Thomas' fellow guests included executives at Verizon and Pricewaterhouse Coopers, major Republican donors, and one of the leaders of the American Enterprise Institute, a pro-business conservative think tank."
The outlet noted that a painting of Thomas at Topridge—Crow's private lakeside resort in upstate New York—shows Thomas "in conversation with Leonard Leo, the Federalist Society leader regarded as an architect of the Supreme Court’s recent turn to the right."
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), the chair of the Senate Judiciary Courts Subcommittee and a vocal advocate of ethics reform on the high court, wrote on Twitter that ProPublica's reporting "cries out for the kind of independent investigation that the Supreme Court—and only the Supreme Court, across the entire government—refuses to perform."
"It's not just the undisclosed gifts of hospitality, it's the undisclosed company of political operatives—particularly Leonard Leo, the operative who helped the billionaires capture the court," Whitehouse continued. "Who were Thomas' companions on these free undisclosed vacations, and what interests did those undisclosed companions have before the court? The question is obvious."
"All of this needs robust investigation," the senator added, "and it's the chief justice's job to make sure that occurs."
(Jake Johnson is a staff writer for Common Dreams where this article was first published.)