Justice Clarence Thomas took more trips on GOP megadonor’s private plane than previously known

Justice Clarence Thomas took several more trips on the private plane of GOP megadonor Harlan Crow than were previously known, a top Senate Democrat revealed Thursday.

According to information obtained by Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin, Thomas traveled on Crow’s private jet during trips in 2017, 2019 and 2021 between various US states, as well as on a previously known 2019 trip to Indonesia, during which Thomas also stayed on Crow’s mega-yacht.

The newly revealed private plane trips add to the picture of luxury travel enjoyed by Thomas and bankrolled by friends of the justice who have ties to conservative politics.

Thomas has come under fire for his failure to include such trips on financial disclosure forms the justices release each year, though he and his defenders argue that he followed the court’s disclosure rules as they were understood at the time.

The revelation was likely to add to the tension between the high court, where conservatives hold a 6-3 majority, and Democrats on Capitol Hill, who have been pushing for more than a year for tighter ethics rules. A series of ethics scandals involving Thomas and, more recently, Justice Samuel Alito, have left public approval of the court at historic lows.

Last year, amid stories by ProPublica on the justice’s jet-setting lifestyle, the federal judiciary’s policy-making body said that travel on private planes should be reported by the justices closing a loophole that Thomas said had exempted him from reporting the “personal hospitality” he had received form his uber-wealthy friends. The court’s critics argue that the current understanding of the disclosure rules should apply retroactively.

Thomas, through a court spokeswoman, did not respond to a CNN inquiry about the new revelations and why the trips were not disclosed.

He previously said that he was advised at the time that he was not required to disclose the hospitality he received from the Crows, but that he intended to follow the recent changes to the guidance going forward. His defenders have pointed to a 2012 letter from the Judicial Conference, which administers the regulations for judges’ financial disclosures, that cleared him of claims at the time that he should have been reporting his trips with Crow.

Last week, with the release of his financial disclosures for 2023, Thomas said he had “inadvertently omitted” from previous financial filings a hotel stay paid by the Crows during the 2019 trip to Indonesia and his accommodations that same year at a private club they are members of in Monte Rio, California.

Yet he did not disclose his travel on Crow’s private plane for either of those trips that was revealed by Durbin.

In addition to that trip, according to the documents released by Durbin, Thomas traveled on Crow’s plane from St. Louis to Montana and then on to Dallas in 2017; on a 2019 round trip from Washington, DC, to Savannah, Georgia; and on a 2021 round trip from Washington, DC, to San Jose, California.

“The Senate Judiciary Committee’s ongoing investigation into the Supreme Court’s ethical crisis is producing new information - like what we’ve revealed today - and makes it crystal clear that the highest court needs an enforceable code of conduct, because its members continue to choose not to meet the moment,” Durbin said in a statement that pointed to Supreme Court ethics legislation put forward by Senate Democrats. A procedural maneuver by Durbin on Wednesday to pass the bill on the Senate floor was blocked by Republicans.

Elliot Berke, an attorney for Thomas, said the trips Senate Democrats called attention to on Thursday fell under the “hospitality exemption.” Thomas and others have previously said they understood the disclosure rules to exclude situations involving “personal hospitality.”

“Consequently, and as Justice Thomas has already explained, he and many other federal judges were advised that they were not required to report gifts of personal hospitality from friends who did not have business before the Court,” Berke told CNN.

Mark Paoletta, a former top Trump administration official and prominent Thomas ally, similarly said on X that Thomas disclosed the hotel and private club stays from the previous trips because they were not covered under the personal hospitality exemption – even before the 2023 changes to the disclosure guidance. He argued that a justice’s stays on a friend’s “home, planes” and “boats” were exempted under the rules until the 2023 revision.

Durbin and other Democrats launched probes into gifts and lavish travel Thomas received after a bombshell ProPublica report that detailed the Indonesia trip with Crow – during which Thomas and his wife Ginni Thomas stayed on Crow’s 162-foot yacht – and other extravagant trips that the Thomases took with Crow and Crow’s wife.

Crow – whom Thomas has described as among his family’s “dearest friends” – has said that he has never talked to Thomas about matters in front of the judiciary.

“Mr. Crow reached an agreement with the Senate Judiciary Committee to provide information responsive to its requests going back seven years,” Crow spokesperson Michael Zona said of the information revealed Thursday.

“Despite his serious and continued concerns about the legality and necessity of the inquiry, Mr. Crow engaged in good faith negotiations with the Committee from the beginning to resolve the matter. As a condition of this agreement, the Committee agreed to end its probe with respect to Mr. Crow,” Zona added.

This story has been updated with additional reporting.

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