WASHINGTON (The Hill) — Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has taken dozens of trips paid for by at least four billionaire friends during his time on the bench, a new report from ProPublica found. The report expands upon their previous investigation into Thomas’s relationship with Harlan Crow, a GOP megadonor who gave the justice vacations, flights, and his mother’s house in Georgia.
ProPublica’s newest story sheds additional light on the two men’s friendship. It also details trips Thomas purportedly accepted from three other billionaires: former Berkshire Hathaway executive David Sokol, oil businessman Paul “Tony” Novelly and H. Wayne Huizenga, who helped expand Blockbuster.
The report detailed how Thomas’s friends footed the bills for at least 38 destination vacations, 26 private jet flights, and eight helicopter flights. Besides travel costs, billionaires paid for 12 VIP passes to sporting events, two resort stays in Florida and Jamaica, and one “standing invitation to an uber-exclusive golf club” on the Atlantic coast, according to the report. Some of the trips were previously known.
Novelly’s company in 2010 appealed to the Supreme Court, court records show. The court declined to hear the case, and Thomas’s vote was not made public, as is typical. None of the three men appear to have had any other significant interests before the court. ProPublica noted that all four of the reported billionaires likely met the justice after he was confirmed to the bench.
Justices are allowed to accept free travel and gifts but have faced recent scrutiny over an exception for personal hospitality in disclosure rules. The federal judiciary updated its guidance on the exception earlier this year to clarify judges must disclose gifts and free stays at commercial properties, or when gifts of hospitality are being reimbursed by a third party who is not the person providing it.
Responding to ProPublica’s report earlier this year about his friendship with Crow, Thomas said he was advised the undisclosed trips fell under the exception but vowed to follow the new guidance. Sokol and Novelly’s companies did not immediately return requests for comment. Huizenga is deceased. Thomas did not immediately return a request for comment through a court spokesperson.
The conservative justice appeared to meet Sokol, Novelly and Huizenga through the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, according to ProPublica. The nonprofit recognizes a small number of high-achieving individuals each year with lifetime membership and gives away college scholarships.
The New York Times previously reported how the organization, which boasts Thomas as a member, hosts its induction ceremony inside the Supreme Court’s courtroom. ProPublica also reported that the group in 2004 required members to donate at least $1,500 for a seat at the event.
The recent ethical controversies have spurred Democrats to push a bill that would require the justices to adopt a binding code of ethics, but the chances of passage remain slim in the GOP-led House. Republicans have attacked the effort as a means of tearing down the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, given that the recent scrutiny on undisclosed trips has largely focused on Thomas and Samuel Alito, another conservative justice.
Thomas and Alito are not the first justices to accept trips from wealthy friends. Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, who retired from the court last year, accepted a flight in 2013 from billionaire David Rubenstein, although the justice listed the trip on his financial disclosures. Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor has also come under scrutiny following an Associated Press report detailing efforts by one of her aides to push book sales during the justice’s travels.