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Clarence Thomas says he was told he needn't disclose trips paid for by GOP donor

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas today responded to a report by ProPublica about his failure to disclose lavish trips paid for by a Republican megadonor, Harlan Crow. In a written statement today, Thomas said that, when he first came to the court, he, quote, "was advised that this sort of personal hospitality from close personal friends who did not have business before the court was not reportable," unquote. Joining us now to discuss all this is NPR's legal affairs correspondent, Nina Totenberg. Hi, Nina.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Hi there.

FLORIDO: So these allegations all involve Justice Thomas's 25-year friendship with real estate magnate Harlan Crow, who has contributed millions of dollars to conservative causes aimed, in particular, at moving the courts to the right. What can you tell us about this friendship?

TOTENBERG: Well, there have been, over the years, multiple disclosures about gifts to Thomas and a couple of private trips paid for by Crow. But this week's ProPublica report is by far the most comprehensive, and it's one more blow to a court buffeted by controversy over everything from the leak of the court's abortion decision to its apparent inability to write an ethics code for itself. And these are just a few highlights of the ProPublica report. In June 2019, the Thomases flew on Crow's private jet to Indonesia for nine days of island-hopping on the billionaire's yacht. That sort of trip would have cost Thomas more than a million dollars if he had paid for it.

Every summer, the Thomas - Thomas now acknowledges that he spends about a week at Camp Top Ridge, and Crow's - which is Crow's plush private resort in the Adirondacks. And there, he hobnobs not just with Crow and his wife, but other Crow friends - big corporate leaders and conservative activists and influencers. The ProPublica report used Federal Aviation Administration records to show that Thomas repeatedly had flown on Crow's private jet for other occasions - for instance, to speak at the unveiling in New York of a huge statue of the Justice's beloved eighth-grade teacher. There, he publicly thanked the donors who paid for the statue, Harlan Crow and his wife, Kathy.

FLORIDO: Nina, was all of this legal?

TOTENBERG: I spoke to Stephen Gillers, the author of the leading judicial ethics text about this, and he said that, while this is arguably legal, the key word is arguably. The code of judicial ethics that applies to all federal judges has rules that require reporting of all gifts and travel paid for by others. But until last month, those rules had an exception for the private travel and hospitality paid for by a personal friend. And Thomas, in his statement today, says that, when he got to the Supreme Court, he, quote, "sought guidance about the rules from fellow justices and others" and was told that he didn't have to report personal hospitality. So there's your loophole.

Now, the judicial conference of the United States has just changed those rules this year to clarify that judges may not escape reporting travel that's paid for by someone else - anyone else. Even a person - even personal hospitality at a private estate must be reported if the property is not owned personally by the friend extending the hospitality. And in this case, the Crow estate, for instance, is owned by one of the billionaire's businesses, according to ProPublica. And Thomas said today that he'll comply with the new rules.

FLORIDO: I've been speaking with NPR's Nina Totenberg. Thanks so much.

TOTENBERG: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.