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Wyden asks Texas billionaire for detailed accounting of gifts to Clarence Thomas

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) at a February 2021 hearing. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
4 min

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) on Monday asked Texas billionaire Harlan Crow to voluntarily provide a detailed accounting of the gifts he has provided to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, as well as information about Georgia properties that the prominent Republican donor purchased from Thomas and his relatives.

In a letter to Crow, Wyden asked him to respond to a detailed list of questions by May 8, saying the American public deserves a “full accounting” of his largesse and that the “unprecedented arrangement between a wealthy benefactor and a Supreme Court justice raises serious concerns related to federal tax and ethics laws.”

“The secrecy surrounding your dealings with Justice Thomas is simply unacceptable,” Wyden said in the letter.

The letter follows reporting from ProPublica that Crow has taken Thomas on vacations for two decades that have included use of a private jet and superyacht and that the Georgia properties included one in which Thomas’s mother lived. Thomas has said in a statement that colleagues he did not name told him he did not have to report the vacations and that he has always tried to comply with disclosure guidelines. He has not publicly addressed the property transaction.

“We look forward to responding to Chairman Wyden’s letter in due course,” Crow’s office said in a statement Monday evening.

Wyden’s letter is the latest tactic by Democrats to explore the arrangements between Thomas and Crow and use the situation as leverage to push the Supreme Court to adopt an enforceable ethics policy.

Last week, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) invited Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. to testify at a public Senate hearing next month on ethics rules governing the Supreme Court as part of what Durbin said is a needed conversation “on ways to restore the Court’s ethical standards.”

Allegations from congressional Democrats that Thomas probably violated federal ethics laws in his dealings with Crow also have been sent to a committee of federal judges responsible for addressing allegations of errors or omissions in Thomas’s financial disclosure reports.

In his letter to Crow, Wyden noted that the value of travel and other hospitality provided to Thomas is almost certainly subject to the federal gift tax.

“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,” Wyden wrote.

“The cost of the use of your private jet and fully crewed superyacht by Justice Thomas would likely be well in excess of the annual gift tax exclusion (between $13,000 per recipient in 2011 and $17,000 per recipient in 2023, depending on the year), thus giving rise to a gift tax return filing requirement,” Wyden added.

Wyden also said the purchase of the Georgia properties “raises a myriad of questions,” citing reporting that Thomas’s mother has been living rent-free for almost a decade.

“The full factual background has not been made public, but it is possible that you have had gift tax filing obligations and gift tax liability as a consequence of this living arrangement,” the letter said.

Revised regulations that took effect last month and that apply to all federal judges now require Supreme Court justices to provide a fuller public accounting of free trips, meals and other gifts they accept from corporations or other organizations.

Congressional critics argue that more aggressive measures are needed.

Thomas has reported receiving only two gifts since 2004, according to a Washington Post review of his financial disclosure forms posted online by nonprofit groups Fix the Court and OpenSecrets.

The Post has also highlighted other problems with Thomas’s disclosure forms, including reporting that his family received rental income from a Nebraska real estate firm that has not existed since 2006.