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ProPublica Reporter Defends Work After Samuel Alito Accuses Outlet of Politically Motivated Coverage

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Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, caught on a secret recording, recently attacked ProPublica for its reporting on Supreme Court ethics. The nonprofit investigative news outlet has spearheaded coverage of possible conflicts of interest among judges on the nation’s top court, including Justice Clarence Thomas, who has accepted millions in gifts and trips from conservative billionaires. Alito told a filmmaker posing as a conservative activist that ProPublica “gets a lot of money” to dig up “any little thing they can find,” suggesting the reporting was politically motivated. That notion “is just wrong,” says Justin Elliott, one of the lead ProPublica journalists reporting on the Supreme Court. “We took a very hard look at the Democratic-appointed justices, and we simply haven’t found anything close to similar to what we found when it came to Justice Thomas and Justice Alito.” He also says the Senate Judiciary Committee has power it is not currently using to investigate the court amid the ongoing ethics scandal. “There’s really no reason to believe that we actually know all the facts about what these justices have gotten.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, when our guest, documentarian Lauren Windsor, recently posed as a conservative activist and secretly recorded Justice Samuel Alito talking about why he believes the Supreme Court is, quote, “so targeted by the media,” including by the news outlet ProPublica, which recently won the prestigious public service Pulitzer Prize for what Pulitzer judges described as, quote, “groundbreaking and ambitious reporting that pierced the thick wall of secrecy surrounding the Supreme Court to reveal how a small group of politically influential billionaires wooed justices with lavish gifts and travel, pushing the Court to adopt its first code of conduct,” in the audio Windsor recorded, Justice Alito said, quote, “ProPublica gets a lot of … money and they have spent a fortune investigating Clarence Thomas, for example. You know, everything he’s ever done in his entire life. And they’ve done some of that to me, too. But they … look for any little thing they can find, and they try to make something out of it.”

ProPublica issued a statement in response: quote, “ProPublica exposes abuses of power no matter which party is in charge, and our newsroom operates with fierce independence. No donors are made aware of stories before they are published, nor do they have a say as to which stories reporters pursue.” ProPublica also noted it publicly posts a list of its large donors.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, in other Supreme Court news, Justice Clarence Thomas has finally acknowledged taking more free vacations paid for by billionaire conservative megadonor Harlan Crow. In a filing Friday, Thomas disclosed he accepted two trips in 2019 — one to Indonesia, the other to the Bohemian Grove in California. Last year, ProPublica revealed Thomas had failed to disclose at least 38 luxury trips gifted by Crow and three other right-wing billionaires dating back decades.

For more, we are joined by Justin Elliott, the reporter for ProPublica, whose latest piece is headlined “Justice Clarence Thomas Acknowledges He Should Have Disclosed Free Trips from Billionaire Donor.” Again, ProPublica recently won its seventh Pulitzer Prize for its Supreme Court coverage.

Congratulations on that prize. Your response, first, to what Justice Alito’s attack was, basically, on you and ProPublica, and then the latest that you’ve discovered, and your response to these secret recordings?

JUSTIN ELLIOTT: Yeah. I mean, when it comes to Justice Alito, I was surprised and disturbed by one of his comments in particular, which was that these stories were ideologically driven, that they happened because we didn’t like the court’s decisions — a little bit surprising to hear from a Supreme Court justice based on absolutely no facts.

I can tell you exactly how these stories started, because I was one of the couple of reporters doing them, which was we started poking around on the topic of travel of Supreme Court justices. We had a big stack of public records from the U.S. Marshals, who provide security to the justices. And the justices’ names weren’t even on those records; the names were redacted. We started to see references to private jets. And through months of reporting, my colleagues and I were able to figure out that Harlan Crow, the Dallas real estate billionaire, was providing private jet travel to Justice Thomas. And we started publishing stories about that.

We took a very hard look at the Democratic-appointed justices, and we simply haven’t found anything close to similar to what we found when it came to Justice Thomas and Justice Alito. So, the idea that this was somehow ideologically motivated, and not us just pursuing, you know, going where the facts led, is just wrong.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what about him saying, his sharing his belief, that the battle between secular and religious forces in America is a zero-sum game, stating, “One side or the other is going to win”?

