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The Justice & the Billionaire: Clarence Thomas Failed to Disclose Real Estate Deal with GOP Megadonor

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Calls continue to grow for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to step down or to be impeached, after ProPublica uncovered more damning information about his relationship with Republican megadonor Harlan Crow. According to the new report, Thomas and his family sold a house and two vacant lots in Savannah, Georgia, to Crow for around $130,000 but never disclosed the sale, which appears to be a violation of the 1978 Ethics in Government Act. In addition to being a major benefactor to Thomas and the GOP, Crow is also an avid collector of Nazi memorabilia, including a copy of Mein Kampf signed by Hitler, paintings by Hitler, Nazi medallions, swastika-embossed linens, and a garden filled with statues of 20th century dictators. We speak to Justin Elliott, a reporter for ProPublica who helped break the story.

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StoryApr 07, 2023Should Clarence Thomas Be Impeached? GOP Megadonor Gave Justice Free Luxury Vacations for 20 Years
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

We look now at the growing calls for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to step down or be impeached. A second damning ProPublica report on his relationship with Republican megadonor Harlan Crow has revealed that in 2014 Thomas and his family sold a house and two vacant lots in Savannah, Georgia, to Crow for around $130,000 but never disclosed the sale, which appears to be a violation of the 1978 Ethics in Government Act. CNN reports Thomas’s mother lives in the home owned by Crow rent-free, but she’s reportedly responsible for paying the property taxes and insurance.

On Sunday, The Washington Post reported Thomas has for years claimed rental income from a Nebraska real estate firm that shut down in 2006. It’s also been reported previously that in 2009 Crow gave half a million dollars to a conservative lobbying group founded by Thomas’s wife, Ginni Thomas.

CNN reports Justice Clarence Thomas now intends to amend his financial disclosures in light of ProPublica’s other recent bombshell investigation detailing unreported luxury trips Harlan Crow lavished on Thomas over two decades, in apparent violation of a law requiring justices and other federal officials to disclose most gifts. Thomas frequently vacationed at Crow’s resort in the Adirondacks of New York, where a painting on the walls depicts Clarence Thomas sitting with four other men, including Harlan Crow and Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society. Thomas never reported any of the free trips as gifts.

In addition to being a major benefactor for Thomas and the GOP, Crow is also an avid collector of Nazi memorabilia. He’s got a signed copy of Mein Kampf — that’s right, signed by Hitler — paintings by Hitler, Nazi medallions, swastika-embossed linens, and a garden filled with statues of 20th century dictators.

For more, we’re joined by Justin Elliott once again, reporter for ProPublica, their new follow-up report headlined “Billionaire Harlan Crow Bought Property from Clarence Thomas. The Justice Didn’t Disclose the Deal.”

Justin, welcome back to Democracy Now! I mean, your initial report has unleashed an avalanche of reporting and investigations and calls for Clarence Thomas to be impeached or to step down. He says he’s going to amend his disclosure forms. Can you talk about the latest findings?

JUSTIN ELLIOTT: Yeah. You know, for our first story, both Thomas and Harlan Crow put out statements about the luxury travel, saying, “We’re very close friends. These were family trips.” They both used the word “hospitality.”

We subsequently learned, then reported, that there was actually a direct business deal, a real estate deal, between the two men, so actual money flowing from Harlan Crow to Clarence Thomas. What we found is that around a decade ago, Crow bought a house and two vacant lots that were owned by Clarence Thomas and some of his relatives down in Savannah, Georgia. You know, as you mentioned, the house that Crow bought is actually the house where Thomas’s elderly mother was living, and apparently still lives, which puts Crow in the extremely unusual position of being the landlord to the mother of a sitting Supreme Court justice, although it’s actually not clear if “landlord” is the right term here, because CNN has reported that Crow is not charging her rent. So, there’s all kinds of exceedingly unusual financial entanglements between this billionaire political donor and the Supreme Court justice.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Justin, what about this claim that they’ve been longtime friends? What were you able to find out about how Thomas and Harlan Crow first met and how their friendship developed?

