1 of 2 | Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito
denied any wrongdoing in a Wall Street Journal op-ed responding to a report by ProPublica that for the first time revealed a luxury fishing trip Alito took in 2008 with a wealthy Republican donor. File Photo by Eric Lee/UPI | License Photo
June 21 (UPI) -- Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito sought to dispel a report alleging he went on a luxury Alaskan fishing excursion 15 years ago with a billionaire Republican donor whose hedge fund was the subject of several high court rulings in which Alito never recused himself.
Alito denied any wrongdoing in a Wall Street Journal op-ed before the report by ProPublica, was published late Tuesday night.
"ProPublica has leveled two charges against me: first, that I should have recused in matters in which an entity connected with Paul Singer was a party and, second, that I was obligated to list certain items as gifts on my 2008 Financial Disclose Report. Neither charge is valid," he wrote.
The report comes as the nation's highest court was already facing increased Congressional scrutiny amid calls for stricter ethics rules following a separate scandal that came to light this spring, involving luxury travel and gifts extended to Justice Clarence Thomas over two decades.
The ProPublica report alleged Alito never reported his 2008 trip on his annual financial disclosures after flying aboard a private jet and staying at a $1,000-a-night lodge as part of a lavish vacation paid for by Singer, a hedge fund billionaire whose high-stakes business disputes have gone before the Supreme Court nearly a dozen times over more than a decade.
In a 2014 legal case, Alito ruled with the 7-1 majority in Singer's favor, which settled a long-running financial dispute with the government of Argentina and netted Singer's hedge fund an additional $2.4 billion, the report said.
Federal ethics law requires justices to disclose some gifts, but for the most part the court is entrusted to regulate itself on ethical matters, with very few limitations on the gifts they can receive.
The nine justices on the Supreme Court are the only judges in the United States not bound by an official code of conduct. There's also no outside oversight of the court that can force a justice's recusal in cases like Alito's.
Legal experts struggled to ascertain any prior case where a justice on the nation's highest court had ruled when there was an apparent conflict of interest, while federal employees are barred from accepting even modest gifts.
"If you were good friends, what were you doing ruling on his case?" said Indiana University law professor Charles Geyh, told ProPublica "And if you weren't good friends, what were you doing accepting this?"
The investigation further exposed a pattern of prominent political donors using their wealth and the prospect of free luxury travel to influence the nation's highest court.
The fishing lodge where Alito stayed is owned by another wealthy conservative donor -- unnamed in the report -- who flew late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on a private jet to the same resort before his death in 2016 and covered the bill for his stay.
Leonard Leo, the conservative leader of the Federalist Society PAC, helped plan the fishing trip with Alito and both men later met up with Singer for the flight to Alaska on the billionaire's private jet.
Singer and the lodge owner serve as Leo's primary benefactors in an effort to support conservative causes, according to the report.
ProPublica said it confirmed Alito's travel through photographs, emails, Alaska fishing licenses, and interviews with dozens of witnesses, including the pilots, fishing guides, and employees and guests at the lodge.
The non-profit investigative news outlet reached out to Alito last week to seek his response to the findings, and noted the Wall Street Journal op-ed in which Alito explained the trip, saying he made the decision to attend at the last minute and that the seat on the jet "would have otherwise been vacant" if he decided not to go, appeared hours after it was informed he would not provide comment.
More notably, Alito said he was unaware of Singer's connection to any of the cases that had come before the court in recent years, adding that he and Singer spoke on "no more than a handful of occasions," and had never discussed Singer's company or his legal matters.
Alito also wrote that he didn't believe he was required to report the trip, writing that disclosure requirements did not apply to justices in cases of "accommodations and transportation for social events."
Earlier this year, ProPublica published a report exposing decades of luxury travel by Justice Thomas, which was paid for by Republican megadonor Harlan Crow. Like Alito, Thomas at the time defended his actions, saying ethics rules didn't require he report the gifts he received from Crow, including a payout from a real estate sale and private school tuition for Thomas' grandnephew, which Thomas did not report on financial disclosure forms.
The Senate Finance Committee is considering issuing a subpoena to Crow over his relationship with Thomas, with Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., sending a letter to Crow's attorney requesting records related to flight and yacht trips he took with Thomas and other supposed gifts.
So far, though, Crow has not complied with the requests from lawmakers.
A bill sponsored by Sens. Angus King, I-Maine, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, would require the Supreme Court to create a code of conduct.
Singer, meanwhile, has denied any wrongdoing and through his spokesperson, said he "never discussed his business interests" with Alito.
Earlier this month, seven of the nine justices released their financial disclosures, while both Thomas and Alito requested a 90-day extension to complete their forms.