The right-wing real estate mogul who reportedly lavished Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas with undisclosed vacations also financed Virginia “Ginni” Thomas’ foray into becoming a lobbyist fighting what was described as a “culture war against the left.”
The liberal political action committee Meidas Touch posted a photograph showing Harlan Crow’s financial involvement with Virginia Thomas’ political activity:
The photograph showed a portion of a February 2011 Politico story on Thomas “recasting herself” as the head of the lobbying group Liberty Central:
Politico has learned, for instance, that the initial $500,000 contribution came from Dallas real estate investor Harlan Crow, a major GOP donor who held an event for Liberty Central at his home a few months after the group launched. He also once gave Justice Thomas a $19,000 “Frederick Douglass Bible” as a gift and donated $150,000 to build a new wing named for Thomas on a Savannah, Ga., library that Clarence Thomas visited frequently in his youth.
In May 2023, the Washington Post reported that Thomas’ firm Liberty Consulting received $80,000 between June 2011 and June 2012 from right-wing operative Leonard Leo, a longtime official with the group the Federalist Society. One donation was arranged through Kellyanne Conway, who would go on to be part of Donald Trump’s presidential administration:
Leo, a key figure in a network of nonprofits that has worked to support the nominations of conservative judges, told Conway that he wanted her to “give” Ginni Thomas “another $25K,” the documents show. He emphasized that the paperwork should have “No mention of Ginni, of course.”
“The idea that Leonard Leo, who has a passionate ideological interest in how the court rules and who has worked hard for years to advance that interest, could pick up the phone and generate substantial compensation to Virginia Thomas, which also benefits Clarence Thomas — that idea is bad for the country, the court and the rule of law,” New York University law professor Stephen Gillers told reporters.
Though she left Liberty Central not long into its existence, in March 2023, the Washington Post reported that Virginia Thomas had continued amassing anonymous donations for her lobbying activities — specifically $600,000 given to a new group:
The previously unreported donations to the fledgling group Crowdsourcers for Culture and Liberty were channeled through a right-wing think tank in Washington that agreed to serve as a funding conduit from 2019 until the start of last year.
According to the newspaper, Thomas embraced conspiracy theories not only in her social media accounts but in Crowdsourcers functions:
On May 18, 2019, Thomas told influential right-wing donors and activists about Crowdsourcers in a private meeting, video from the event shows. The left, she said, was pushing “cultural Marxism” and “eroding the pillars of our country.”
(The phrase “cultural Marxism” is a well-known antisemitic smear.)
The connections between Crow and the Thomases came into closer scrutiny after an April 2023 ProPublica story detailing how Clarence Thomas has indulged himself on Crow’s dime:
For more than two decades, Thomas has accepted luxury trips virtually every year from the Dallas businessman without disclosing them, documents and interviews show. A public servant who has a salary of $285,000, he has vacationed on Crow’s superyacht around the globe. He flies on Crow’s Bombardier Global 5000 jet. He has gone with Crow to the Bohemian Grove, the exclusive California all-male retreat, and to Crow’s sprawling ranch in East Texas. And Thomas typically spends about a week every summer at Crow’s private resort in the Adirondacks.
The extent and frequency of Crow’s apparent gifts to Thomas have no known precedent in the modern history of the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Early in my tenure at the Court, I sought guidance from my colleagues and others in the judiciary, and was advised that this sort of personal hospitality from close personal friends, who did not have business before the Court, was not reportable,” Thomas said in a response to the story. “I have endeavored to follow that counsel throughout my tenure, and have always sought to comply with the disclosure guidelines.”
But other experts told ProPublica that Thomas’ actions would indicate a violation of the Ethics in Government Act:
“I don’t think you can make an argument that private jet flights need not be included under the statute,” said Stephen Gillers, a professor emeritus and ethics expert at New York University law school.
“It is absolutely impossible that anyone could reasonably interpret that exception to apply to private jet flights,” said Walter Shaub, former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics. “Not in any universe.”
