And as bad as Bob Menendez is with his bribery indictments, he's still not 1% as corrupt as, say, Justice Clarence Thomas.
On Jan. 25, 2018, dozens of private jets descended on Palm Springs International Airport. Some of the richest people in the country were arriving for the annual winter donor summit of the Koch network, the political organization founded by libertarian billionaires Charles and David Koch. A long weekend of strategizing, relaxation in the California sun and high-dollar fundraising lay ahead.
Just after 6 p.m., a Gulfstream G200 jet touched down on the tarmac. One of the Koch network’s most powerful allies was on board: Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
During the summit, the justice went to a private dinner for the network’s donors. Thomas has attended Koch donor events at least twice over the years, according to interviews with three former network employees and one major donor. The justice was brought in to speak, staffers said, in the hopes that such access would encourage donors to continue giving.
That puts Thomas in the extraordinary position of having served as a fundraising draw for a network that has brought cases before the Supreme Court, including one of the most closely watched of the upcoming term.
Thomas never reported the 2018 flight to Palm Springs on his annual financial disclosure form, an apparent violation of federal law requiring justices to report most gifts. A Koch network spokesperson said the network did not pay for the private jet. Since Thomas didn’t disclose it, it’s not clear who did pay.
Thomas’ involvement in the events is part of a yearslong, personal relationship with the Koch brothers that has remained almost entirely out of public view. It developed over years of trips to the Bohemian Grove, a secretive all-men’s retreat in Northern California. Thomas has been a regular at the Grove for two decades, where he stayed in a small camp with real estate billionaire Harlan Crow and the Kochs, according to records and people who’ve spent time with him there.
A spokesperson for the Koch network, formally known as Stand Together, did not answer detailed questions about his role at the Palm Springs events but said, “Thomas wasn’t present for fundraising conversations.”
“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,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
“All of the sitting Justices and many who came before them have contributed to the national dialogue in speeches, book tours, and social gatherings,” the statement added. “Our events are no different. To claim otherwise is false.”
In a series of stories this year, ProPublica reported that Thomas has accepted undisclosed luxury travel from Crow and a coterie of other ultrawealthy men. Crow also purchased Thomas’ mother’s home and paid private school tuition for the child Thomas was raising as his son. Thomas has said little in response. In a statement earlier this year, he said that Crow is a close friend whom he has joined on “family trips.” He has also argued that he was not required to disclose the free vacations. Thomas did not respond to questions for this story.
The code of conduct for the federal judiciary lays out rules designed to preserve judges’ impartiality and independence, which it calls “indispensable to justice in our society.” The code specifically prohibits both political activity and participation in fundraising. Judges are advised, for instance, not to “associate themselves” with any group “publicly identified with controversial legal, social, or political positions.”
But the code of conduct only applies to the lower courts. At the Supreme Court, justices decide what’s appropriate for themselves.
“I can’t imagine — it takes my breath away, frankly — that he would go to a Koch network event for donors,” said John E. Jones III, a retired federal judge appointed by President George W. Bush. Jones said that if he had gone to a Koch summit as a district court judge, “I’d have gotten a letter that would’ve commenced a disciplinary proceeding.”
Of course, that's the problem. Supreme Court justices are, again, not subject to any ethics rules other than their own recognizance.
And Republicans keep making sure that will remain the case.