'Oh, please': Critics scoff at Clarence Thomas' defense of secret luxury trips

'Oh, please': Critics scoff at Clarence Thomas' defense of secret luxury trips
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Wikimedia Commons

Under fire after reporting offered a detailed look at his decades of billionaire-funded luxury vacations, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas claimed Friday that he was "advised" by colleagues not to report personal hospitality gifts from friends, a story that drew immediate derision from lawmakers and legal analysts.

In a statement responding to ProPublica's reporting, which shined additional light on trips bankrolled by billionaire real estate mogul Harlan Crow, Thomas acknowledged joining the GOP megadonor and his wife on "a number of" family trips over the past two decades but insisted that he was told such hospitality "from close personal friends, who did not have business before the court, was not reportable."

"I have endeavored to follow that counsel throughout my tenure, and have always sought to comply with the disclosure guidelines," said Thomas, who in 2011 amended 20 years of financial disclosure forms after failing to disclose income that his wife, Ginni Thomas, received from the right-wing Heritage Foundation and other organizations.

Thomas claimed at the time that he had a "misunderstanding of the filing instructions," an excuse that watchdogs found highly implausible.

On Friday, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) scoffed at Thomas' explanation for declining to disclose his many luxury vacations, specifically criticizing the justice's assertion that those involved with the trips had no business before the court.

ProPublica reported that Federalist Society co-chair Leonard Leo, who has helped drag the U.S. judicial system to the right, was among the guests of one Crow-funded trip that Thomas attended.

"Oh, please," Whitehouse tweeted in response to Thomas' statement. "If you're smoking cigars with Leonard Leo and other right-wing fixers, you should know they don't just have business before the court—their business IS the court."

Mark Joseph Stern, a legal writer for Slate, added that the justice's statement "fails to account for Thomas' alleged use of Crow's private jet for his own personal travel, presumably because it cannot possibly be squared with the disclosure guidelines in effect at the time."

ProPublica reported that Thomas' trips included multiple flights on Crows' private jet and rides on his superyacht—none of which the justice disclosed. The investigative outlet noted that "Thomas has even used the plane for a three-hour trip."

"On Feb. 11, 2016, the plane flew from Dallas to Dulles to New Haven, Connecticut, before flying back later that afternoon," ProPublica revealed. "There are no reports of Thomas making a public appearance that day, and the purpose of the trip remains unclear."

According toThe Washington Post, Thomas "has reported receiving only two gifts since 2004"—a bronze bust of Frederick Douglass, which came from Crow, and an award from Yale Law School.

After the Los Angeles Timesreported in 2004 that Thomas "had accepted expensive gifts and private plane trips paid for by Harlan Crow," the justice "appears to have continued accepting free trips from his wealthy friend," the newspaper reported Thursday.

"But he stopped disclosing them," the Times added.

On Thursday, Stern and fellow Slate court writer Dahlia Lithwick argued that by failing to report gifts from Crow, Thomas "broke the law, and it isn't particularly close."

"The best argument in his defense is that the old definition of 'personal hospitality' did not require him to disclose transportation, including private flights," the pair wrote. "This reading works only by torturing the English language beyond all recognition. The old rule, like the statute it derives from, defined the term as hospitality that is 'extended' either 'at' a personal residence or 'on' their 'property or facilities.'

"A person dead-set on defending Thomas might be able to squeeze these yacht trips into this definition, arguing that, by hosting Thomas on his boat for food, drink, and sightseeing, Crow 'extended' hospitality 'on' his own property. But lending out the private jet for Thomas’ personal use? Come on. There’s no plausible way to shoehorn these trips into the old rule—which quotes the statute verbatim—even under the most expansive interpretation imaginable."

Following pressure from Whitehouse and other lawmakers, the Judicial Conference of the United States—the policymaking body for federal courts—clarified its disclosure requirements surrounding "personal hospitality."

The updated regulations state that disclosure exemptions do not include "gifts other than food, lodging or entertainment, such as transportation that substitutes for commercial transportation"—like a private jet.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said in an interview with The Lever on Thursday that articles of impeachment against Thomas "need to be introduced" in response to ProPublica's revelations.

"If no one's going to introduce it, I would certainly be open to doing so and drafting them myself," said the New York Democrat. "I think this has gone far, far beyond any sort of acceptable standard in any democracy, let alone American democracy."

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