By Ariane de Vogue, Shawna Mizelle, Lauren Fox and Tierney Sneed, CNN
Harlan Crow, the GOP megadonor who paid for luxury travel for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, declined to answer questions raised by a key Democratic senator who is examining whether those trips and a private real estate deal could have triggered violations of US tax law.
“We have serious concerns about the scope of and authority for this inquiry,” Michael D. Bopp, a lawyer for Crow, said in a letter to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden on Monday evening and obtained by CNN.
“Given the Letter’s timing and focus, this inquiry appears to be a component of a broader campaign against Justice Thomas and, now, Mr. Crow, rather than an investigation that furthers a valid legislative purpose,” Bopp wrote.
Wyden sent a series of questions to Crow in a letter last month, inquiring about trips over the years that the megadonor paid for on his private plane and super yacht that Thomas chose not to list on his financial disclosure forms.
Separately, on Monday, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee penned a similar letter to Crow. The letter — signed by all the Democrats on the committee including Dianne Feinstein — requests information on all gifts and payments that exceed $415 that were given to any justice of the Supreme Court or family member as well as an itemized list of real estate transactions and trips.
In his letter to the Finance Committee chairman, Bopp argues that Wyden is seeking to launch an invalid tax audit of Crow and Thomas instead of carrying out a legitimate inquiry into matters that concern the committee, and he charged the senator with violating the separation of powers.
He stressed that Justice Thomas and his wife Ginni are long-time friends of Crow.
“While the Crows have provided hospitality to the Thomases, that hospitality is rooted in a deep friendship, and the Crows derive great satisfaction from spending time with their friends. Personal hospitality is a cherished part of our communal fabric,” he wrote.
Last month, Thomas himself released a rare statement noting that he and his wife had been friends “for over twenty-five years.”
“As friends do, we have joined them on a number of family trips during the more than quarter century we have known them,” Thomas wrote.
Wyden had raised the possibility that the hospitality may have required disclosure on federal filings, which generally require taxpayers to report gifts in excess of a certain amount. The letter also indicated an interest in examining whether the travel was recorded on tax records as a business expense. Wyden also questioned a real estate deal between Crow, Thomas and members of his family.
Wyden said in a statement Tuesday that he was “disappointed but unsurprised” by Crow’s refusal to answer his questions, arguing that Crow is “relying on the same baseless arguments that failed Donald Trump in his attempt to stonewall Congressional oversight.”
“The bottom line is that nobody can expect to get away with waving off Finance Committee oversight, no matter how wealthy or well-connected they may be,” Wyden said, promising a “full response to Mr. Crow’s attorney in the coming days.”
“I’m also going to discuss with my committee colleagues how best to compel answers to the questions I put forward last month, including by using any of the tools at our disposal,” Wyden added.
Senate Democrats turn up pressure on Crow
Judiciary Democrats also sent letters on Monday to the holding companies that own Crow’s private jet, private yacht and Topridge Camp “seeking to identify the full extent of Mr. Crow’s and the corporations’ gifts to Justice Thomas.”
“The appearance of special access to the Justices — that is not available to all Americans — is corrosive to the legitimacy of the Court because, at minimum, it creates an appearance of undue influence that undermines the public’s trust in the Court’s impartiality,” one letter states.
The letters also state that the recent revelations come amid a lack of American confidence in the Supreme Court, pointing to recent polling.
Each letter requests that necessary information be shared no later than May 22.
The controversy about the court’s ethics rules stems from ProPublica reporting that revealed Thomas and his wife had gone on several luxury trips involving travel subsidized by and stays at properties owned by Crow and a 2014 real estate deal that involved the sale of three properties in Savannah, Georgia, that were owned by Thomas and his relatives to the megadonor.
Thomas had not financially disclosed the hospitality from or the deal with the Texas billionaire.
He has previously said he followed the advice of others in deciding what required disclosure and in a statement last month noted that Crow did not have business before the court.
A source close to Thomas previously told CNN that the justice plans to amend his disclosure forms to reflect the real estate transaction, which also went unreported.
ProPublica additionally reported last week that Crow paid boarding school tuition for Thomas’ grandnephew, Mark Martin, who lived with the justice’s family as a child and for whom Thomas became a legal guardian.
Democrats have vowed to keep investigating the ethics of the nation’s highest court, and Chief Justice John Roberts declined an invitation to testify at a hearing on Supreme Court ethics.
Speaking to CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday, Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin said “everything is on the table” as the panel scrutinizes new ethics concerns around Thomas.
This story has been updated with additional developments.
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