Justice Clarence Thomas reportedly attended Koch network donor events

John Amis/AP

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas flew on a private jet in 2018 to speak at the annual winter donor summit of the Koch network – a trip that was intended to be a fundraising draw for the influential conservative political organization, according to a report published Friday by ProPublica.

At the summit, held in Palm Springs, Calif., Thomas attended a private dinner for the Koch network’s donors, ProPublica reported. According to the outlet, it was at least the second time Thomas had attended a meeting of the network founded by billionaire industrialist Charles Koch of Wichita and his brother, David Koch, who died in 2019. Thomas did not disclose the 2018 trip, ProPublica reported.

The revelation adds to the controversies swirling around Thomas and the court more broadly. The issues have led Democrats to call for the nine justices to adopt a binding code of ethics and prompted some calls for Thomas’s resignation. In its previous reports, ProPublica has explored other aspects of Thomas’s relationships with wealthy conservative donors, some of whom have interests before the court.

The Koch network has given millions of dollars to a conservative legal organization behind one of the Supreme Court’s biggest cases of the term that begins in October. The group, Cause of Action Institute, is asking the justices to overturn a decades-old precedent long targeted by conservatives concerned about the power of federal government agencies. The precedent has been used extensively by the government to defend environmental, financial and consumer protection regulations.

Thomas did not immediately respond to a request for comment through a Supreme Court spokesperson. In a statement, a representative for the Koch network, which is formally known as Stand Together, pushed back on the notion that Thomas’s presence at the 2018 donor summit was improper.

“There is a long tradition of public officials, including Supreme Court Justices, sharing their experiences, ideas, and judicial philosophy with members of the public at dinners and other events,” Stand Together spokeswoman Gretchen Reiter stated. “All of the sitting Justices and many who came before them have contributed to the national dialogue in speeches, book tours, and social gatherings. Our events are no different. To claim otherwise is false.”

ProPublica has previously reported on Thomas’s friendship with influential Republican donor Harlan Crow, who over two decades has lavished gifts and financial favors upon Thomas. Crow has denied any impropriety and said the two do not discuss Supreme Court cases.

The gifts Thomas accepted from Crow have included luxury vacations around the globe – notably travel on a superyacht and private jet – that were not disclosed by the justice, according to ProPublica. Subsequent investigations by the outlet revealed that Crow also paid the private school tuition for one of Thomas’s relatives. It also reported that Thomas had failed to disclose a real estate deal in which Crow purchased and renovated a house where Thomas’s mother was living.

In a statement in April, Thomas said “colleagues and others in the judiciary” had advised him that luxury trips financed by Crow were “personal hospitality” that did not have to be disclosed, and he maintained that Crow and his wife were among his “dearest friends.”

Ethics rules for federal judges and the nine justices, which were revised in March, made clear that starting with the 2022 forms, judges and justices must report trips by private jet. In his most recent financial disclosure report made public in August, Thomas reported three trips on Crow’s private jet in 2022 and for the first time detailed Crow’s purchase of properties from the justice’s family years earlier.

The Washington Post has also reported that Thomas has for years claimed income from a defunct real estate firm and that conservative judicial activist arranged for Thomas’s wife, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, to be paid tens of thousands of dollars for consulting work but with the specification that she not be mentioned on the billing paperwork.

The scrutiny on Thomas’s decades-long relationship with Crow has sparked investigations, calls for him to resign or be removed, and at least one civil lawsuit. In April, Senate Democrats publicly urged Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. to start his own investigation into Crow’s gifts to Thomas, and in July, the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a bill that would require the Supreme Court to adopt a binding code of ethics.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) in April called on the Judicial Conference, the federal court system’s policymaking body, to refer Thomas to the U.S. attorney general for potential ethics violations. In addition to not reporting gifts and real estate deals, Thomas admitted in 2011 he had failed to report $680,000 of his wife’s income from a conservative think tank, the lawmakers noted.

Also in April, the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a civil and criminal complaint against Thomas, saying that his acceptance and failure to disclose “repeated, lavish gifts” undermined confidence in the Supreme Court as an institution.

Democratic lawmakers renewed their calls for ethics reform at the Supreme Court after ProPublica reported in June on Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.’s relationship with Paul Singer, a billionaire hedge fund manager, as well as conservative judicial activist Leonard Leo’s role in organizing a trip Alito took with Singer to an Alaskan fishing resort. Alito responded to the report – before it had even published – in a Wall Street Journal guest column titled “ProPublica Misleads Its Readers.”

Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh said in a recent speech that he is “hopeful” the justices will soon take “concrete steps” to address ethics issues, but it is unclear how quickly that could happen. It has been more than four years since Justice Elena Kagan told lawmakers at a congressional hearing that the court was working on an ethics code.

Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix the Court, a nonpartisan group that pushes for transparency and ethics reforms at the high court, pointed out Friday that, under law, the Judicial Conference must refer to the Attorney General any individual for which there is reasonable cause to believe that “information required to be reported” in their disclosure has not been reported.

“We’re far past ‘reasonable cause’ territory,” Roth said in a statement.

The Post’s Emma Brown contributed to this report.