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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Laura Litvan

Supreme Court Justice Thomas, relatives sold family properties to wealthy GOP donor

WASHINGTON — Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and relatives sold three Georgia properties that include Thomas’s boyhood home to GOP mega-donor Harlan Crow in 2014, according to a report, marking the first known instance where money flowed to the Supreme Court justice from the same Texas real estate magnate who has provided him with lavish trips around the world.

ProPublica said Thursday that Thomas didn’t list the real estate sales on his financial disclosure form that year, just as he didn’t report his extensive travel financed by Crow that occurred over two decades.

Judicial experts interviewed by the investigative journalism organization said that omission appears to violate a federal law passed after the Watergate scandal that requires justices and other officials to provide details about most real estate transactions over $1,000.

The report said one of Crow’s companies spent about $134,000 on the three properties in Savannah, owned by the justice, his mother and his brother. Thomas’s mother still resides in the home where he once lived. Crow paid contractors tens of thousands of dollars on improvements to the two-bedroom, one-bathroom house. That included roof repairs, a carport and a new fence and gates, ProPublica said, citing city records and blueprints.

The two other parcels are nearby, the report said.

Thomas did not immediately respond to a request for comment. He defended himself after the earlier report about the trips, saying he’d been advised that he didn’t have to disclose hospitality from close personal friends who didn’t have any business before the court.

In a statement, Crow insisted that the three Thomas property purchases were “at market rate based on many factors including the size, quality, and livability of the dwellings.” He said the purchase of the Thomas home is part of a broader plan to create a museum that could tell the story of the Black justice’s rise from poverty to prominence.

“I approached the Thomas family about my desire to maintain this historic site so future generations could learn about the inspiring life of one of our greatest Americans,” Crow said. He added that his company bought the other two properties because they had fallen into disrepair and later sold them to a builder “who was committed to improving the quality of the neighborhood.” He said the improvements to Thomas’s childhood home serve to “preserve its long-term viability and accessibility to the public.”

ProPublica said it could not determine whether Crow paid a fair market value for the properties.

Last week, the news organization reported that Thomas and his wife, Virginia Thomas, traveled through Indonesia aboard Crow’s 162-foot yacht, vacationed frequently at his lavish Adirondacks resort and flew on his private plane on trips worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Judicial experts interviewed by Bloomberg News disagreed as to whether Thomas violated the law by not revealing them. While the post-Watergate statute applies to gifts, it’s open to interpretation and justices have questioned whether they applied to them.

The Supreme Court is the only federal court not subjected to a code of conduct.

That report sparked swift calls for action by Democrats and outside government watchdog groups.

On Monday, all 11 Democrats on the Judiciary Committee sent a letter to Chief Justice John Roberts, calling on him to probe Thomas’s trips. Led by Chairman Dick Durbin of Illinois, they also called on Roberts to champion creation of a Supreme Court code of conduct and vowed to consider legislation if that doesn’t happen. They also said a hearing is planned to examine ethics issues at the court.

(Emily Birnbaum and Greg Stohr contributed to this report.)

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