ProPublica Reporter Justin Elliot, Executive Director of the nonpartisan judicial watchdog, Fix the Court Gabe Roth and Democratic strategist Basil Smikle discuss with Alicia Menendez, in for Nicolle Wallace, the new ProPublica reporting which through an array of previously unavailable information, published what they call the fullest accounting to date, on “the generosity that has regularly afforded Thomas a lifestyle far beyond what his income could provide.”
Alicia Menendez: A quantum surge in new, genuinely shocking reporting into the secret life of Clarence Thomas. where the past few months, the American people have learned much about lavish gifts from wealthy friends, but never quite like this.
Pro public are using an array of previously unavailable information, including flight data, emails, security records, tax filings, in interviews with more than 100 eyewitnesses published what they call the fullest accounting to date on the generosity that has regularly afforded Thomas a lifestyle beyond what his income could provide.
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 8 by helicopter. A dozen VIP passes, professional and college sporting events typically perched in Skybox, 2 stays at luxury Resorts in Florida and Jamaica. and one standing invitation to an Uber exclusive golf club overlooking the Atlantic Coast.
Now we should be clear ProPublica hasn’t identified any legal cases that Tom benefactors had before the Supreme Court in the course of their relationship. Although they all work in industry significantly impacted by the court’s decisions. And while some of the hospitality may not have required disclosure, Thomas does appear to have violated the law by failing to disclose flights, yacht cruises, and sports tickets. NBC News reached out to Justice Thomas for comment this morning. So far, we have received none. In the past, Thomas has contended He always sought to comply with disclosure guidelines.
ProPublica Reporter Justin Elliot: You know, we started reporting about Justice Thomas’s relationship with a single billionaire Dallas Real Estate Billion or Harlan Crow, and we published some earlier stories about Crow taking Thomas on vacations around the world, paying tuition for one of his relatives who Thomas had taken in. and then we started to hear that Crow wasn’t alone, and that actually there was a, a whole set of wealthy businessmen, who, for reasons that are not still entirely clear, have taken upon themselves to essentially subsidize the private life, the leisure time of this sitting Supreme Court justice.
And I think the really striking thing to us is just the regularity of this. I mean, just frequently over 2030 years when Justice Thomas has leisure time, we find him on a private jet going to the Bahamas for a cruise with 1 of these businessmen or to Jackson Hole around the world in Indonesia, all apparently for free. which is extremely unusual if not unprecedented for a public official.
Alicia Menendez: And these more than 100 eyewitnesses, how do you find those people? What is the conversation you’re having with them?
ProPublica Reporter Justin Elliot: You know, I think one of the insights, that we had early in this reporting is if you are living the lifestyle of a billionaire and Justice Thomas is not a billionaire, you may $300,000 a year, but living life to have a billionaire, you have to be surrounded by service workers, people that, work on private jets, fishing guides, yacht workers, And because Justice Thomas hasn’t been disclosing these trips, as he’s supposed to be doing, we’ve had to do the hard work of kind of piecing it together by talking to a lot of people.
Alicia Menendez: And given that you are deep, deep in this reporting, but this is the most comprehensive reporting to date, what stood out to you most?
ProPublica Reporter Justin Elliot: I think it really was the regularity of it. I mean, when we first got into No single one thing. I mean, You know, a type of travel that would just be out of reach for any ordinary person. I mean, one of the trips that we report on, one of these wealthy businessmen flew justice Thomas out to Nebraska, had him in a Skybox for some college sports games there, then flew him all by private jet to, you know, a multimillion dollar ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. So the type of vacation that no ordinary person could take or even somebody that may have a salary of $300,000 a year.
Alicia Menendez: Gabe, some of the stuff truly extraordinary. Here’s just one portion of the ProPublica report having to do with Harlan Crow, in February 2016, Thomas flew on Crow’s private jet from Washington to New Haven, Connecticut before heading back on the jet just 3 hours later. ProPublica previously reported the flight, but newly obtained US marshal service records reveal its purpose.
