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Senate turns up heat on conservative megadonor central to Thomas probe

Amid concerns of judicial impropriety, lawmakers demanded Harlan Crow turn over information related to gifts and hospitality he provided to the Supreme Court justice.

WASHINGTON (CN) — A group of congressional Democrats asked a billionaire real estate developer Monday to get specific about big-ticket gifts he has given Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, as lawmakers investigate the jurist’s ethical conduct.

Democrats have promised to use their slim Senate majority to legislate Supreme Court reform amid revelations that decades of lavish vacations paid for by real estate magnate and conservative megadonor Harlan Crow went unreported by Thomas. In the weeks since the initial bombshell, new reports have emerged that Crow also purchased property from the justice and paid private school tuition bills for a nephew Thomas took legal custody of, adding steam to the lawmakers’ inquiry.

The Senate's work started in earnest under the supervision of the Judiciary Committee and its Democratic chair, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin. A self-described proponent of Supreme Court ethics reform, the lawmaker last week held a hearing during which he and colleagues criticized the high court’s refusal to adopt a formal code of conduct and expressed support for legislation that would force it to establish one.

Now, committee Democrats have set their sights on Crow. In a letter sent Monday to the real estate developer, lawmakers led by Durbin demanded Crow hand over information about gifts he gave Thomas “as part of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s ongoing efforts to craft legislation strengthening the ethical rules and standards that apply to the Justices of the Supreme Court.”

Democrats want all of Crow’s receipts, including an itemized list of all gifts, payments and other items of value that cost more than $415 that he or any of his companies have ever provided to a Supreme Court justice or a member of their family. That list should also name the jurist receiving such a payment, the letter states.

Durbin also requested itemizations detailing real estate transactions, transportation, lodging and access to private clubs Crow has given to Supreme Court justices.

In addition to the letter sent to Crow, the Illinois Democrat on Monday also reached out separately to holding companies overseeing the real estate magnate’s private jet and yacht, as well as the owners of Camp Topridge, Crow’s 105-acre estate in upstate New York at which Justice Thomas reportedly vacationed.

Durbin asked Rod Ward, the CEO of Topridge’s holding company, to provide all of the dates when Thomas or any other Supreme Court justice stayed at the compound, explaining that such information is in the public interest.

“Regardless of the intentions behind these stays, if these gifts to Justice Thomas enabled those with interests before the Court to have private access to a Justice, it is a matter of significant public concern,” the lawmaker wrote. “The appearance of special access to the Justices — that is not available to all Americans — is corrosive to the legitimacy of the Court.”

Crow Holdings, the real estate business where Crow was CEO until 2017 and remains chairman, did not immediately return a request for comment.

Justice Thomas issued a rare public statement after the first report on Crow’s gifts, defending his conduct and contending that he consulted with court officials and other justices who told him the generosity of his friend was exempt from disclosure. Though the high court is not bound by any court of ethics, disclosure laws are another matter, and some experts believe the jurist may be in violation.

Although congressional Democrats have been the main driver as of late, the push for the Supreme Court to adopt a code of ethics has attracted some bipartisan support. In an op-ed published by Fox News Friday, Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski and Maine’s Independent Senator Angus King unveiled new legislation that would charge the high court with writing its own ethical standards.

“The American people want to know that there is a guidebook for occupying a seat on our nation’s highest court,” the lawmakers wrote. “We are simply trying to help the justices help themselves and protect the Court’s reputation.”

Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse has proposed a similar bill that would require the Supreme Court to make a draft code of ethics available for public comment. Murkowski’s and King’s legislation, by contrast, would put that process squarely in the justices’ hands, save for a court-appointed proofreader.

Meanwhile, some congressional Republicans have blasted the recent scrutiny of Supreme Court ethics as a backlash to the high court’s conservative supermajority.

“We can talk about ethics, and that’s great,” said South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham during last week’s hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he is ranking member. “But, we’re also going to talk about a concentrated effort by the left to delegitimize this court and to cherry-pick examples to make a point.”

Graham did not immediately return a request for comment on Senate Democrats’ letter to Crow.

The Supreme Court, for its part, has largely steered clear of the scrum in Congress. Chief Justice John Roberts turned down an invitation from Durbin to testify at last week’s hearing, opting instead to send the lawmaker a statement of ethical principles signed by all nine justices as a gesture of good will.

Roberts has previously said it is not necessary for the Supreme Court to adopt a formal code of ethical standards, pointing to a 2011 year-end review in which the high court concluded that, while lower courts used such a framework, the Supreme Court could not be held to the same standard.

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