2023 The Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, Medium Newsroom finalist

Friends of the Court: Clarence Thomas’ Beneficial Friendship With a GOP Megadonor

About the Project

The story hit the busy news cycle like a bomb: For about two decades Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife had secretly enjoyed a series of lavish vacations courtesy Harlan Crow, a Republican billionaire donor to conservative causes. They’d gone on vacations on his mega-yacht, been ferried on his private jet, island-hopped in Indonesia, spent summer weeks at his luxe private resort in the Adirondacks. None of it was disclosed by Thomas, in some cases in violation of Watergate-era disclosure laws.

The revelations were particularly striking given Thomas’ stated preference for man-of-the-people road trips. In a (partially Crow-funded) documentary celebrating his life, Thomas said, “I don’t have any problem with going to Europe, but I prefer the United States,” adding, “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. I come from regular stock, and I prefer that — I prefer being around that.”

To piece together Thomas’ generously underwritten personal life, reporters Justin Elliott, Josh Kaplan and Alex Mierjeski employed a creative and exhaustive arsenal of reporting techniques, gathering flight records, tracking down former staff, diving down Internet rabbit holes to find photographic evidence, interviewing the artist who painted a portrait of Thomas, Crow and other right-wing luminaries, even speaking with an Indonesia scuba instructor.

The story shook loose other disturbing revelations. The reporters soon discovered Crow’s generosity went beyond what both he and Thomas told ProPublica were vacations with friends.

A second story revealed that Crow had paid over $100,000 to Thomas and his relatives in an undisclosed real estate deal that included Thomas’s mother’s house, which Crow later spent tens of thousands renovating. A third piece uncovered that Crow had paid about $100,000 (at least) for private schooling for a child Thomas was raising as his son. These transactions were also not disclosed by Thomas.

The stories dominated the news in Washington D.C. throughout the spring of 2023 and resonated in far corners of the country, raising the specter of profound ethics failures at the highest court, a branch of the government that is both unaccountable to any other entity and which has been relatively unexamined by the media until recently.

Dozens of members of Congress pressed for Supreme Court ethics reform. The Senate held a hearing on the subject. Even some Republicans, such as Mitt Romney, have criticized Thomas and a bipartisan bill was introduced in the Senate to implement a binding code of ethics for the highest court.

And the reporters aren’t done with their investigative scrutiny of the Court.