A lawyer for the Republican billionaire donor Harlan Crow has agreed to speak with staff members of the Senate Judiciary Committee about Crow's relationship with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, according to a letter obtained by NBC News.
Michael D. Bopp, Crow’s attorney, told Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., in a letter Monday that although “concerns” remain about lawmakers’ authority to investigate the matter, the Senate panel plays an “important role in formulating legislation concerning our federal courts system" and he "would welcome a discussion with your staff.”
But Durbin and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., who chairs the subcommittee that oversees federal courts, blasted Bopp's latest correspondence in a joint statement Tuesday, calling his letter "a clear, unwarranted refusal to cooperate with legitimate requests for information from this Committee."
"Let’s be clear: Harlan Crow doesn’t call the shots here. He is not a branch — nor even a member — of government and cannot claim the protections and privileges of one," the two Democrats said. "The Senate Judiciary Committee has clearly established oversight and legislative authority to assess and address the ethical crisis facing the Court. All options are on the table moving forward."
Earlier in the day, a Judiciary Committee aide said Bopp’s latest letter “did not provide a meaningful response” and wasn’t “a good-faith offer.”
“Committee staff already has been in contact with Mr. Crow’s lawyer for weeks, and the letter spends six pages brazenly and incorrectly claiming Congress has no authority to legislate or conduct oversight in this space — and one sentence offering to keep in touch,” the aide said.
In remarks on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon, Durbin said that while he wouldn't turn down a meeting with Bopp, “all options are on the table to acquire information” the committee seeks from Crow.
Bopp last month again refused to give Senate Judiciary Democrats information about Thomas’ relationship with Crow. In a letter to Durbin last month, Bopp wrote that he believes the committee doesn’t have the authority to “investigate Mr. Crow’s personal friendship with Justice Clarence Thomas” and that Congress “does not have the constitutional power to impose ethics rules and standards on the Supreme Court.”
That drew a swift rebuke from Durbin and Whitehouse in a May 26 letter.
“Your explanation rested on a flawed assessment of Congress’s Article I oversight authority; a cramped reading of Congress’s constitutional authority to legislate in the area of government ethics; and a wholly misplaced view of the separation of powers, a doctrine that is implicated when Congress requests information from coordinate branches of government, not private individuals,” Durbin and Whitehouse wrote. “You also repeatedly conflated personal hospitality with the use of corporate-owned property, which highlights one of the key issues the Committee seeks to address through legislation.”
Bopp’s refusal to comply mirrored what he told the Senate Finance Committee last month, when he argued that the panel lacks a legislative purpose in its request for a list of gifts Crow had given Thomas. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the committee chairman, said in a statement Tuesday that Crow "continues to stonewall basic questions about his gifts to Clarence Thomas and his family."
Wyden warned that the committee could issue a subpoena, saying, "I’ve already begun productive discussions with the Finance Committee on next steps to compel answers to our questions from Mr. Crow, including by subpoena, and those discussions will continue."
Thomas has drawn scrutiny over allegations reported by ProPublica that he didn’t properly disclose trips and gifts paid for by Crow, the sale of Thomas’ and his relatives’ properties to Crow and tuition Crow paid for one of Thomas’ relatives.
Thomas said after ProPublica’s reports that he had been advised that the trips and the gifts were “personal hospitality from close personal friends” and that he was under the impression they didn’t have to be reported in disclosures.
Durbin and other Democrats on the Judiciary Committee asked Crow to provide an itemized list of gifts worth more than $415 that he gave to Thomas or any other justices or their family members. They also asked Crow to provide a full list of real estate transactions, transportation, lodging and admission to private clubs he might have provided.
The Supreme Court and Thomas didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.