Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) speaks during Senate Democrats' news conference

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) speaks during Senate Democrats' news conference on April 26, 2023.

(Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Senate Finance Chief Blasts Clarence Thomas' Billionaire Friend for Obstructing Gift Probe

"Mr. Crow is relying on the same baseless arguments that failed Donald Trump in his attempt to stonewall congressional oversight," said Sen. Ron Wyden.

The Democratic chair of the Senate Finance Committee said Tuesday that billionaire GOP megadonor Harlan Crow is trying to obstruct the panel's investigation into his gifts to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who is facing growing calls to resign for failing to disclose luxury vacations and other largesse from an individual with business before the high court.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) had asked Crow to provide the Senate Finance Committee with a "full accounting" of the gifts he provided to Thomas and the justice's family, but the billionaire made clear this week that he does not intend to voluntarily comply with Wyden's investigation.

In a letter to Wyden earlier this week, an attorney for Crow claimed that the Senate finance chief's April request for detailed information about the gifts to Thomas raise "substantial separation of powers concerns"—an argument that Donald Trump's legal team used in its ultimately unsuccessful effort to stop Congress from obtaining years of the former president's tax returns.

Crow's lawyer also insisted that the Senate Finance Committee has no legislative purpose for its probe, again echoing the Trump team's case.

"I was disappointed but unsurprised by billionaire Republican activist Harlan Crow's refusal to respond to my questions about the gifts he's lavished on Justice Clarence Thomas and his family over the bulk of Thomas' tenure on the Supreme Court," Wyden said in a statement Tuesday. "Mr. Crow is relying on the same baseless arguments that failed Donald Trump in his attempt to stonewall congressional oversight."

"I have used my chairmanship of the committee to shine a bright light on tax schemes undertaken by the ultra-wealthy, including untaxed transfers of wealth," the Oregon Democrat continued. "The assertion that the Finance Committee lacks a legislative basis for an investigation of the abuse of gift taxes by the wealthy is simply preposterous."

Wyden said Crow "takes this position to an even more absurd level" in his response to the finance panel, suggesting that "the specter of public corruption created by his own unreported gifts to Justice Thomas somehow insulates the details of those gifts from congressional investigation."

"This argument is, on its face, a joke," said Wyden, arguing that Congress "needs to evaluate compliance with the gift tax" and strongly consider "stiffening reporting requirements for gifts given to public officials."

"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 added. "I will send 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."

As Politico noted Tuesday, the finance committee's "next steps could include subpoenaing Crow for the requested records or using a section of the tax code that vests the chairs of Congress' tax committees with the authority to obtain a private citizen's tax returns directly from Treasury—a power that House Democrats used last year to publish the taxes of former President Donald Trump."

Wyden's response to Crow came amid an ongoing firestorm over what experts and lawmakers have described as Thomas' blatant ethics violations and unabashed corruption.

Since reporting last month that Thomas "has accepted luxury trips virtually every year from the Dallas businessman without disclosing them," ProPublica has revealed that Crow covered private-school tuition for Thomas' grandnephew and purchased property from the justice and his family, heightening calls for Thomas' resignation or impeachment.

On Tuesday, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) sent a letter to Thomas urging him to step down for "likely violat[ing] civil and criminal laws and... creat[ing] the impression that access to and influence over Supreme Court justices is for sale."

"We know of no other modern justice who has engaged in such extreme misconduct," said Noah Bookbinder, the president of CREW. "Justice Thomas' actions are so far beyond what most would consider acceptable, that by continuing to sit on the highest court in the land, Thomas does nothing but further diminish the court's credibility."

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.