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Senate Democrat asks GOP billionaire for details of Clarence Thomas’ luxury travel

(CNN) — A key Democratic senator is scrutinizing a Republican megadonor who financed luxury travel taken by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and a real estate transaction with his family, and examining whether the gifts and deal triggered obligations under US tax law.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden is asking the Texas billionaire Harlan Crow to produce details about trips that Thomas took on his private plane and his superyacht over the last several years, including the cost of the travel and whether Thomas paid reimbursements for the trips.

In a letter to Crow, Wyden raised the possibility that the hospitality may have required disclosure on federal tax filings, which generally requires taxpayers to report gifts in excess of a certain amount. The letter also indicated an interest in examining whether the travel was recorded on tax records as a business expense.

“The cost of the use of your private jet and fully crewed superyacht by Justice Thomas would likely be well in excess of the annual gift tax exclusion (between $13,000 per recipient in 2011 and $17,000 per recipient in 2023, depending on the year), thus giving rise to a gift tax return filing requirement,” Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, wrote.

Wyden is seeking details about each of Thomas trips on the Crows yacht or plane — trips that were revealed in a bombshell report by ProPublica earlier this month — as well as information about whether the travel was reported as gifts on his tax submissions.

The new letter lays out another avenue for Democrats to examine Thomas’ relationship with Crow, who has made millions of dollars in political contributions, according to ProPublica, and who sits on the Board of Trustees for a conservative think tank.

The inquiry also underscores the debate over how the court should handle alleged ethical lapses by the justices. Thomas’ defenders accuse Democrats of overhyping the claims about his conduct because they are frustrated with the rulings this conservative Supreme Court is handing down.

The new Wyden letter additionally raised Crow’s 2014 purchase of the home of Thomas’ mother, where she still lives — a transaction that was also reported by ProPublica. Wyden is seeking information from Crow about that transaction as well.

“The full factual background has not been made public, but it is possible that you have had gift tax filing obligations and gift tax liability as a consequence of this living arrangement,” Wyden wrote to Crow. “As previously noted, the IRS has made clear that allowing for the use of property without receiving full consideration can be a taxable gift.”

Crow’s office said in a statement that, “We look forward to responding to Chairman Wyden’s letter in due course.”

In a statement earlier this month, Thomas said he was advised that he was not required to report the travel and gifts in questions. Thomas acknowledged that the ethics guidance for judges had recently been updated to close a loophole for certain kinds of “personal hospitality” that is otherwise excluded from the disclosure requirements and the justice vowed to follow that updated guidance moving forward.

Thomas has not issued a response to the report about the sale of his mother’s home, but a source close to the justice previously told CNN that he intends to amend his disclosure forms to reflect the real estate deal.

In his previous response to the ProPublica reports, Crow said that Thomas never asked for the hospitality, while stressing that he did not have business before the court and that the justice did not discuss Supreme Court cases with him. Crow also said of the real estate transaction — which included other properties owned by the Thomas family — that the purchases were made on “market rate based on many factors including the size, quality, and livability of the dwellings.”

ProPublica’s report about the gifts and travel noted that Thomas did not report the bulk of the hospitality on the annual financial disclosures he files as a Supreme Court Justice. The absence of that disclosure has attracted congressional attention as well, with Democratic lawmakers asking Chief Justice John Roberts to launch an investigation into Thomas’ failure to report the hospitality. Roberts has punted those requests to the Judicial Conference, which serves as the policy-making body of the federal courts.

Roberts has not yet responded to a separate invitation to testify about court ethics in front of the Senate Judiciary committee.

This story has been updated with additional details.