Exposing Clarence ThomasAn interview with the reporter who revealed corruption within the Supreme Court nine.
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas describes himself as a man of simple tastes. “I prefer the RV parks. I prefer the Walmart parking lots to the beaches and things like that,” he said in a recent documentary about his life. “There’s something normal to me about it. I come from regular stock, and I prefer that — I prefer being around that.”
We’re not sure what leisure activities can be found in the Walmart parking lot, but neither does Thomas. He has, after all, spent decades traveling to exotic locales on the private jet of the conservative billionaire and GOP megadonor Harlan Crow. Thomas is also a frequent guest at Camp Topridge, Crow’s resort in the Adirondacks where the justice rubs shoulders with billionaires, goes fishing and explores a life-sized version of Hagrid’s hut from Harry Potter. Crow also paid the private school tuition for Thomas’ son, Jamal.
We know all of this thanks to a multipart April exposé published by ProPublica in April. Truthdig recently spoke with journalist Justin Elliott, who reported the story alongside Joshua Kaplan and Alex Mierjeski, about the origins of his scoop and what kind of justice we can expect the justice to face.
Truthdig: How does Thomas’ use of Crow’s largesse deviate from the norm?
Elliott: We wondered the same thing as we started to discover more about the flow of money and gifts from Crow to Thomas and his family. It’s a hard question to answer definitively, in part because there’s so little public disclosure at the Supreme Court. There are no public calendars for justices that you would be able to get for, say, cabinet secretaries.
As far as we know at this point, the relationship between Thomas and Crow is way outside the norm. We’ve talked to multiple federal judges who say they wouldn’t let a lawyer even buy them lunch.
There have also been Democratic-appointed justices who have gotten into ethics scandals. Most notably, Abe Fortas resigned back in the late 1960s over his relationship with a Wall Street financier.
TD: Can you talk about what tipped you off?
Elliott: My co-reporter Josh Kaplan and I began thinking about approaches to covering the federal judiciary — not just the Supreme Court — last year. We got interested in travel by justices and, with ProPublica researcher Alex Mierjeski, we first identified one trip that we believed Thomas had taken on Crow’s plane. Crow and Thomas’ relationship had actually been the subject of some very good reporting back in 2011 or so. We decided to take another look.
TD: Roughly how many people did you guys have to call to confirm the details?
Elliott: Probably in the low hundreds. One key was talking to people like workers on Crow’s superyacht and at his Adirondacks resort who could help us establish a timeline of the trips.Related Clarence Thomas’ Next Trip Could Be Before Congress
TD: What was your most interesting interview?
Elliott: The Indonesian scuba diving instructor is up there. But the most thrilling thing is when someone emails or calls us out of the blue with relevant information. My contact info is on the bottom of all the stories, and hearing from people who know things we should know about Supreme Court justices is the only way these stories get done. (My email is [email protected], by the way.)
TD: Your story blew up. Why do you think there’s so much interest in the corruption of the Supreme Court, and Thomas in particular?
Elliott: I’m not sure! One never knows how stories are going to land. There seems to be a lot of appetite for coverage of the Supreme Court that goes beyond the work of legal reporters tracking the evolution of their rulings, recounting cases, etc.
TD: What happens now? Will there be any consequences or are Supreme Court justices untouchable? At the very least, can we expect some mechanism to discourage this kind of behavior in the future?
Elliott: One thing we’re watching closely now is what happens with the Senate. Both the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Dick Durbin, and the Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Ron Wyden, have sent letters to Crow asking for more information on what else (if anything) he’s given Thomas. Crow’s lawyer pushed back against the Wyden request.
Wyden said in response that he’s “going to discuss with my committee colleagues how best to compel answers to the questions I put forward last month, including by using any of the tools at our disposal.” We’re following closely to see how all of that shakes out.
TD: You write that Thomas “danced at concerts put on by musicians Crow brought in.” What musicians?
Elliott: I can’t get into specifics about Camp Topridge, but Thomas is known to be a country music fan. He once wrote a fan letter to country icon George Jones.Wait, before you go…
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