Billionaire Leonard Leo rejects Senate subpoena over supreme court gifts

<span>Leonard Leo speaks to media at Trump Tower in 2016.</span><span>Photograph: Carolyn Kaster/AP</span>
Leonard Leo speaks to media at Trump Tower in 2016.Photograph: Carolyn Kaster/AP

The big-money rightwing donor Leonard Leo said he would not comply with a subpoena issued by the US Senate judiciary committee, as it investigates undisclosed gifts to conservative supreme court justices that have stoked an ethics crisis at a court already held in historically low public esteem.

Related: The king of dark money effectively controls the US supreme court now | Joel Warner

Referring to Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat who chairs the committee, Leo said: “I am not capitulating to his lawless support of Senator Sheldon Whitehouse [a Democrat from Rhode Island] and the left’s dark money effort to silence and cancel political opposition.”

Democrats on the judiciary committee are concerned with rightwing dark money and its effects on a court stacked 6-3 in favour of conservatives since Donald Trump installed three justices in just four years in power.

Multiple reports, led by the non-profit newsroom ProPublica, have described undisclosed gifts including luxury travel and resort stays given to Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, long-serving hardline court rightwingers.

Thomas and Alito deny all wrongdoing. The chief justice, John Roberts, has refused to testify in Congress. The court issued a new ethics code but it is enforceable only by the justices themselves.

In November, the Senate committee voted on party lines to subpoena Leo and the Texas billionaire Harlan Crow, a collector of Hitler memorabilia with close links to Thomas. On Thursday, more than four months later, Leo said he had received a subpoena but a spokesperson for Crow said he did not.

In a statement to the Washington Post, Durbin said: “Since July 2023, Leonard Leo has responded to the legitimate oversight requests of the Senate judiciary committee with a blanket refusal to cooperate. His outright defiance left the committee with no other choice but to move forward with compulsory process. For that reason, I have issued a subpoena to Mr Leo.

“Mr Leo has played a central role in the ethics crisis plaguing the supreme court … This subpoena is a direct result of Mr Leo’s own actions and choices.”

Progressive groups welcomed the Leo subpoena but protested the lack of one for Crow.

Caroline Ciccone, president of Accountable.US, which has focused on drawing attention to Leo’s coordination of billions of dollars in rightwing political spending, said: “Thanks to … Leo, a full-blown corruption crisis has plagued the high court for over a year, undermining its credibility …

“Today’s subpoena is a critical step toward accountability, and toward ensuring that our high court adheres to the highest possible ethics standards. As a result of the strong leadership of chairman Durbin and the judiciary committee, we can now begin to get to the bottom of the corruption crisis pervading the supreme court.”

But Ezra Levin, co-executive director of Indivisible, said that though the Leo subpoena was “a long overdue first step towards ensuring accountability” it was also “far from enough”.

Related: ‘Conservative justices? Yeah, in what way?’ Key senator on a supreme court in thrall to special interests

“The entire country has been waiting too long for Durbin to take action, and subpoenaing Leonard Leo without simultaneously subpoenaing Harlan Crow is a half-baked attempt at doing his job as judiciary chair.”

Pointing to epochal rulings from the rightwing court including removing the federal right to abortion, loosening gun control and ending race-based affirmative action in colleges, Levin added: “Democrats cannot let this corrupt and compromised supreme court continue to have a strong hold on our fundamental rights without any form of accountability.

“Durbin cannot ignore the overwhelming calls and pressure from his own base. He must continue to exercise his authority … by subpoenaing Harlan Crow, holding the justices and their accomplices accountable, and unrigging a court that was packed by Trump and his Maga supporters.”