Lawyers for Harlan Crow, the rightwing billionaire whose friendship with and gifts to the conservative supreme court justice Clarence Thomas are the focus of swirling scandal, have rejected Senate Democrats’ request for answers about the relationship.
In a letter first reported by Bloomberg News on Tuesday, lawyers for Crow rejected a request from Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat who chairs the Senate judiciary committee, for a list of gifts to Thomas.
Durbin’s committee, the letter said, had not “identified a valid legislative purpose for its investigation and is not authorised to conduct an ethics investigation of a supreme court justice”.
Democrats on the committee, the lawyers said, were “targeting Justice Thomas for special and unwarranted opprobrium”.
Durbin told Bloomberg: “Harlan Crow believes the secrecy of his lavish gifts to Justice Thomas is more important than the reputation of the highest court of law in this land. He is wrong.”
Supreme court justices are covered by federal judiciary ethics rules but in practice govern themselves.
John Roberts, the chief justice, has declined to cooperate with attempts to investigate Thomas and Crow.
Thomas’s relationship with the Republican mega-donor, and his failure to declare many gifts, has long been known. But last month, the non-profit news site ProPublica released a series of bombshell reports.
It said Thomas took and failed to declare gifts including luxury travel and stays at properties owned by Crow; that Crow bought property from Thomas, in which Thomas’s mother now lives rent-free; and that Crow paid for private schooling for Thomas’s great-nephew, who the justice has said he raised “as a son”.
Observers said Thomas had clearly broken the law.
Thomas said he did not declare gifts from Crow because he had been advised he did not have to, but would do so in future.
Crow said he never discussed politics or business before the court with Thomas or his wife, the far-right activist Ginni Thomas.
Outlets including the Guardian showed Crow to have had business before the court during his friendship with Thomas.
On Tuesday, Crow did not immediately comment to Bloomberg.
In an interview published by the Atlantic on Monday, he gave a tour of his collection of sculptures of dictators but declined to answer detailed questions about Thomas.
“It would be absurd to me to talk to Justice Thomas about supreme court cases, because that’s not my world,” Crow said, adding: “We talk about life. We’re two guys who are the same age and grew up in the same era. We share a love of Motown.”
Crow has already rebuffed the Senate finance committee, which also sought a list of gifts. Earlier this month, the chair of that panel, the Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, indicated he could seek to compel cooperation.
“The bottom line is that nobody can expect to get away with waving off finance committee oversight, no matter how wealthy or well-connected they may be,” Wyden said.
The judiciary committee could also issue a subpoena, a tool it could not use as the Thomas scandal first billowed into public, given the absence of Dianne Feinstein, a California senator kept away from Washington by ill health. Feinstein has now returned to work, restoring Democrats’ working majority.
Any battle with Crow will be played for high stakes. In their letter to Durbin, the billionaire’s lawyers claimed Congress itself “does not have the constitutional power to impose ethics rules and standards on the supreme court. Doing so would … violate basic separation of powers principles”.