The increased attention toward Crow — a reputed collector of Nazi “memorabilia” — prompted right-wing pundits to launch into a defense of both him and Thomas. But as The Lever reported, many of them did so without disclosing their own ties to Crow:
Hours after ProPublica dropped its report on Thomas, Ilya Shapiro, a senior fellow at the right-wing think tank Manhattan Institute, tweeted, “Unless Harlan Crow has some business before the Court, the @propublica report about Justice Thomas is a big breathless nothingburger.”
Unmentioned: The Manhattan Institute, where Shapiro leads an amicus brief filing program lobbying the Supreme Court to rule certain ways on issues like student debt cancellation and corporate taxation, boasts Crows’ wife Kathy on its board of trustees and has been called “wonderful” by Crow himself.
Bloomberg News reported on April 24 2023 that Crow actually did have business before the court in January 2005, when the high court declined to hear an appeal in a copyright infringement lawsuit seeking $25 million from Trammell Crow Residential Co., which was owned at the time by Crow Holdings, for which Harlan Crow chief executive officer.
A spokesperson for Crow denied that he discussed the case with Jutice Thomas.
“At the time of this case, Trammell Crow Residential operated completely independently of Crow Holdings with a separate management team and its own independent operations,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
In May 2023, ProPublica further reported that Crow paid private school tuition costs for the Thomases’ grandnephew, Mark Martin, who was raised by the couple:
Mark Paoletta, a longtime friend of Clarence Thomas who has also served as Ginni Thomas’ lawyer, released a statement. Paoletta confirmed that Crow paid for Martin’s tuition at both Randolph-Macon Academy and Hidden Lake, saying Crow paid for one year at each. He did not give a total amount but, based on the tuition rates at the time, the two years would amount to roughly $100,000.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will convene a hearing to address the high court’s “ethical standards” in response to ProPublica’s reporting. According to TruthOut, Democratic Party members of the committee sent a letter to Chief Justice John Roberts noting that concerns over the relationship between Crow and the Thomases have lingered since at least 2011.
“It is troubling that your 2011 year-end report, which dismissed the call for the Justices to adopt the Code of Conduct, was written notwithstanding the known concerns about Mr. Crow’s largesse. This problem could have been resolved then,” the letter said. “Instead, according to ProPublica’s reporting, Mr. Crow’s dispensation of favors escalated in secret during the years that followed. Now the Court faces a crisis of public confidence in its ethical standards that must be addressed.”
Crow has donated more than $429,000 to Republican members of the committee. The Intercept reported on April 25 2023 that Crow had purchased citizenship in the island nation of St. Kitts and Nevis, described as “a tax haven known for impenetrable financial secrecy.”
Two days earlier, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, admitted in an interview with NBC News that he did not ask Justice Thomas to testify before the committee, feeling that he would not answer.
Conversely, Durbin’s Democratic Party colleague, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, contacted Crow on behalf of the Senate Finance Committee to ask for evidence that Crow complied with federal tax law.
“The American public deserves a full accounting of the full extent of your largesse towards Justice Thomas, including whether these gifts complied with all relevant federal tax and ethics laws,” said Wyden, who chairs the committee.
However, Roberts informed Durbin via letter that he refused to testify.
Because of the continued absence of California Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) from the committee, Durbin likely lacks the ability to subpoena either Roberts or Thomas.
Update 4/25/2023, 2:37 p.m. PST: Updated to reflect new information about Harlan Crow as well as his reputed past business before the Supreme Court. — ag
Update 4/25/2023, 11:24 p.m. PST: Updated to reflect Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts’ refusal to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. — ag
Update 5/5/2023, 12:15 a.m. PST: Updated to reflect new information about both Harlan Crow’s relationship to Virginia and Clarence Thomas as well as a separate financial contribution toward Virginia Thomas’ lobbying activities by right-wing legal operative Leonard Leo. — ag