Three leading Senate Democrats said Tuesday that “all options are on the table” after billionaire Harlan Crow refused again to answer their questions about the gifts and other financial support he’s given to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
Senate Judiciary Committee chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), along with courts subcommittee chair Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), and Senate Finance Committee chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) sought to question Crow after ProPublica revealed that Thomas failed to disclose Crow’s lavish gifts to him in the form of private jet travel, luxury vacations and private club admissions. Thomas also failed to disclose that he sold his ancestral home to Crow in 2014 and that Crow paid the private school tuition of Thomas’ grandnephew, whom Thomas treated as an adopted son.
The Judiciary Committee is investigating the court’s failure to abide by a binding ethics code, as all other federal courts do, while it considers legislation requiring the Supreme Court to follow one. The Finance Committee is looking into whether Crow paid gift taxes for his largesse to Thomas.
Crow rebuffed both committees in May by claiming the Supreme Court’s separation of powers protection for himself as a private citizen. His lawyer argued that the committees did not have a legitimate legislative purpose in their investigations because Congress cannot pass legislation to impose ethics laws on the Supreme Court. He reiterated his refusal to provide answers in a second round of letters to both committees.
“Let’s be clear: Harlan Crow doesn’t call the shots here,” Durbin and Whitehouse said in a statement. “He is not a branch ― nor even a member ― of government and cannot claim the protections and privileges of one. The Senate Judiciary Committee has clearly established oversight and legislative authority to assess and address the ethical crisis facing the Court. All options are on the table moving forward.”
Those options could include a subpoena, according to Wyden.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) displays a copy of a painting commissioned by Harlan Crow that features Justice Clarence Thomas and Crow alongside other conservative leaders at a private retreat.
“I’ve already begun productive discussions with the Finance Committee on next steps to compel answers to our questions from Mr. Crow, including by subpoena, and those discussions will continue,” Wyden said in a statement.
While refusing to answer both committees’ questions, Crow’s latest letters did provide a small amount of information in response to Wyden’s questions and proposed that his lawyer Michael Bopp, of Gibson Dunn, would be willing to talk to Durbin and Whitehouse’s committee staff.
In his letter to Wyden’s committee, Bopp claimed that Crow’s corporate entities were paid for the travel expenses incurred by Thomas and his wife on the vacations, including their use of private jets and yachts.
“Our understanding is that for trips involving the Thomases — and for Mr. Crow’s personal use of private aircraft and the Michaela Rose [yacht] in general — charter rates or reimbursements at rates prescribed by law were paid to the Crow family entities holding or operating those assets. Those entities included in income the amounts paid,” Bopp wrote.
The implication that the corporate entities paid income tax on Crow’s gifts to Thomas raised more questions for Wyden.
“If anything, the most recent letter from his attorney raises more questions than it answers,” the senator said.
The committees could seek to issue a subpoena to compel Crow to answer their questions or appear to testify through a full committee vote.