In the wake of ProPublica’s bombshell report detailing even more lavish gifts from right-wing billionaires to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, five House Democrats are calling on the Justice Department to investigate Thomas under the Ethics in Government Act for accepting the series of gifts from wealthy benefactors without following disclosure laws. Federal judges are required to disclose gifts worth more than $1,000 — including travel. ProPublica’s report documents Justice Thomas accepting 38 destination vacations, 26 private jet flights, 12 VIP passes to sporting events and eight helicopter flights, all paid for by wealthy patrons. We speak with co-author of the ProPublica investigation Brett Murphy about the process of revealing these lavish gifts and why even other judges consider it “an unprecedented amount of largesse for a justice to be accepting, let alone accepting and not disclosing.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
Five key House Democrats are calling on the Justice Department to investigate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas under the Ethics in Government Act, after new reporting reveals he has accepted even more gifts from wealthy benefactors without following disclosure laws than was previously known. Federal judges are required to disclose gifts worth more than $1,000, including travel.
New York Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the vice ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, wrote the letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, co-signed by Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler, Oversight Committee member Jamie Raskin and Democratic Caucus vice chair, Congressman Ted Lieu. It reads, quote, “Justice Thomas’s consistent failure to disclose gifts and benefits from industry magnates and wealthy, politically active executives highlights a blatant disregard for judicial ethics as well as apparent legal violations,” unquote.
The letter was sent one day after ProPublica published a bombshell new report last Thursday filled with details about a group of conservative billionaires who have given Justice Thomas free trips and gifts. Earlier this year, the outlet revealed Texas real estate billionaire, GOP megadonor Harlan Crow had showered Justice Thomas with vacations, private jets, the purchase of his mother’s house in Georgia and tuition payments. Now ProPublica reports three other business magnates, quote, “apparently came into Clarence Thomas’ life after he was appointed to one of the most sacrosanct positions of power in American government.” Of course, they’re talking about his being a justice on the Supreme Court. They are Harlan Crow, Wayne Huizenga, David Sokol and Paul “Tony” Novelly.
Reading from the report, their gifts include, quote, “At least 38 destination vacations, including a previously unreported voyage on a yacht around the Bahamas; 26 private jet flights, plus an additional eight by helicopter; a dozen VIP passes to professional and college sporting events, typically perched in the skybox; two stays at luxury resorts in Florida and Jamaica; and one standing invitation to an uber-exclusive golf club overlooking the Atlantic coast.”
For more, we’re joined by Brett Murphy, reporter for ProPublica, who co-authored their new investigation headlined “Clarence Thomas’ 38 Vacations: The Other Billionaires Who Have Treated the Supreme Court Justice to Luxury Travel.”
Brett, welcome to Democracy Now! We’ve been following these explosive ProPublica investigations. Talk about the latest, how you found what you found, because Justice Thomas is not reporting these, and what exactly they were, and if you believe he broke the law.
BRETT MURPHY: Yeah. So, we started receiving tips after we first published — my colleagues first published about Harlan Crow. We received tips that there may be other patrons in Justice Thomas’s life. It was mostly just, you know, he had been here around this time frame, or he knows this person, so we didn’t have a ton to go off of, to begin with. And what we started doing was a lot of just shoe-leather reporting. We were calling people in these billionaire circles, in the justice’s circle, people who worked for them, you know, flight attendants, pilots, staff, waitresses, bartenders, drivers, former C-suite executives — anyone we could talk to who might be able to shed light on that person’s relationship with Justice Thomas. From there, we just started accumulating evidence — pictures, flight data, emails. We sent records requests, anything we could do to substantiate, triangulate different trips that the justice had been on that were underwritten by one of these patrons.
And to your question about the violations of law, so, it’s a little murky about what exactly a justice can accept. There’s debate around which regulations they follow dictating what they can receive in terms of gifts. However, it’s much more clear about what their disclosure requirements are. The Ethics in Government Act, that you were mentioning earlier, was passed after Watergate, and it says that most gifts that any government employee receives, including a justice, has to appear on their yearly financial disclosures. They have to say, “I received this private jet flight, these tickets to this event, this yacht cruise, and this is the person who gave it to me. This is the source of this gift.” We have all 20 — all 30-ish years of Justice Thomas’s financial disclosures, and these trips, these benefactors do not appear on those disclosures.
AMY GOODMAN: So, tell us who these donors are. You have Harlan Crow, who’s the GOP megadonor from Texas.
BRETT MURPHY: Yeah. So, the three new ones we know of now are David Sokol — he was the former heir apparent of Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett’s number two. He left around 2011. He now chairs a holding company. They’re on top of international shipping, power utilities. He has a private equity firm. Tony Novelly is an oil magnate from St. Louis. He made his fortune buying, transporting and storing petroleum all over the world. And then the third is Wayne Huizenga. Huizenga might be a little more of a household name. He is the billionaire behind Blockbuster, Waste Management and AutoNation. For a time, he also owned three Florida sports teams: the Florida Panthers, Miami Dolphins and — blanking on the third, but he owned three teams at the same time.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you have Wayne Huizenga, David Sokol, Tony Novelly and, of course, Harlan Crow. Did any of these megadonors have cases before the Supreme Court? We know that Harlan Crow did.
