By Ariane de Vogue, CNN Supreme Court Reporter
Washington (CNN) — Justice Clarence Thomas attended a private dinner in 2018 during a winter donor summit of the Koch network, the political organization founded by libertarian billionaires Charles and David Koch, ProPublica reported Friday.
Thomas attended Koch donor events at least twice over the years, according to interviews with three former Koch network employees and one major donor conducted by ProPublica. Staffers told the outlet that the justice was brought in with the hope that “such access would encourage donors to continue giving.”
The report, the latest in a series by ProPublica that has revealed close relationships between Thomas and conservative interests, is likely to again stir questions about Thomas’ ethics, especially given the Koch network’s occasional support for litigation before the Supreme Court.
Thomas arrived for the 2018 dinner on a Gulfstream G200 jet, although a Koch network spokesperson told the outlet that the network did not pay for the private jet and it was not disclosed on his financial disclosure forms for that year.
A spokesperson for the Koch network told ProPublica that Thomas wasn’t present for fundraising conversations. In a statement to CNN, a spokesperson said, “The idea that attending a couple events to promote a book or give dinner remarks, as all the justices do, could somehow be undue influence just doesn’t hold water.”
Thomas did not respond to a request for comment to ProPublica. CNN has reached out to the Supreme Court for comment.
The story will raise new questions that have been dogging the Supreme Court for months as critics, including Democrats in Congress, argue that justices need a code of conduct that specifically applies to the high court. The justices voluntarily follow ethics regulations written for lower court judges.
In addition, it comes as the justices are poised to hear a major case this term, Loper Bright Enterprises, Inc. v. Raimondo, brought by a group of fishermen with counsel being provided by a Koch-affiliated organization. The case could significantly scale back on the power of federal agencies and impact everything from how the government addresses issues such as climate change, public health and immigration. Conservatives have long sought to rein in regulatory authority, arguing that Washington has too much control over American businesses and individual lives. The court has agreed to directly consider whether it should overturn a 1984 case called Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc.
A spokesperson for a Koch-affiliated group told ProPublica that Loper is a “case seeking to restore one of the core tenets of our democracy: that Congress, not the administrative agency, makes the laws.”
Critics, however, say Koch-funded groups have long targeted the Supreme Court precedent that is at stake in the case.
“The newest investigation of ProPublica sheds new light on Justice Clarence Thomas’ deep and long ties to billionaires Charles Koch and Harlan Crow and how he parlayed his public office into a vehicle for luxury travel and access to clubs few can afford,” said Lisa Graves, who leads the progressive watchdog group True North Research.
“But more than that, we know that his benefactors are funding an extreme agenda to remake our laws to suit their interests, including Koch’s long-standing antipathy for Chevron deference to agency expertise, a nearly 40-year-old legal precedent the Supreme Court is considering reversing and destroying,” she said.
ProPublica has previously reported luxury travel bankrolled by wealthy friends that often went unreported on the justice’s financial disclosure forms. It includes lavish trips and rides on private jets funded by GOP megadonor Harlan Crow. Crow also paid for the private tuition of Thomas’ grandnephew who he was helping to raise. Earlier this year, Thomas amended his financial disclosure forms to reflect a private real estate deal between Thomas, his family members and Crow relating to the house where Thomas’ mother lives.
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