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Supreme Court protest, corruption
Supreme Court protest, corruption

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How ProPublica Exposed Ethics Scandals at the US Supreme Court

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“For over 20 years, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has been treated to luxury vacations by billionaire Republican donor Harlan Crow.

He goes on cruises in far-flung locales on Crow’s yacht, flies on his private jet and keeps company with Crow’s powerful friends at the billionaire’s private resort.

The extent of Crow’s largesse has never been revealed. Until now.

-Lede to “Clarence Thomas and the Billionaire,” by Joshua Kaplan, Justin Elliott, and Alex Mierjeski

In April 2023, ProPublica published the first story in its investigative series exposing a lack of ethics oversight for US Supreme Court justices, some of whom received expensive gifts and worldwide vacations from well-heeled individuals — which meant private access to justices for those wealthy benefactors and their friends. The series provided rare, behind-the-scenes details of those interactions and prompted historic reforms on the nation’s high court.

The series begins covering the personal relationship between Justice Clarence Thomas and Harlan Crow, a real estate billionaire Thomas met three decades ago, according to ProPublica reporters Joshua Kaplan, Justin Elliott, and Alex Mierjeski.

Thomas and his wife boarded a private jet for Indonesia shortly after the court wrapped its term in June 2019 for “nine days of island-hopping in a volcanic archipelago on a superyacht staffed by a coterie of attendants and a private chef,” the reporters write.

Chartering the yacht and plane alone could have cost over half a million dollars — but the Thomases weren’t footing the bill, the reporters found — Crow was. Almost every year for over two decades, Thomas has taken expensive trips courtesy of Crow, according to the investigation.

“He has gone with Crow to the Bohemian Grove, the exclusive California all-male retreat, and to Crow’s sprawling ranch in East Texas,” the reporters write. “And Thomas typically spends about a week every summer at Crow’s private resort in the Adirondacks.”

Those trips meant Thomas was in contact with powerful corporate executives, including from Verizon and PricewaterhouseCoopers, and political activists, such as “Leonard Leo, the Federalist Society leader regarded as an architect of the Supreme Court’s recent turn to the right,” the reporters write.

“By accepting the trips, Thomas has broken long-standing norms for judges’ conduct, ethics experts and four current or retired federal judges said,” the reporters write.

Crucially, those trips were not listed among Thomas’ annual financial disclosures, even though gifts worth over US$415 usually must be reported, the reporters found. Despite such disclosure rules, before the ProPublica investigation the Supreme Court did not have a formal ethical code of conduct.

The private jet flights and yacht trips in particular should have been disclosed, the investigation finds. Thomas’ “failure to report the flights appears to violate a law passed after Watergate that requires justices, judges, members of Congress and federal officials to disclose most gifts,” according to two ethics experts the reporters spoke with.

Crow “has denied trying to influence the justice but has said he extended hospitality to him just as he has to other dear friends,” the reporters write.

Among other findings from the investigation:

  • Crow paid for boarding school tuition running more than US$6,000 a month for a boy Thomas said he was raising “as a son.” According to a former school administrator, “Crow paid Martin’s tuition the entire time he was a student here, which was about a year,” the reporters write.
  • A July 2008 “luxury fishing vacation” Justice Samuel Alito took with GOP billionaire Paul Singer, ProPublica reports, who paid for Alito’s private jet and whose firm later had cases before the Supreme Court. Alito did not report the jet flight in annual disclosures, according to the investigation.
  • Alito’s lodging during that trip was covered by Robin Arkley II, owner of a mortgage company who had “recently acquired the fishing lodge,” the reporters write. Alito did not report the lodging in annual disclosures, they found.
  • Thomas attended two donor summits hosted by the Koch network, the political organization founded by billionaires Charles and David Koch, which put Thomas in “the extraordinary position of having helped a political network that has brought multiple cases before the Supreme Court,” the reporters write.
  • Crow and wife Kathy paid for a seven-foot-tall bronze statue of Thomas’ eighth-grade teacher, unveiled at an October 2021 ceremony in a New York City suburb at which Thomas spoke.

As a result of the year-long investigation:

  • The Senate Judiciary Committee last May held a full hearing on Supreme Court ethics reform and, in November, subpoenaed Leo and Crow to obtain information. (Editor’s Note: Leo has since refused to comply with the Congressional subpoena, calling the investigation “politically motivated.”)
  • The Supreme Court adopted its first-ever code of conduct in November 2023.
  • Nonpartisan ethics watchdogs, including the Campaign Legal Center and the Project on Government Oversight, have called on the Department of Justice to investigate Thomas for failing to disclose the trips Crow provided.
  • Another 40-plus watchdog groups have called for Thomas and Alito to recuse themselves from cases relating to big-time political donors. The justices have rejected such recusal.

