Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is seen in Washington, D.C. on October 26, 2020.

(Photo: Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Senate Dems Seek Special Counsel to Investigate Clarence Thomas and Billionaire Benefactors

"The evidence assembled thus far plainly suggests that Justice Thomas has committed numerous willful violations of federal ethics."

Stepping up efforts to hold U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas accountable for alleged ethics violations, two Democratic senators on Tuesday announced they'd requested that the Biden administration appoint a special counsel to investigate the right-wing judge.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who chairs a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the federal courts and oversight, was joined by and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) in writing to Attorney General Merrick Garland, warning that extensive reporting has pointed to possible violations of the Ethics in Government Act by Thomas.

While the senators' committees have presented Thomas with opportunities to explain his failure to disclose a significant forgiven debt and several financial gifts he received from wealthy benefactors, the justice "has maintained a suspicious silence," said Whitehouse and Wyden.

"The evidence assembled thus far plainly suggests that Justice Thomas has committed numerous willful violations of federal ethics and false-statement laws and raises significant questions about whether he and his wealthy benefactors have complied with their federal tax obligations," wrote the senators. "No government official should be above the law. Supreme Court justices are properly expected to obey laws designed to prevent conflicts of interest and the appearance of impropriety and to comply with the federal tax code."

"We therefore request that you appoint a special counsel authorized to investigate potential criminal violations by Justice Thomas," they added.

The senators cited a loan of more than $267,000 to Thomas, in connection with his purchase of a luxury motor coach. The Senate Finance Committee found that the provider of the loan, Anthony Welters, a wealthy businessman in the healthcare sector, stopped collecting principal and interest on the loan in 2008—suggesting the debt was forgiven and therefore taxable.

"The Ethics in Government Act requires justices to disclose any 'income from discharge of indebtedness,'" wrote the senators. "Justice Thomas did not report any such forgiveness as income on his financial disclosure report covering the year 2008, or for any other year."

The letter also points to numerous financial gifts Thomas received from benefactors including billionaire Harlan Crow, businessman Wayne Huizenga, and former Berkshire Hathaway executive David Sokol. The justice has reportedly received free private jet travel, lodging, tuition for his grandnephew, a country club membership, and free rent for his mother, among other gifts, "all of which Justice Thomas failed to disclose" in violation of the Ethics in Government Act.

"Justice Thomas has claimed that some omissions were 'inadvertent,' and he has amended some past reports accordingly," wrote Whitehouse and Wyden. "However, Justice Thomas has not disclosed all of the gifts that have been uncovered, and there may well be more. His long history of omissions indicates a pattern of willfulness meriting investigation under the Ethics in Government Act."

On social media, Whitehouse added that "the American people deserve a comprehensive investigation into the potential violations of ethics and tax laws by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas."

Court reform groups and other progressives have long called for Thomas to be held accountable for multiple alleged conflicts of interest and other possible ethics violations—demanding that he recuse from cases involving former President Donald Trump due to his wife's involvement in efforts to overturn the 2020 election results and calling for a federal investigation into gifts he's received from people and groups who had business before the Supreme Court.

"It's beyond time we hold Clarence Thomas accountable for his actions," said the advocacy group End Citizens United.

The senators noted that an ethics investigation by a special counsel appointed by Garland could shed light on payments reportedly facilitated by Leonard Leo, board chair of the right-wing Federalist Society, which has pushed for the appointment of right-wing judges to the Supreme Court and other federal courts.

"Last year, The Washington Postreported that Leo directed payments of at least $25,000 to a consulting firm run by Justice Thomas's spouse, with Leo specifying that the documents related to the payments should make '[n]o mention' of Mrs. Thomas," wrote Whitehouse and Wyden. "The furtive nature of the payments raises further questions about how many such payments were orchestrated, whether legitimate services were actually rendered, and whether such payments required additional reporting by Justice Thomas."

An investigation is needed, said the senators, to uncover "the full scope of potential unlawful conduct related to any coordinated gifts program for certain justices."

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