Leonard Leo

Leonard Leo speaks at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C., on April 23, 2019.

(Photo: Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

'Lawless Con Man' Leonard Leo Defies Senate Subpoena Over Supreme Court Gifts

"This subpoena is a direct result of Mr. Leo's own actions and choices," said Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin.

"Incredible," said one journalist on Friday of right-wing legal activist Leonard Leo's reasons for refusing to comply with a subpoena from the Senate Judiciary Committee as the panel investigates conservative Supreme Court justices' relationships with Leo and other Republican operatives and donors.

The Federalist Society co-chairman told The Washington Post that the subpoena was "politically motivated."

"I am not capitulating to [committee Chair Dick Durbin's (D-Ill.)] lawless support of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and the left's dark money effort to silence and cancel political opposition," said Leo, who has lobbied for the appointments of far-right judges to federal benches, in a statement.

The subpoena came over four months after the committee voted along party lines to subpoena Leo and billionaire GOP donor Harlan Crow following numerous reports about luxury travel and gifts they and others bestowed on Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

ProPublica revealed last June that Leo organized a luxury fishing trip to Alaska for Alito, with lodging and private jet travel paid for, in 2008. The trip was not included on Alito's federally required financial disclosure forms, continuing a pattern that ProPublica first reported on last April with several luxury vacations, real estate transactions, and other financial gifts to Thomas that were paid for by Crow.

Durbin said Thursday that the subpoena was issued because of the "blanket refusal to cooperate" with the investigation that Leo has displayed since last July.

"His outright defiance left the committee with no other choice but to move forward with compulsory process. For that reason, I have issued a subpoena to Mr. Leo," said Durbin. "Mr. Leo has played a central role in the ethics crisis plaguing the Supreme Court and, unlike the other recipients of information requests in this matter, he has done nothing but stonewall the committee. This subpoena is a direct result of Mr. Leo's own actions and choices."

The ethics violations revealed by ProPublica's reporting forced the Supreme Court last fall to adopt a code of conduct for the first time, modeled on the rules followed by judges on lower federal courts.

But ethics watchdogs labeled the code a "toothless PR stunt" and a "cover-up for Clarence Thomas," as it did not include an enforcement mechanism and provided the justices with discretion over recusal decisions.

Debt relief advocates called on Alito to recuse himself last year from two cases pertaining to Biden's student debt cancellation program, citing the reporting on Leo's gifts to the justice. The plane Alito took to Alaska was owned by billionaire investor Paul Singer, who has financially backed groups that lobbied the court to overturn Biden's plan.

The court struck down the debt relief program last June.

Like former President Donald Trump, said Alex Aronson, former chief counsel for Judiciary Committee senior member Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), "the other man most responsible for shaping our Supreme Court's runaway majority is a lawless con man and crook."

Caroline Ciccone, president of government watchdog Accountable.US, said Friday that "Supreme Court billionaire matchmaker Leonard Leo" is the force behind "a full-blown corruption crisis has plagued the high court for over a year, undermining its credibility and plummeting public trust in the court to record lows."

"Today's subpoena is a critical step toward accountability, and toward ensuring that our high court adheres to the highest possible ethics standards," said Ciccone. "As a result of the strong leadership of Chairman Durbin and the Judiciary Committee, we can now begin to get to the bottom of the corruption crisis pervading the Supreme Court."

With Leo refusing to comply with the subpoena, Democrats would need to hold a vote in the closely divided Senate to seek enforcement.

Former Trump aide Peter Navarro was found guilty of contempt of Congress for defying a subpoena from the committee that investigated the January 6, 2021 insurrection, and reported to a federal prison last month to serve his four-month sentence.

"Leonard Leo thinks he's above the law just like Navarro did," said one attorney. "We'll see if he's right."

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