For Kaplan, Elliott, and Mierjeski, a big takeaway from the investigation is that courts at all levels need more scrutiny from journalists.

ProPublica Supreme Court investigative series

ProPublica’s investigative series revealed deep financial ties between right-wing billionaires and conservative justices on the US Supreme Court. Image: Screenshot, ProPublica

“One of the lessons of this has been that the courts are just totally under-covered as an institution, both at the federal level all the way down to local and state [levels],” Elliott says. “One piece of advice would just be to start adding judges and courts, at whatever the relevant level is, to the mental list of things that should be covered.”

Here are seven more tips for covering courts the ProPublica reporters shared with The Journalist’s Resource.

1. Think of a Public Figure’s Entourage as a Huge Source Pool.

It takes a village to move a public figure from point A to point B.

“It’s not like a normal person going on a trip to Europe or something,” Elliott says.

This is especially true if the public figure travels on private planes and boats, which require specialized crew to operate. For example, Crow’s yacht, the Michaela Rose, often operates with a staff of a couple dozen, the ProPublica reporters found.

“We decided to try to talk to some of those people,” Elliott says. “So we started just sort of cold calling.”

2. Being an Outsider Can Be an Advantage, But be Ready to Play a ‘Numbers Game’ with Cold Calls.  

Kaplan says there are “extremely talented court reporters” with well-connected sources who focus on explaining Supreme Court decisions — but the ProPublica reporting team “did not start with any sources at all,” he says.

That wasn’t necessarily a detriment. To a reporter who regularly covers Supreme Court decisions, the staff of a yacht a Supreme Court justice had boarded might not have much to offer. But it was those seemingly tertiary sources, not directly involved with the regular functioning of the court, who were critical to telling the story of who the justices were spending time with while off the bench.

“We had to kind of start from scratch and get creative with the sort of people we were talking to,” Kaplan says. “We were talking almost exclusively to people that were very far removed from Washington, very far removed from the halls of national politics. And that brought us, over the course of the year, to some kind of relatively novel places.”

Those service workers — on the yacht, at the Adirondacks resort, at the Alaskan fishing lodge, and other places — were “the absolute backbone of this,” Kaplan says. “It wasn’t a situation where any one person had the keys to the castle and were able to tell us everything that had happened, but a lot of people had some really valuable piece of the puzzle.”

Kaplan estimates that over the course of reporting the series, the team placed over a thousand phone calls.

“It really is a numbers game,” adds Elliott. “Many, many, many, many people said no to us, or just didn’t return our calls.”

3. Build Trust with Sources by Articulating the Big Vision of your Investigation, and by Making Sure They Understand the Concepts of “On the Record,” “Off the Record,” and “On Background.”

Building trust is key when interviewing sources who don’t have experience talking with reporters. The ProPublica team found the sources they spoke with were by and large persuaded by the bigger picture of the investigation.

“Regardless of where any particular source might fall in the political spectrum, there’s, I think, a very clear public interest case that we should know who is getting access to some of the most powerful government officials — Supreme Court justices —  in the country,” Elliott says.

He adds “it would have been the same case that we were making if we were writing about Elana Kagan or Sonia Sotomayor,” referring to two justices usually regarded as being more ideologically liberal than conservative.

Likewise, being patient and explaining journalistic concepts that define how the information they share will be used — on the record, on background, or off the record, for example — is a great way to get sources to open up.

“Most people, when they get a call, they’ve never spoken to a reporter before,” Kaplan says. “They don’t understand the seriousness with which one takes protecting anonymity. And so, just taking the time to get to know people and to earn that trust, I think it’s critical.”

4. Take Advantage of Teamwork by Divvying the Labor.

When embarking on an investigation that will involve hundreds of phone calls and reading reams of records, dividing the work among a small group can save time and allow for collaborative strategizing along the way.

“The benefit of the dynamic was that while these guys were making calls, I had time to kind of noodle around,” Mierjeski says. “Some of the findings in those stories just came from the ability to spend time searching and fishing.”

With Elliott and Kaplan focusing on contacting sources, Mierjeski was able to track down, for example, coverage in Catholic Cemetery magazine of the statue of Thomas’ teacher, which Crow and his wife paid for, the reporters found.

