Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has friends in high places, but he’s been keeping the details of their associations under the radar.
Justice Thomas has accepted dozens of gifts, likely amounting to millions of dollars, for over two decades without disclosing them—a previously unenforced legality for Supreme Court justices. New reporting by ProPublica reveals he took at least 38 lavish vacations on the dime of his billionaire friends, among them industry titans and high-ranking executives.
“In my career I don’t remember ever seeing this degree of largesse given to anybody,” Jeremy Fogel told ProPublica; Fogel is a former federal judge who served for years on the judicial committee that reviews judges’ financial disclosures. “I think it’s unprecedented.”
ProPublica is a nonprofit investigative journalism news outlet that first reported Thomas’s undisclosed gifts from American real-estate developer and Republican donor Harlan Crow in April. The extensive list of freebies from Crow includes vacations on his superyacht, flights on his private jet, frequent all-paid luxury trips, and regular visits to Crow’s private resort in the Adirondacks.
With few exceptions, federal laws require Supreme Court justices to disclose any gifts they or their immediate families receive that are worth more than $415 in annual filings. The aim is to promote transparency and trust in America’s highest court and prevent any individual or group from buying their influence on the court.
However, there has been little to no enforcement of this rule. The Supreme Court lacks a binding code of ethics, unlike lower courts and the executive and legislative branches. But there was a tightening of standards in March. Soon after, the details of Thomas and Crow’s connection came to light.
Under the stricter rules, justices must disclose more of their activities, including free trips, air travel, and stays at commercial properties like hotels, resorts, or hunting lodges, the New York Times reported. How these changes will be overseen and enforced remains unclear.
On Thursday, ProPublica published a comprehensive report on Thomas’s undisclosed gifts to date from ultrawealthy business moguls.
The gifts of billionaires
Within months of his confirmation to the Supreme Court in October 1991, Thomas was invited into the Horatio Alger Association, an exclusive nonprofit whose members include wealthy businessmen.
There he met David Sokol, the once heir apparent to Warren Buffett at investment firm Berkshire Hathaway; as well as H. Wayne Huizenga, who helped transform Blockbuster and Waste Management into Fortune 500 companies; and oil billionaire Paul “Tony” Novelly.
On Labor Day weekend in 2019, Thomas and his wife, Virginia Thomas, took an all-paid vacation out West, funded by Sokol. They attended the home-opener football and volleyball games at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln from luxury suites, which typically costs $40,000 annually, according to ProPublica.
In recent years, the Thomases have been treated to at least seven University of Nebraska–Lincoln games, five arranged by Sokol, ProPublica added.
Huizenga sent his personal 737 jet to pick up Thomas and fly him to South Florida, ProPublica reported. The five-hour roundtrip would have cost at least $130,000 each way.
Thomas was also invited by Huizenga into the billionaire’s highly exclusive, members-only golf club, the Floridian. The 200-plus high-profile members, like Rush Limbaugh and Michael Bloomberg, were “honorary” and didn’t pay dues as Huizenga covered everything. However, it’s unclear if Thomas’s fees were covered, ProPublica reported. Now, the Floridian, which was sold by the Huizenga family in 2010 and renovated, has a $150,000 initiation fee.
Novelly took Thomas deep-sea fishing multiple times in recent years, three of the oil tycoon’s former yacht workers told ProPublica. One of the billionaire’s yachts, named Le Montrachet, is outfitted with a full bar, dining areas, a baby grand piano, and smaller fishing boats and Jet Skis. It costs about $60,000 per week for outsiders who want to charter it.
The new ProPublica report details more gifts the justice accepted from Crow, Sokol, Huizenga, and Novelly without disclosing them in legal filings.
As a public servant, Thomas earns a salary of $285,000, according to ProPublica. And despite the grand lifestyle he has enjoyed courtesy of his billionaire friends, the justice paints himself as an everyman.
“I prefer the RV parks. I prefer the Walmart parking lots to the beaches and things like that. There’s something normal to me about it,” Thomas said in an interview for a documentary about his life, which Crow helped finance. “I come from regular stock, and I prefer that—I prefer being around that.”