US Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito failed to disclose private jet travel and a luxury fishing trip with a hedge fund billionaire who would later repeatedly ask the nation’s highest court to intervene on his behalf.
But the revelations, the latest from ProPublica’s ongoing investigations into ethics questions and gifts from influential figures to Supreme Court justices, first came from Justice Alito’s pre-emptive defence in The Wall Street Journal, which ran an opinion column bluntly titled “ProPublica Misleads Its Readers”.
An editor’s note at the top of the column did not mention that ProPublica had yet to even publish its story.
Mr Alito defended the trips and travel from Paul Singer, who reportedly flew him to an Alaskan fishing resort on a private jet in 2008. In the years that followed, his hedge fund “came before the court at least 10 times in cases where his role was often covered by the legal press and mainstream media,” according to ProPublica.
In 2014, when the hedge fund sought to resolve a decade-long battle with the nation of Argentina, Mr Alito did not recuse himself. He ruled with the majority in a 7-1 vote in Mr Singer’s favour, and the hedge fund was ultimately paid $2.4bn, according to ProPublica.
And the trip – which reportedly would have cost him more than $100,000 if he chartered such a flight on his own – was not listed on Mr Alito’s financial disclosure forms, an apparent violation of the law. ProPublica has uncovered similar disclosure failures with Mr Alito’s fellow conservative justice Clarence Thomas.
ProPublica said Mr Alito was sent a list of detailed questions about their findings, but a spokesperson for the Supreme Court told the outlet that he would not be commenting.
Hours later, The Wall Street Journal published his column.
In his op-ed, Mr Alito said he spoke to Mr Singer “on no more than a handful of occasions” with the exception of “small talk” during the fishing trip, though ProPublica reports several interactions between the men, including a photo of them together holding the fish they caught on the trip. He characterised ProPublica’s extensive reporting as not “valid.”
“On no occasion have we discussed the activities of his businesses, and we have never talked about any case or issue before the Court,” he wrote.
As for the flight, Mr Alito said that Mr Singer allowed him to sit in a seat that “would have otherwise been an unoccupied seat on a private flight to Alaska.”
“The flight to Alaska was the only occasion when I have accepted transportation for a purely social event, and in doing so I followed what I understood to be standard practice,” he wrote.
He also said Mr Singer’s names did not appear “as a party” in any filings before the court, though his hedge fund’s role was widely reported in the media.
“ProPublica suggests that my failure to recuse in these cases created an appearance of impropriety, but that is incorrect,” he wrote.
The Independent has requested comment from The Wall Street Journal.
A statement from Mr Singer to ProPublica said that he did not organise the trip and was not aware Mr Alito would be attending and claimed that he never discussed business with the justice.
ProPublica’s reporting also notes that right-wing judicial activist Leonard Leo helped organise the trip, including by recruiting Mr Singer to fly the Supreme Court justice to Alaska.
Mr Leo leads the influential Federalist Society; Mr Singer and the lodge’s owner were major donors to the group, ProPublica found.
Mr Leo said in a statement he “would never presume to tell” Mr Alito “what to do.”
Mr Singer also introduced Mr Alito at an event held by right-wing think tank Manhattan Institute. Mr Singer sits on its board. The group has filed several briefs with the Supreme Court, including in a closely watched case that could determine the fate of President Joe Biden’s plan to cancel some student loan debt.
The report comes on the heels of ProPublica’s findings of unreported gifts and lavish vacations worth tens of thousands of dollars, undisclosed real-estate transactions and school tuition involving family members, and potential conflicts of interest with enormous political impacts.
Ethics law experts believe the absence of such trips from disclosure forms likely violate federal law, which mandates that justices file annual financial disclosures including outside income and income from their spouses; justices are prohibited from accepting gifts from anyone with business before the court, but until recently, the definition of “personal hospitality” was not clearly defined.
Democratic members of Congress have argued that the court – the only arm of the federal judiciary that is not bound by a code of ethics – should not be insulated against a system of checks and balances.
Several proposals would force the court to create a binding code of conduct, appoint an ethics officer to oversee compliance, or establish an ethics policy as strict as one for members of Congress.
Republican lawmakers – who have supported a years-long effort with right-wing legal groups to radically reshape the federal judiciary by seating dozens of ideologically like-minded judges – accused congressional Democrats of using “ethics reform” to undermine the Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority, a long-held goal of GOP-aligned special interest groups.
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