BRETT MURPHY: So, what they’ve had are different what are called cert petitions. Tony Novelly did at some point in which a case he was involved in was being appealed to the Supreme Court. However, when exactly that took place in relation to his relationship and his vacations with Justice Thomas, it seems that that actually happened — that case happened before their friendship turned into a vacation relationship.
What each of them has is a stake. They have a stake in court cases because of the industries that they’re in. So, anything to do with regulated industries — tax law, tax decisions, labor decisions, environmental decisions — all of these could bear major impact on the industries in which they work. So, to answer your question directly, no, we have not yet found any direct cases that their companies have had before the Supreme Court, but mostly just their industries.
AMY GOODMAN: So, ProPublica reports that “Financial records from the Horatio Alger Association archives show the group has been fundraising off of an event hosted by [Justice] Thomas inside the Supreme Court building.” Explain, Brett.
BRETT MURPHY: Yeah. So, that’s a really unique arrangement. Even the fact that this is an event hosted by the Supreme Court inside of the Supreme Court building by Justice Thomas, that’s very rare. There’s not many groups who have that sort of access. And then, on top of that, we found that the association, which is a charity group that raises money for college scholarships — and it’s also a very exclusive association for industrialists, wealthy entrepreneurs, all self-made millionaires and billionaires often — they fundraise directly off of this event. They charge donors X amount of dollars. If you’re not a member, it can be $7,500 per seat at all the events, including this Supreme Court thing, all the way up to $100,000 for a table of 10. This is a little bit of an unprecedented arrangement.
And in different judiciary rules and kind of regulations around each branch of government, people are told you are not supposed to do that. You are not supposed to use your position to fundraise, even if it’s for a good cause, for an association. You’re not supposed to use your position, your title, your name to be fundraising for a charity, let alone inside of an actual government building.
AMY GOODMAN: Brett Murphy, where does Ginni Thomas fit into this picture, the well-known activist, very involved with the whole January 6th insurrection behind the scenes, the wife of Justice Thomas?
BRETT MURPHY: She’s there. She’s accompanying her husband on several of these trips. We’ve seen pictures of her at the vacation homes of these folks, at the sporting events. So she’s present. She’s there. What role she has in organizing them, we don’t really know. But we know that she has a role in memorializing them. A lot of the pictures that we obtained in the course of reporting were pictures that she had sent to close family and friends kind of documenting their trips as kind of like postcards.
AMY GOODMAN: So, ProPublica has also revealed that Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito took an undisclosed luxury fishing vacation with Republican megadonor Paul Singer in 2008, then later ruled in Singer’s favor in several cases. Then you have Roberts’ wife — this is the Chief Justice John Roberts — who made something like $10 million from law firms as a kind of headhunter, law firms who have cases before the Supreme Court. So, can you talk, overall, about all that’s been found and exposed, and whether, in particular, Justice Thomas or the others would be brought before an investigation, a DOJ investigation, for example, under the Ethics in Government Act, violating that? Or what are the rules? He says that other justices told him he didn’t have to.
BRETT MURPHY: Yeah. So, everything that’s out there now, in addition to what you said, there’s been good reporting on Justice Sotomayor’s book deals, her arrangements with universities to sell books, the cases that her publishers had before the court. There’s been reporting on Justices Breyer and Ginsburg also accepting trips. The big difference that I want to point out between those vacations that Justice Ginsburg and Breyer received from billionaires is that we know about them because those justices disclosed them on their financial filings. That is what the law says you need to do. And that’s what the experts told us did not happen in the case of Justice Thomas.
The other thing that’s very different about Justice Thomas’s arrangement is the volume and frequency of undisclosed gifts he has received, undisclosed vacations he has received. We laid out, you know, our conservative estimates on the numbers of things now. The judges we talked to about this, including one judge who used to sit on the committee that reviewed judges’ financial disclosures, he said he’s never seen anything like this, that this is an unprecedented amount of largesse for a justice to be accepting, let alone accepting and not disclosing. So, this is — you know, Justice Thomas’s situation seems to be very unique. He’s an outlier.
In terms of what the Justice Department can do, so there is carveouts in the statute, in the Ethics in Government Act, that say a case can be referred to the attorney general both from inside the judiciary, the administrative office. As you noted at the top here, Democrats have asked Justice to take it up, asked AG Garland to take up the case, to launch a probe. There’s no indication so far that that’s actually happened. I asked the Justice Department yesterday if they have opened such a probe, and they wouldn’t confirm or deny. They just said that they had received — they said they had received the letter from those Democrats, but we don’t know yet if they’re actually doing anything with it.
AMY GOODMAN: Brett Murphy, we thank you so much for being with us, reporter for ProPublica, who co-authored their new investigation headlined — we’ll link to it — “Clarence Thomas’ 38 Vacations: The Other Billionaires Who Have Treated the Supreme Court Justice to Luxury Travel.”
Coming up, we go to Montana, where a judge has just ruled on behalf of a group of young people who sued the state in a landmark climate change case. We’ll speak with one of the young plaintiffs. Stay with us.