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ProPublica investigation uncovers Clarence Thomas' Adirondacks connection

Images of Clarence Thomas in the Adirondacks as reported by ProPublica.
ProPublica
Images of Clarence Thomas in the Adirondacks as reported by ProPublica.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is facing new scrutiny for failing to report expensive vacations and travel from a Republican megadonor and developer. According to a new investigative report by ProPublica, the justice of more than three decades has traveled on a private jet and stayed in luxurious facilities every year without disclosing the trips. One destination has been in the Adirondacks, on St. Regis Lake. ProPublica reporter Justin Elliott spoke with WAMC's Ian Pickus.

What requirements do Supreme Court justices face to disclose gifts, or maybe not gifts, such as this?

The rules for Supreme Court justices accepting gifts are very loose, they can pretty much accept any sort of gifts they want. But there was a law passed after Watergate that actually does require them to report many gifts. And so you know, the reporting we did we found that Justice Thomas has taken private jet flights and cruises on the yacht of this donor, billionaire Harlan Crow, and the ethics experts we spoke to said that he should have disclosed those gifts and didn't.

Do we have an idea of how much such trips and vacations might cost somebody?

It's hard to get precise numbers. But I mean, we're talking just extraordinary amounts of money for any normal person. So I mean, the private jet alone, it's a very nice and very large private jet that we're talking about that Harlan Crow owns. To charter that would cost on the order of $10,000 to $15,000 per flight hour. Some of the flights we're talking about are across the world, like from the United States to Indonesia, 20-, 30-hour flights. The arithmetic on that enters hundreds of hundreds of thousands very quickly.

Tell us a bit about Harlan Crow. Unlike Justice Thomas, he did answer questions for this story.

Yeah, that's right. Harlan Crow was the heir to a real estate fortune out in Dallas. He was the son who kind of took over the family business. So he's a very wealthy real estate businessman. But probably more relevantly for this story, he's also been extremely active in politics, both as a donor to Republican campaigns, you know, over $10 million over the years. But also as somebody that has funded organizations in the conservative legal movement, like the Federalist Society. He's on the board of some influential think tanks that do legal work for the American Enterprise Institute. So he's somebody that has a lot of interests and also a lot of political interests.

Now, with respect to the trips with Thomas, how did he classify that largesse?

What Crow told us in his statement – he didn't answer our detailed questions – but he did send a statement in which he said, Clarence Thomas and his wife are dear personal friends, and he has ‘extended hospitality to them in the same way as he does to other friends’ according to his statement.

Now, Clarence Thomas has responded to your story after publication and said that he was advised he didn't have to declare this type of travel or trips. Does that scan with what legal experts and ethics experts told you?

That does not scan with what ethics lawyers told us. The law, they told us, is clear on this point, especially on the transportation point on the issue of gifts, of private jet travel, for example. And I think also there's just a larger issue here that we also cover in our story apart from the kind of technicalities of the disclosure law. There's a question of whether a public official and especially a judge should be accepting these types of lavish gifts from anyone. I mean, we talked to several current and retired judges, federal judges who said that, you know, in some cases, they were so careful, they wouldn't even let a friend pay for their lunch for $30 or $40. So, from everyone we've talked to, accepting this kind of lavish travel year after year is just way outside what's normal and expected of a judge.

Now, he was often joining with other people on these trips with Harlan Crow. Do we know the purpose of those gatherings and who some of those other folks were?

You know, we still have lot of questions about this and we're actively reporting on it and trying to talk to anyone who knows the answer to that. But, you know, one case where we were able to get some detailed information was actually for one of the trips a few years ago to Harlan Crow’s Adirondacks property. Harlan Crow actually commissioned a painting of him sitting with Clarence Thomas and a few other men and the other men in the painting are all conservative lawyers. One of them in particular is a guy named Leonard Leo, who is incredibly influential in the world of kind of judicial campaigns and Supreme Court nomination fights. He's a Federalist Society executive. The painting at the Adirondacks property actually shows them in conversation. And we don't know what they were talking about. Suppose they're just talking about football or something. But the thing that sort of seems to unite all the people in the painting is involvement either as a lawyer or a funder in the kind of conservative legal world.

Tell us more about this Adirondacks complex. Where is it and what is it like?

