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Lawmakers seek special prosecutor for Clarence Thomas criminal investigation

Lawmakers seek special prosecutor for Clarence Thomas criminal investigation

Two Democratic US Senators Supreme Court justices announced Tuesday that they are seeking to open a criminal investigation into Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas over travel gifts, a recreational vehicle loan and other benefits he received from wealthy benefactors.

Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said they sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland last week asking him to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate whether Thomas violated ethics, false statements and tax laws.

The action marks a significant escalation in efforts by Democratic senators to address The ethics controversies surrounding Thomas and the court have surfaced in recent years. Whitehouse’s staff said it was probably the first time anyone had called for a special prosecutor to investigate a Supreme Court justice. Whitehouse serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, while Wyden chairs the Senate Finance Committee.

Jeremy Fogel, a former federal judge and executive director of the Berkeley Judicial Institute, said the Justice Department has the legal authority to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Thomas, but that would be a different matter. “Inevitably, it would be seen as political retribution for decisions that judges have made that they don’t like,” he said. “I just don’t know how you get out of that situation.”

The Justice Department declined to comment on the request.

Special prosecutors are typically appointed when the attorney general wants to assure the public that a sensitive investigation will be conducted fairly and free from political considerations. Garland has appointed three special prosecutors during his tenure, overseeing investigations involving former President Donald Trump, President Biden and the president’s son, Hunter Biden.

“We do not make this request lightly,” Whitehouse and Wyden said in a statement. “The evidence gathered so far clearly suggests that Judge Thomas committed numerous willful violations of federal ethics and false statements laws and raises significant questions about whether he and his wealthy benefactors complied with their federal tax obligations.”

Thomas and his attorney, Elliot S. Berke, did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but Berke has previously said that Thomas tried to comply with financial disclosures about gifts and travel as they existed at the time.

“Justice Thomas has consistently sought to ensure full transparency and compliance with the law, particularly with respect to personal travel that must be reported,” Berke said in a statement last year. He called any failure to report travel “strictly inadvertent.”

Whitehouse and Wyden said they want a special counsel to review a $267,000 loan Thomas used to buy a luxury coach bus in 1999., They added that they had not received adequate answers from Thomas about how he handled the matter. An investigation by the Senate Finance Committee concluded that a substantial portion of the loan from Thomas’ friend and businessman Anthony Welters was forgiven in 2008. The committee found that Thomas had not reported the loan on his financial disclosure forms, raising questions about whether he reported it as income on his taxes as required by law.

Thomas has yet to publicly comment on the loan, but Welters told The Post last year that he believed that Thomas had “paid off the loan.”

The senators also want the special counsel to investigate multiple instances of jet travel, yacht trips, home renovations, college tuition, luxury sports tickets, lodging and other gifts that Thomas failed to disclose in his annual financial forms. Those gifts were reported in a series of ProPublica articles last year. Many of the items were paid for by Harlan Crow, the Texas billionaire who is a friend of Thomas and a major Republican donor.

The senators also want the special counsel to investigate the $25,000 consulting fee paid to Thomas’ wife, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, by conservative legal activist Leonard Leo. The payment was first reported by The Washington Post in May. Some ethics experts said it raised questions about whether Thomas should have recused himself from certain cases. Neither Clarence nor Ginni Thomas responded. to requests for comment on the payment at the time.

The failure to disclose the gifts and payments may have violated a federal law requiring government officials to disclose gifts, loans and other benefits, Whitehouse and Wyden said. They also want to know whether Thomas’ benefactors paid gift taxes and whether Leo’s payment to Ginni Thomas was part of a coordinated giving scheme or required additional disclosures from the judge.

Last month, Whitehouse and Democratic Rep. Hank Johnson (Georgia) asked officials at the American Judicial Conference, which oversees judicial ethics issues, to explain how they handled the revelations about Thomas. They have not yet received a response. The lawmakers had previously asked the conference to refer Thomas to the Justice Department. for possible ethics violations.

Last month, the Senate Judiciary Committee revealed that Thomas took three flights paid for by Crow between 2017 and 2021 that he did not disclose. Berke said Thomas was not required to disclose the trip because it occurred before the Supreme Court clarified its own ethics rules to say free trips must be reported as gifts. Thomas reported three trips on Crow’s jet in 2022, after the policy change.

Justice also revised its 2019 financial information last month to reflect accommodation fees and other expenses paid by Crow during trips to Bali and a club in California.