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Propublica finds more ties between Justice Thomas and billionaire Harlan Crow

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The reporters who first told us about the ties between Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and a wealthy Republican donor have discovered another connection between Thomas and Harlan Crow. ProPublica reports the man that Justice Thomas has described in the past as a friend not only paid for luxury vacations for Thomas and his wife, but he also paid private school tuition for a relative that Thomas considers his son.

Joining us now is ProPublica reporter Justin Elliott, who's on the investigative team that's breaking this story this morning. Justin, tell us more about this additional connection you found.

JUSTIN ELLIOTT: What we found is that this billionaire Republican donor, Harlan Crow, actually paid the boarding school tuition for Justice Thomas' grand-nephew. This wasn't a distant relative. Justice Thomas actually took legal custody of his nephew when he was 6 years old and raised him for his whole childhood as a son. And Crow actually paid his school tuition.

MARTÍNEZ: And how much are we talking about?

ELLIOTT: So we don't have the precise number, in part because Justice Thomas and Crow didn't respond to our questions about that, but many thousands of dollars, potentially in excess of $150,000 in total, for this boarding school tuition at two different schools.

MARTÍNEZ: And so you mentioned how Justice Thomas describes his relationship as a son. Who benefited from the private school education?

ELLIOTT: Well, clearly, Justice Thomas benefited from this, I think, as I'm sure a lot of people listening have been in the experience of having to pay tuition of one kind or another. And if some - if a billionaire steps in and pays that for you, it's clearly to your benefit.

You know, I think the larger picture here that we've been learning about is Crow has really been funding the life of a Supreme Court justice and his family. So it's not just this tuition. It's lavish vacations he's provided for Justice Thomas for more than 20 years. We also reported that Crow purchased real estate from Justice Thomas and currently owns the house where Justice Thomas' mother lives - apparently, not charging her rent. So, you know, we talked to several ethics lawyers who said they'd really never seen anything like this. A retired federal judge told us that he wouldn't even let a lawyer buy him lunch, so this is totally outside the norm for this world.

MARTÍNEZ: Justin, what is the running total - or at least an estimate on the running total so far?

ELLIOTT: You know, we'd love to have that number. It's hard because we don't have all the financial records that we wish we had. But, you know, at this point, it's safe to say we're talking hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars. I mean, some of the trips that we previously reported on involving private jet travel and Harlan Crow's superyacht - single trips that would cost, you know, in excess of $500,000 if Justice Thomas had chartered those vehicles himself. So this is a very large amount of money that's been flowing over the years.

MARTÍNEZ: And how normal is this?

ELLIOTT: You know, we haven't - we certainly have not seen anything like this with any current member of the Supreme Court, although we're reporting on the whole court. We've talked to a number of current and retired federal judges who said that even if the law may allow accepting these sorts of gifts, generally, judges, you know, are extremely careful about accepting gifts. And we've talked to multiple judges who said they wouldn't let people purchase them meals.

The other aspect of this is that Justice Thomas hasn't been disclosing any of it. There's a law that requires justices and other officials to disclose gifts over a few hundred dollars, and he's repeatedly failed to disclose these gifts from Crow, including these tuition payments we're reporting on today.

MARTÍNEZ: And just one more thing, Justin - any response from Justice Thomas or from Crow?

ELLIOTT: So Justice Thomas previously told us that he was close friends with Crow. He didn't respond for this story. Crow did send us a general statement for this story, saying that he supported many young Americans at a variety of schools. And he also said that Justice Thomas did not ask him to pay for this tuition.

MARTÍNEZ: OK. ProPublica reporter Justin Elliott. Justin, thanks.

ELLIOTT: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.