JUSTIN ELLIOTT: Yeah, I mean, I was — it’s interesting to hear a justice speaking this candidly. You know, after writing about the Supreme Court for more than a year now, we had all of our interview requests declined. Lauren had a lot more luck talking to the justices than we did. I think Justice Thomas released a statement once to us. But these justices are generally — you know, they generally just don’t speak to the public, except in extremely controlled environments. So, this is pretty interesting.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Democratic Congressmembers Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamie Raskin said Tuesday they would introduce new ethics legislation for the Supreme Court. Ocasio-Cortez spoke on MSNBC Tuesday, before Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of the Senate Judiciary Committee blocked the proposal in the Senate.

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: To have any one of our coequal branches be completely unaccountable to the others is paving the path to authoritarianism, tyranny, the abuse of power in the United States. And it is structurally completely unsustainable. And so, it is not a question on — of if Congress has jurisdiction and power over the Supreme Court. It is: What power are we going to exercise in order to rein in a fundamentally unaccountable and rogue court?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, that’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. If you could comment on what she said and speak about some of the legislation, ethics legislation, that’s being suggested?

JUSTIN ELLIOTT: Yeah, you know, one of the interesting and paradoxical things about the Supreme Court compared to other parts of our government is there are very few ethics rules. You know, I got — as I learned about this as we did this reporting last year, I got so many calls and emails from ordinary federal government workers who were shocked after we were reporting, you know, Harlan Crow and these other billionaires were paying for literally millions of dollars’ worth of travel and other gifts for Justice Thomas, because, they said, “You know, we can’t take a lunch that costs $50, or maybe even a T-shirt from a conference.” So, even members of Congress, you know, not known necessarily as paragons of ethics, have much more strict rules than the court.

So, the bill that was being debated on Capitol Hill yesterday, blocked by Senate Republicans, I believe, would tighten some of the gift disclosure rules, tighten the recusal rules and create an ethics complaint process by which members of the public could submit complaints, and a panel of federal judges would look into those complaints when it came to Supreme Court justices.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about how the Supreme Court compares to other courts, federal appeals courts, state courts?

JUSTIN ELLIOTT: Yeah, you know, lower federal court judges do have more binding rules than the Supreme Court. You know, what we’ve been focused on is, there is this law that was passed after Watergate in the ’70s that requires justices to make annual financial disclosures, including of most gifts above a few hundred dollars. As you mentioned a few minutes ago, Justice Thomas last week had to amend his 2019 filings to disclose free trips he got from Harlan Crow to Indonesia and to —

AMY GOODMAN: These are on private jets.

JUSTIN ELLIOTT: Private jets. Harlan Crow also has a superyacht, where, you know, the staff of 20 workers, where Justice Thomas has — on that trip in 2019, they hopped around the islands in Indonesia, and has been on that around the whole world, really. He also had to disclose another trip, also via private jet, to the Bohemian Grove, which is this sort of secretive all-men’s retreat in Northern California. And, you know, that was actually the third time in the last 10 or 15 years that Justice Thomas has had to amend his legally required financial disclosure forms, the third time he said some version of “I misunderstood the rules” or “I inadvertently missed these things.”

AMY GOODMAN: And this is all in response to ProPublica’s reporting?

JUSTIN ELLIOTT: The latest two times were, yeah. Ten or 15 years ago, he had to disclose Ginni Thomas’s income, in response to some other reporting.

AMY GOODMAN: His wife.

JUSTIN ELLIOTT: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And that was significant because?

JUSTIN ELLIOTT: These annual financial disclosures are required by law. So he’s been violating the law repeatedly. And I have always thought it striking that you have a Supreme Court justice, whose job is to interpret the law — you know, Justice Thomas, obviously, famously is an originalist and a textualist, supposed to be all about close reading of the text — and he’s just repeatedly acknowledged that he has misunderstood this law and had to amend his forms — only after media reports about things that he should have included legally.

AMY GOODMAN: What about this issue of recusal, the call for these justices to recuse themselves? Explain why, especially for Clarence Thomas, around anything to do with Trump and the insurrection, and around Alito, as well. And also, let’s remember that these judges who are in the — justices who are in the crossfire now, Alito and Clarence Thomas, neither of them were chosen by Trump, right? Trump appointed another three.

