US Supreme Court’s Alito defends private jet trip to Alaska

By Andrew Chung

(Reuters) -Conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito has acknowledged taking a private jet to Alaska for a luxury fishing trip in 2008 but defended his failure to disclose the flight provided by a billionaire hedge fund manager whose business interests have come before the court.

Alito wrote a commentary published in the Wall Street Journal late on Tuesday defending his conduct hours before news outlet ProPublica published an article raising questions about the justice’s failure to report the trip with Paul Singer on mandatory financial disclosure forms or recuse from cases involving Singer’s business.

“Neither charge is valid,” Alito said in his commentary, titled, “ProPublica Misleads Its Readers.”

The court has been embroiled in mounting ethics controversies – in particular revelations about ties between conservative Justice Clarence Thomas and a Texas billionaire. Opinion polls have revealed a sharp drop in public confidence in the top U.S. judicial body.

“This just keeps getting worse,” Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who has long pressed for Supreme Court ethics reform, wrote on Twitter.

ProPublica’s article noted that had Alito chartered the private jet himself, the cost would have exceeded $100,000 one way. Long-time conservative legal activist Leonard Leo, who was instrumental in compiling former President Donald Trump’s list of potential Supreme Court nominees, helped organize the fishing trip, ProPublica reported.

Regarding the flight, Alito wrote that Singer had “allowed me to occupy what would have otherwise been an unoccupied seat.”

Alito stayed at the King Salmon Lodge, which ProPublica said charged more than $1,000 a day. Alito called the portrayal “misleading” and said he stayed in a “modest one-room unit.”

Alito said the justices commonly interpreted financial disclosure requirements to mean that “accommodations and transportation for social events were not reportable gifts.”

The Judicial Conference, the policymaking body for the broader federal judiciary, recently tightened its regulations related to that exemption, including requiring transport by private jet to be disclosed.

“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,” Alito wrote.

Alito also said he had “no obligation” to recuse in any case connected to Singer, with whom he said he has spoken to a handful of times.

In one case that the Supreme Court heard in 2014 involving a unit of Singer’s Elliott Management, Alito said: “I was unaware of his connection with any of the listed entities, and I had no good reason to be aware of that.”

Alito did not immediately respond to a request for comment by Reuters.

ProPublica reported in April that Thomas has for decades has accepted luxury trips from billionaire Texas businessman and Republican donor Harlan Crow, including on a private jet and superyacht, without publicly disclosing them. It also detailed real estate transactions involving Thomas and Crow.

Separately, the news outlet Politico has reported that conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch failed to disclose the buyer of a Colorado property in which he had a stake – the chief executive of a major law firm whose attorneys have been involved in numerous Supreme Court cases.

Thomas and Alito this month received extensions to file their mandatory annual financial disclosure forms that report outside income and gifts.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York; Editing by Will Dunham)