Thomas met with several Yale law school deans for a tour of the room where they plan to display a portrait of the justice. Crow’s foundation also gave the school a $105,000 earmarked for the Justice Thomas Portrait Fund tax filing show. In terms of disclosure of gift, talk to me about the line between unethical and illegal?
Gabe Roth: Justice Thomas is definitely skirting that line. When you have gifts that are given to you as a Supreme Court justice that are valued more than about $400. You are required to report it on your annual financial disclosure report. And something like a portrait, that’s a little tough because it’s not. It’s not just Thomas receiving the portrait. It’s a Yale law school. That being said, a private plane flight does not count as personal Right?
There’s a personal hospitality exemption in the federal reporting law that says that you don’t have to report meals, lodging and entertainment. But a person, a private plane is none of those things. So his flight to Yale, his flight to New Haven there and back to DC in the day needed to be reported on his 2016 disclosure, and it was not. And that is a violation of law. He can amend the disclosure. But I think the smarter tactic would be to continue to press this with the committee on financial disclosure, the judiciary, who then can press the justice department to do a more thorough investigation into what other laws, justice Thomas might have broken here.
Alicia Menendez: Gab, I wanted to reset some of the stakes here, which is you have what was once a revered institution in this country now faith in the supreme court at an all time low among the American people. I know this is the work that you do, your sense. Are we at a point of no return? How is it that you reestablish the faith that has been lost?
Gabe Roth: I think it’s twofold. 1, it’s congress doing its job and then there is the Supreme Court doing its job. So Congress has every right to work with the Supreme Court to help the Supreme Court establish certain rules of the road, certain guidelines, even establishing or requiring the justices to file the same financial disclosure outside income, gift and travel to, reports that they themselves, members of Congress themselves have to report. And I think it’s also the Supreme Court stepping up and saying, look, we realize there is a glaring omission here, there is no code of conduct to be had at the Supreme Court. There is no Supreme Court code of conduct.
There is no enforcement mechanism or complaint mechanism if you see a Supreme Court justice doing something unethical other than potentially working through the judiciary committee, so there need but there like, there is for the lower court So I think that the court needs to step up and say, look, we’re going to create a code and make it enforceable so that when word of unethical behavior arises, there’s a way for members of the public. There’ll be an inbox, a ways for members of the public or reporters or watch dogs or whoever, to say, you know, we really think that you Supreme Court before it rises to the, maybe, the justice department level, you need to look into this and nip it in the bud So we trust that you’re acting as ethically as you should be.
Alicia Menendez: Basil something that Senator Dick Durbin said just today, these are not merely ethical lapses This is a shameless lifestyle underwritten for years by a gaggle of fawning billionaires. Are we any closer to a codified system of checks and balances? Is there a political appetite for that?
Basil Smikle: I don’t know that I think we’re closer because of excellent reporting, that we’re aware of all of this. Is there a political appetite? I think there are voters among the legislators. I’m not sure if there’s enough of an appetite to take this on at this moment. But the reality is I think this could be a great campaign issue for Democrats. You’ve got young justices that Donald Trump appointed. If Clarence Thomas is allowed to get away with this and there’s no accountability, all of these justices that are voting in ways that Democrats don’t like are going to be living a very similar lifestyle.
As you said, having their personal lives, supplemented and subsidized, as you said. We’re gonna be dealing with young justices who have changed who will change the court for a generation. who are clearly potentially influenced by some of the major, financial interests in this country. Why should why isn’t that a campaign issue today? It absolutely should be, and I’ll just make this very quick point. For so many voters that feel that because of the lifetime appointments of these justices and the decisions that have just been made, if there are those that feel that they do not have agency in future decisions in attracting outcomes, this is one way to do it. It’s to push your legislators to say it’s at this moment that we need to start codifying some of these reforms to make sure that this isn’t just like me getting a beer from my friend. These are people who control major resources in our country influencing judicial outcomes, essentially.