JUSTIN ELLIOTT: Yeah. You know, the recusal rules are interesting, and it’s actually pretty simple, which is that justices themselves — actually, each individual justice has absolute power to decide whether he or she recuses from a case. So, there’s no — it’s not Chief Justice Roberts or some panel or Congress or anything like that. They have absolute power to decide. And, you know, maybe even more strikingly, they don’t have to explain their decision. So, sometimes a justice will — actually, most of the time when a justice does recuse himself or herself, you just get a little notation saying they didn’t hear this case, and you can kind of speculate as to why.

I think this was most relevant in our reporting, actually, when it came to Justice Alito. One of the stories we did was about this hedge fund billionaire, Paul Singer, a major Republican donor. He runs a hedge fund called Elliott Management — no relation to me — that Paul Singer partly paid for a luxury Alaska fishing vacation that Justice Alito went on. We published pictures of Justice Alito standing next to Paul Singer, holding these giant Alaska king salmon they had caught. And it turned out Paul Singer’s hedge fund, in this same period, both before and after the trip, had a series of cases at the court. This was part of this very long-running fight between Paul Singer’s hedge fund and the nation of Argentina over bonds that the hedge fund was trying to collect on, pursuing in court. No one knew about this trip at the time, because we hadn’t reported it until many years later, last year. And Justice Alito did not recuse himself from this case, from the case that the Supreme Court ultimately did rule on, ruled in favor of Paul Singer’s hedge fund. And, you know, that was entirely up to him. He later argued that he didn’t have to recuse himself. He actually also argued that he didn’t even know that Paul Singer was connected to this hedge fund. But I believe, actually, under the bill that Senate Democrats were pushing yesterday, in that sort of situation, when you received a gift from somebody who was connected to a case, you would be required to recuse yourself. So, if that ever became law, that would be a huge change.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And finally, Justin, what is — I mean, in addition, of course, to the case that you just mentioned where there are financial incentives for the donor, what is the ideological orientation of these billionaires?

JUSTIN ELLIOTT: You know, when it came to the billionaires we were writing about who were giving things to Justices Thomas and Alito, almost entirely across the board, we’re talking about not just wealthy businessmen, but people who are very politically active on the right. I mean, Paul Singer, for example, for many years has been one of the biggest donors to Republican and conservative causes. Same with Harlan Crow, the Dallas real estate billionaire, who also specifically gives money to conservative legal causes. I believe there’s one exception to this. The man that gave — essentially, gave Justice Thomas his multi-hundred-thousand-dollar RV was more in the middle of the road, but they were friends going back to their twenties, so that was a bit of a different situation. But generally, the pattern was very clear that we’re talking about, you know, Republican donor billionaires.

AMY GOODMAN: And does the Senate Judiciary Committee have power over demanding that they recuse, or Chief Justice Roberts?

JUSTIN ELLIOTT: Neither the Judiciary Committee nor Chief Justice Roberts has that power, but I will say the Senate Judiciary Committee does have a lot of power to investigate what’s going on. There’s really no reason to believe that we actually know all the facts about what these justices have gotten. The stories that we did took, you know, months and months of reporting from my colleagues and I. And, you know, the Senate Judiciary Committee has something that we don’t have, which is subpoena power.

And they actually have been investigating. It’s been moving very slowly, sort of unclear why they haven’t gotten more at this point. The authorized subpoenas for Leonard Leo and Harlan Crow to get more information. I believe they actually still haven’t issued the subpoena to Harlan Crow, unclear why. But we’re very curious to see how that all plays out.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is Dick Durbin, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

JUSTIN ELLIOTT: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much, Justin Elliott, for joining us, reporter for ProPublica, co-wrote the new report headlined “Justice Clarence Thomas Acknowledges He Should Have Disclosed Free Trips from Billionaire Donor.” ProPublica just received its seventh Pulitzer Prize for its Supreme Court coverage. And thanks again to Lauren Windsor, the documentarian, for letting us use these recordings. I want to thank you both so much.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, the world conflict report. And then we speak with a Palestinian ambassador. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” by Motown legends The Four Tops. One of the group’s members, Alexander Morris, is suing the Detroit-area Ascension Hospital to, quote, “protect the younger generations from racism in healthcare,” after he sought help for chest pain and trouble breathing after a history of heart problems. When the famous singer expressed security concerns about possible stalkers, he said the staff failed to check his ID and instead put him in a straitjacket and ordered a psychological evaluation, quote, “despite his clear symptoms of cardiac distress.”

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