Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas was defiant when he responded to last week’s blockbuster reporting from ProPublica about the lavish vacations he received and did not disclose from his Nazi-aficionado pal and big GOP donor, the Texas billionaire Harlan Crow. The ethically-challenged Thomas insisted that he did not have to disclose the vacations because of their close friendship, and his colleagues on the court said it was okay. Would they say the same, however, about the latest ProPublica bombshell about the Thomas-Crow affair?
In 2014, Crow bought up a chunk of properties “on a quiet residential street in Savannah, Georgia.” Those properties were owned by Thomas and his relatives, including his mother. “The Crow company bought the properties for $133,363 from three co-owners—Thomas, his mother and the family of Thomas’ late brother, according to a state tax document and a deed dated Oct. 15, 2014, filed at the Chatham County courthouse,” ProPublica reports. Thomas did not disclose these property sales.
That, like Thomas’ failure to disclose the trips and gifts, is apparently a violation of federal disclosure laws, four ethics and disclosure law experts told ProPublica. “He needed to report his interest in the sale,” Virginia Canter, a former government ethics lawyer now at the watchdog group CREW told ProPublica.
“Given the role Crow has played in subsidizing the lifestyle of Thomas and his wife, you have to wonder if this was an effort to put cash in their pockets.” There’s no denying that the sale put cash in Thomas’ pocket. There’s also no denying that it’s keeping cash in the Thomases' pockets; Crow has paid the property taxes on the house Thomas’s mother Leoloa Williams is still living in, about $1,500 annually according to county tax records viewed by ProPublica, since the sale. Clarence and Ginni Thomas previously paid those taxes.
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The $133,363 Crow paid for the Thomas properties appears to be well above fair market value for property on that street at the time, and well above what Thomas valued the three properties at in disclosures when he owned them. He valued his one-third stake in them at $15,000 or less, so $45,000 or less for all three. In fact, the year before Crow purchased the Thomas properties, he bought another small house and a vacant lot on the same street for $40,000.
Shortly after buying the Williams house, Crow plowed $36,000 of improvements into the home. He told ProPublica that the improvements were intended “to preserve its long-term viability and accessibility to the public,” Crow said. That’s in keeping with what he says is his “intention is to one day create a public museum at the Thomas home dedicated to telling the story of our nation’s second black Supreme Court Justice.”
He also said that he “approached the Thomas family about my desire to maintain this historic site so future generations could learn about the inspiring life of one of our greatest Americans.” Sure. He also said that he paid fair market value for the properties.
What’s a little bit of real estate profit between friends, when one of those friends holds a lifetime appointment as one of the top public officials in the land and the other is a billionaire political donor?
The latest reporting should be compelling Senate Democrats to do something about it. In response to this latest, the chair of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Dick Durbin tweeted. “Astonishing,” he wrote. “As @JudiciaryDems wrote, the Chief Justice must investigate how such conduct could take place at the Court under his watch. And if the Court does not fix these clear abuses, Congress must.”
Judiciary member Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, suggested another idea. “It would be best for the Chief Justice to commence a proper investigation, but after a week of silence from the Court and this latest disturbing reporting, I’m urging the Judicial Conference to step in and refer Justice Thomas to the Attorney General for investigation.”
The Judiciary Committee Democrats, under Durbin, promised a hearing in their sternly worded letter Durbin references, in which they did their best to pass the hot potato of Thomas’ corruption to Chief Justice Roberts. They “urged” Roberts to do his job on ethics reforms and pointed out that they’ve been urging him to do so for a dozen years now. It might just be time to accept the fact that this is not happening, that their threats that they’ll act if Roberts doesn’t have become meaningless. Clearly, Roberts is more afraid of Thomas than he is Durbin.
However, this has gotten to the point that Durbin has no choice but to act unless he wants his committee to lose as much of the public trust as the illegitimate Supreme Court has. Everything about Thomas’ friendship with and financial obligations to Crow stinks to high heaven. It’s the Senate’s job to do something about it.
It's never too early to start talking about the House! Joining us on this week's edition of The Downballot is Inside Elections' Jacob Rubashkin, who offers his thoughts on the overall playing field and a wide range of key contests. Jacob explains why Lauren Boebert might have an easier time of it in her likely rematch, how some candidates have a "special sauce" that allows them to keep winning difficult districts, and why he thinks Mary Peltola is favored for re-election despite Alaska's persistent red lean.