There can also be mental health benefits to teamwork, in terms of reporters encouraging each other to press ahead in the face of obstacles.

“For me it would be difficult, as a psychological proposition, to not be sort of paralyzed by the crushing disappointment of failure if you’re just sitting at home alone having seven people in a row ask you how you got their number and then hang up on you,” Elliott says. “It’s sort of like going to the gym — it works better if you have a partner.”

Elliott, Kaplan, and Mierjeski were continually communicating, Kaplan says, which was hugely helpful for real-time brainstorming. One example: The realization that polo shirts with the logo for Crow’s yacht could lead to more information about when and where Thomas was on the yacht.

“I remember it was like Friday night at 10 p.m. that one of us realized the Michaela Rose, the yacht logo on the shirts, could be a way to find other potential trips,” Mierjeski says. “The Signal chat was just blown up.”

Elliott adds, “We started looking for every single picture we could find of Justice Thomas wearing a polo shirt to see if there was a logo on it.”

5. Seek Visual Evidence, Especially If a Key Source Won’t Talk.

The photos the reporters obtained of Thomas on trips with Crow and Alito holding a fish in Alaska were “very helpful in establishing things, but also, I think, really resonated with people and helped these stories get a wider reach,” Kaplan says.

The photographs were “more powerful than probably any prose we could come up with,” Elliott adds. The reporters found some of them on social media sites, like Instagram and Facebook. The pictures were not just illustrative but were important evidence of places the justices had been.

Alito responded to questions from the ProPublica reporters indirectly — in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

Thomas, however, was silent until the first story in the series published.

“It wasn’t like Justice Thomas was going through our very detailed questions that we sent and saying, ‘You have this right, you have this wrong,’” Elliott says. “It was just like, ‘No comment.’ Which can be a sensitive position to be in as a reporter because if you’re getting no engagement, you just have to be right.”

6. Tap Into University Archives.

The ProPublica team examined numerous archival documents while reporting the series, including from congressional and judiciary archives.

Also among them: university archives, which are often collections of documents and pictures by and about public figures produced throughout their careers. The team early in reporting the series visited the collection of former Justice Antonin Scalia, donated to the Harvard Law School Library after Scalia died in 2016. Many parts of the Scalia archive remain sealed — but photographs weren’t sealed, Kaplan says.

“From the chicken scratch scrawl on the back of some of these photos, we started learning about some of the people that had taken Scalia to an Alaska trip — reporting those out brought us to Alito,” he says.

Kaplan adds: “Figuring out what past or present officials have archives that are at least partially in a university, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll be the first reporter to have ever looked at them. And they might have some gold in there.”

Start by looking for archives from universities a public figure has attended or has some other longstanding affiliation with, such as a professorship.

7. Search Court Documents, Which Are Likely to be Public Record, for Evidence.

When covering a story that deals with private interactions or a government entity not subject to public records laws, look for court cases. Unless a judge seals a case or portions of it, such records often are subject to public inspection.

That’s how the ProPublica team was able to show in their reporting that Crow had paid tuition on behalf of the boy Thomas was raising. The private school had been involved in a bankruptcy and later dissolved, but for a time was required to file financial statements to a federal court. The reporters found those statements through the Public Access to Court Electronic Records system, or PACER, an online federal courts document repository.

“Whoever was filing those statements seems to get sloppier and sloppier about redacting them as the case was going on,” Elliot says. “We came across a financial statement from the school that actually showed a wire of money from one of Crow’s companies to the school.”

In July 2009, the company “wired $6,200 to the school that month, the exact cost of the month’s tuition,” the reporters write.

Read the full series of stories:

Clarence Thomas and the Billionaire

Clarence Thomas Had a Child in Private School. Harlan Crow Paid the Tuition.

Justice Samuel Alito Took Luxury Fishing Vacation With GOP Billionaire Who Later Had Cases Before the Court

Clarence Thomas Secretly Participated in Koch Network Donor Events

A ‘Delicate Matter’: Clarence Thomas’ Private Complaints About Money Sparked Fears He Would Resign

The Judiciary Has Policed Itself for Decades. It Doesn’t Work.

This story was originally published by The Journalist’s Resource and is reposted here with permission. 

Clark Merrefield, The Journalist's ResourceClark Merrefield joined The Journalist’s Resource in 2019 after working as a reporter for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, as a researcher and editor on three books related to the Great Recession, and as a federal government communications strategist. He has been selected for fellowships in juvenile justice and solitary confinement at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and his work has been awarded by Investigative Reporters and Editors.

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