WASHINGTON — A Republican donor from Texas paid for two years of private-school tuition for Justice Clarence Thomas’s great-nephew, a gift that the justice did not disclose, a friend of the justice acknowledged in a statement on Thursday.
The acknowledgment added detail to a report on Thursday by ProPublica, which last month documented how Justice Thomas had received gifts of luxury travel from the billionaire donor, Harlan Crow. The revelations, which also include the sale of the home of Justice Thomas’s mother to Mr. Crow, have raised questions over the justice’s ethical practices.
In his statement, Mark Paoletta, Justice Thomas’s friend and a former official for the Trump administration, argued that the justice was not required to report the tuition. He pointed to part of a 1978 law that says judges must disclose gifts to dependent children, who are defined as “a son, daughter, stepson or stepdaughter.” Mr. Paoletta stressed that by that measure, a great-nephew does not qualify.
“This malicious story shows nothing except for the fact that the Thomases and the Crows are kind, generous, and loving people who tried to help this young man,” Mr. Paoletta wrote.
But ethics law experts rejected that argument and said Mr. Crow’s gift was to Justice Thomas himself, not the great-nephew, so it was clearly reportable. As the legal guardian of the child, Justice Thomas had assumed responsibility for his education, enrolled him in private school and otherwise would have had to pay tuition.
“There is no ambiguity here,” said Kathleen Clark, an ethics law expert at Washington University in St. Louis.
“He paid the tuition, which was a gift to Thomas because it helped Thomas financially fulfill his responsibility as guardian,” she added.
Richard Painter, a University of Minnesota professor who was the top ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush administration, concurred.
“I believe Justice Thomas had legal custody, and they have not disputed that,” Mr. Painter said. “It was his prerogative to send the child to private school, but he had to pay for it. That was his debt, like a utility bill or food.”
Stephen Gillers, a legal ethics professor at New York University, agreed, saying, “It should have been reported.” He also
said the revelation underscored the need for Congress to tighten the rules.
Mr. Paoletta’s “legalistic parsing of language to avoid disclosure of a substantial gift” demonstrated that ethics rules “are seriously in need of revision to eliminate their porousness,” he said. “They are not achieving the transparency the public deserves.”
The Supreme Court press office did not respond to a request for comment.
A spokesman at Mr. Crow’s holding company did not respond to an email request for comment. But his office told ProPublica that neither Justice Thomas nor his wife, Virginia Thomas, had asked Mr. Crow to cover tuition payments for their great-nephew, Mark Martin.
The recent disclosures around Justice Thomas have prompted lawmakers to propose enacting a new law that would impose a tighter ethics code on the Supreme Court, and the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the matter this week.
Justice Thomas became the legal guardian for Mark Martin in the late 1990s. Notably, the justice had earlier accepted a gift of $5,000 from the owner of a pest control company to help defray the cost of his great-nephew’s schooling and in 2002, reported it on a financial disclosure form as “education gift to Mark Martin.”
Last month, ethics experts, including Mr. Painter, signed a complaint to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and to the Justice Department over Justice Thomas’s failure to disclose lavish travel and vacations with Mr. Crow.
The complaint, which was organized by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, noted that the Ethics in Government Act authorized the Justice Department to bring a civil action against anyone who “knowingly and willfully fails to file or report any information that such individual is required to report.” Each violation could result in a fine of up to $50,000 per offense.
There is some ambiguity over whether trips and stays at resorts with friends needed to be disclosed before March, when the Judicial Conference of the United States, the policymaking body for the federal courts, explicitly required disclosure of personal hospitality like travel by private jet and stays at hotels, resorts or hunting lodges.
In a statement after last month’s revelations, Justice Thomas said that “colleagues and others in the judiciary” had advised that he was not required to report trips with Mr. Crow, whom he characterized as a close friend who did not have business before the court. He also indicated that he would make such disclosures going forward, in line with the recent revision or clarification.
Enforcement actions for any failure to comply with the disclosure law have another constraint: There is generally a four-year statute of limitations for civil actions under federal law.
The tuition payments fall outside that window. In his statement, Mr. Paoletta indicated that Mr. Crow had paid for Mark Martin’s tuition at the Randolph-Macon Academy in Virginia in the 2006-07 academic year and at Hidden Lake Academy, a private school in Georgia, for the following year.
ProPublica has nodded to Justice Thomas’s friendship with Mr. Paoletta in describing his relationship with Mr. Crow. In one article, ProPublica featured a painting that hangs at Mr. Crow’s private lakeside resort in the Adirondack Mountains depicting Justice Thomas and Mr. Crow smoking cigars alongside Mr. Paoletta and two other conservative lawyers.