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ProPublica investigates luxury vacations gifted to Supreme Court Justice Thomas

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

A ProPublica investigation finds billionaire GOP donor Harlan Crow has been treating U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to luxury vacations for more than two decades. Trips on Crow's private plane and yacht could be considered gifts and raise ethics questions about Thomas' political influences. I'm joined now by ProPublica reporter Justin Elliott, who worked on this investigation. The story has just been published.

Justin, your investigation raises a lot of questions about potential conflicts of interest. What did you find?

JUSTIN ELLIOTT: Yeah. Well, to give you one example, this billionaire businessman, Harlan Crow, flew Clarence Thomas to Indonesia a few years ago on his private jet. They were met there by his very large yacht, and they went on vacation together for about nine days. You know, this is a vacation - not a normal vacation. This could cost hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars. And the striking thing about it is that Justice Thomas didn't report any of these gifts on his annual financial disclosure, where judges are supposed to report this sort of thing, which, you know, ethics lawyers told us that that could be a violation of the federal law.

MARTÍNEZ: And your story comes with pictures of these vacations. Any evidence of other justices doing anything like this?

ELLIOTT: You know, that's something we're still looking into. But the striking thing about Justice Thomas is that he's been doing this for many years. I mean, we've found multiple examples of him using this billionaire's private jet without reporting it. And, you know, the billionaire we're talking about here, Harlan Crow, he's not just, you know, a businessman. He also is deeply involved in politics. He is on the boards of think tanks that do Supreme Court advocacy. And he's been involved in sort of right-wing legal politics for many years.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, very, very influential in conservative circles. You spoke to a number of experts on the issue of disclosure. What did they conclude after reviewing the information you presented?

ELLIOTT: They concluded that, in particular, the private jet flights that Justice Thomas took, as well as the cruises on Mr. Crow's yacht, should have been disclosed. Supreme Court justices, like many other government officials, are required to report gifts every year on a public filing. And the idea of that is that members of the public, and also in the case of the court, people who have cases at the court can assess potential conflicts of interest and see who might be influencing justices. You know, we asked Justice Thomas why he didn't report these trips, and he didn't respond to our questions.

MARTÍNEZ: What about Harlan Crow? Has he responded at all?

ELLIOTT: Yeah, Harlan Crow did respond, and he said that, you know, he extends hospitality to a lot of his friends, not just Justice Thomas and that this is no different. He also said that he's never sought to influence Justice Thomas, you know. But there's a lot we still don't know about this relationship, in part because these trips have been kept basically secret for many, many years.

MARTÍNEZ: So to be clear, the issue here is that Justice Thomas has not told the world about this. It doesn't show up in any kind of official way. Because it's one thing to say, hey, friends can take another friend on a trip with him, but I guess, in this case, in Justice Thomas' case, he has to let people know.

ELLIOTT: That's definitely one issue. You know, we spoke to several other judges who told us that, you know - one told us that it was incomprehensible to accept gifts like this. You know, she said that when she was making a restaurant reservation, she'd never even use her title judge because she didn't want to be seen as, you know, leveraging her public office for private benefits. So part of it is the disclosure. Part of it is, you know, the appearance of using your private office for personal benefit.

MARTÍNEZ: Justin Elliott is a reporter with ProPublica. Justin, thanks.

ELLIOTT: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Justin Elliott