JUSTIN ELLIOTT: Yeah, you know, so I think they actually are friends, but it turns out that, at least according to Crow, they met back in the mid-1990s. This was after Thomas was on the court. They weren’t like college roommates or something like that. They actually, apparently, met at a conservative political conference, and Crow gave an interview to The Dallas Morning News a couple days ago in which he says that they actually first met when Crow offered Thomas, it turns out, a private jet ride on Crow’s jet from Washington, D.C., to Dallas, and apparently they hit it off on the jet. So that’s what we know about how it started.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So, from the start, then, Thomas was accepting, in essence, undisclosed gifts from Crow.

JUSTIN ELLIOTT: Yeah. I mean, you know, I have personally never been on a private jet, but I’ve learned a lot about them and, you know, these things. I mean, Crow’s current jet, it’s a particularly nice private jet. It’s a Global 5000 Bombardier. If you were to charter one of these on the open market, you’d be paying $15,000 per hour, per flight hour. So, yes, these are extraordinarily expensive flights. And it’s obviously not exactly a normal situation to offer somebody you just met a private jet ride. But again, I mean, Clarence Thomas was a Supreme Court justice at the time, so I think that probably goes a long way to explaining why this happened.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about Ginni Thomas, Clarence Thomas’s wife, the connection here and the financial connections with Harlan Crow — I mean, the getting more than a half a million dollars, her lobbying group?

JUSTIN ELLIOTT: That’s right. So, I think one of the other really intriguing financial connections here between Crow and the Thomas family is related to Ginni Thomas. So, it actually came out around a dozen years ago that Ginni Thomas was running a small tea party group, nonprofit political organization. And it came out that none other than Harlan Crow was pretty much the sole funder of that group, that was paying Ginni Thomas’s salary, which I believe was on the order of $200,000 a year. So, essentially, through this kind of pass-through organization, Crow’s money was ending up, you know, in the pocket of the Thomas household.

Following that reporting, around a dozen years ago, there was sort of another round of — a previous round of questions about this, but — and we don’t really know what has happened since then, partly, actually, thanks to the Supreme Court. As you know, the whole regime of disclosure of political spending and giving to groups has really fallen apart, and there’s anonymous dark money flowing all over the place, so it makes it very difficult as a reporter to figure out where money is flowing and from who. But, you know, we’re still reporting on all this.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And Justice Thomas has claimed that Crow has no business before the Supreme Court. But for those who do not know — of our audience who do not know Crow, who is he, and what would be his interest in being able to have this friendship with Thomas?

JUSTIN ELLIOTT: So, Crow is a real estate billionaire who was born into a very successful Dallas real estate family. And it is true that Crow has not had — he’s not been a litigant in a case at the Supreme Court. It turns out the Supreme Court doesn’t actually take that many cases every year, so there’s very few people and companies that actually have a case at the court. But the court regularly takes up matters that affect the real estate industry, that the real estate trade groups that Harlan Crow helps fund is involved in some of those cases, filing briefs and that kind of thing.

But I think the larger issue is that Crow has a whole set of ideological interests related to the court. He’s a funder of a number of groups that specifically push conservative legal theories, groups like the Federalist Society. He’s on the board of a number of think tanks, like the American Enterprise Institute, that do a range of — work on a range of issues, but, among them, issues related to the Supreme Court advancing conservative legal theories. So, it raises the question — and we don’t really know the answer at this point — of whether Crow and sort of his other friends, who he’s bringing on some of these trips with Justice Thomas, are having any influence on the justice. And, you know, even shifting a Supreme Court justice’s thinking a little bit on an issue, if that ended up in an opinion, I mean, it could have just enormous consequences for basically all of us.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Justin Elliott, I want to thank you for being with us, reporter for ProPublica. We will link to your reports.

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