Yeah, it's a remarkable property. It's called Camp Topridge. It's outside Paul Smiths, north of Saranac Lake, and it's one of the great camps, a set of properties that were sort of private resorts that were built in the Gilded Age and in the decades following. Topridge was actually originally built by the same heiress who built Mar-a-Lago down in Florida, which of course, Donald Trump now owns, to give you an idea of the kind of lavishness of the property. So it's over 100 acres, and we're not talking about just a lake house. It's like a whole campus of over 20 buildings. There's a chapel, there's beautiful lodges, there's multiple boat houses, there's a Russian Dacha style structure, there's a tennis court, and then there's some sort of more eccentric features. There's a replica of Hagrid’s hut from the Harry Potter series. There's a 1950s soda fountain where you can actually get a milkshake. And there's also a staff. I mean, it's not just like a place where you hang out like a normal summer house. There's private chefs, there's people who clean the rooms. So it's essentially like a hotel, but invitation only: you have to be a friend of Harlan Crow.

And I understand that staffing is partially how you were able to report on his comings and goings, because just the sheer numbers of people to keep a place like that going, a lot of them saw him there over the years, right?

Yeah, that's right. We talked to some folks that have worked at Topridge over the years and visited Topridge over the years. We'd love to talk to more people like that, because I think there's still a lot of unanswered questions. But yeah, I mean, you can't vacation and travel at this level of luxury, without a large staff of people sort of waiting on you hand and foot and that allowed us to do this reporting.

Is there any sort of ethical guideline that would bar Clarence Thomas from being friends with and spending time with someone who is very well connected in the upper echelons of conservative politics like this?

There's certainly no law that would have barred him from doing that. I think this is a case where the other judges we spoke to said that there's norms where you want to be careful about either actual impropriety or the appearance of impropriety. But there's actually a bill in Congress right now that's been proposed that would tighten up the rules around not just the sort of disclosure of gifts issue, but actually what gifts you can accept as a judge or justice. So that's a live issue right now.

I want to ask you also about Ginni Thomas, Clarence’s wife. She appears in some of the photos that are in the reporting in your story. She has been on these trips. We know that Ginni Thomas is very well connected herself in right wing, sometimes conspiracy, circles. She was involved in the Jan. 6 attempts to overturn the election result. However, Thomas and Ginni Thomas say they don't talk about their work with each other within their marriage. Do we have any idea of how Ginni Thomas plays into the dynamic that you've reported on here?

It's a great question. We know Ginni Thomas has been at Topridge in the Adirondacks with Clarence Thomas many times and on these trips. 15 years ago, it came out that Harlan Crow was actually giving money, basically giving almost all the money, to a political organization that was paying Ginni Thomas's salary. That came out and she left the organization. But that's sort of all we know at this point. But there's still a lot of questions we have about all of this.

Do we know if any other Supreme Court justices have an arrangement like this?

Not that we know of. And in fact, we had that question and talked to a couple of historians who specialize in the history of the court and put these facts to them. And they said they'd really never heard of anything like this, the scale, the frequency and the sort of lavishness of this travel and the gifts, no one had heard of, at least in the in kind of modern memory.

You said a couple of minutes ago that you have a number of questions still. What are they?

One of the big questions is what is being talked about on these trips both between Harlan Crow and Clarence Thomas? But also between Clarence Thomas and the other people that Harlan Crow is inviting along on these vacations? I mean, Clarence Thomas, the reason we care about this is that he's one of the nine or maybe the one of the six most powerful people in the country. The Supreme Court, obviously, just like wielding enormous power, and in so many areas of politics and just American life. And time with a Supreme Court justice alone is a potentially valuable thing. If you have an agenda, whether it's a political agenda or a financial agenda. And so we're very curious to know, are these trips purely, strictly social occasions where they're talking about innocuous things like sports or are they talking about law and politics? Because I think that would really color our understanding of it differently.

And I mean, it's fair to say this is just speculation, and it's me saying it, not you. But it wouldn't be too difficult to imagine that people who might have been in these same circles are involved with cases that may come before the Supreme Court at some point.

Yeah, that's always possible. I mean, the thing about. Yeah, it's possible. That absolutely, it's possible.

Well, we've been speaking with Justin Elliot from ProPublica about the new story on Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Tthank you so much for your time, Justin, and thanks for your reporting.

Thanks so much. Appreciate it.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.