US Supreme Court justice afforded life of luxury by billionaire benefactors

US Supreme Court justice afforded life of luxury by billionaire benefactors

Gifts from billionaires include access to VIP sports lounges, private jet flights, and deep sea fishing excursions on yachts

By Michael Hernandez

WASHINGTON (AA) - Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas's three decades on America's highest court have been filled with no shortage of gifts from ultrawealthy donors that likely run afoul of the law, according to a new report.

The gifts the top judge has received include over three dozen destination vacations, 26 private jet flights, eight helicopter rides, VIP passes to high-profile sporting events, two stays at luxury resorts, and a standing invitation to a vaunted golf club, investigative news website ProPublica reported.

The tally is "almost certainly an undercount" of the gifts Thomas, the second Black person to sit on the Supreme Court, has received over the years, and ProPublica said have likely been given in violation of the law, according to ethics experts.

"In my career I don’t remember ever seeing this degree of largesse given to anybody,” said Jeremy Fogel, a former federal judge who served on a committee that reviews judges' financial disclosures. “I think it’s unprecedented.”

The most recent report comes four months after ProPublica exposed Thomas' relationship with billionaire Republican megadonor Harlan Crow, who footed the bill for several vacations, private jet flights, and purchased Thomas' mother's house in Savannah, Georgia, where she still lives.

Crow said he purchased the house with the intention of building a public museum to mark the house where Thomas was born, and Thomas defended the vacations, saying the Crows "are among our dearest friends."

"As friends do, we have joined them on a number of family trips," Thomas said in a statement.

ProPublica's new reporting sheds light on additional wealthy benefactors, including oil magnate Paul “Tony” Novelly, Berkshire Hathaway investment banker David Sokol, and business tycoon H. Wayne Huizenga.

The gifts the three men have provided to Thomas likely total millions of dollars. Among them are trips on a private 737 jet that took Thomas to Florida at least twice courtesy of Huizenga.

Such a chartered trip from Washington, D.C. to south Florida would have run approximately $130,000 round-trip, ProPublica reported, citing estimates from jet charter companies.

Crow footed the bill for another private jet flight that took Thomas to New Haven, Connecticut where the justice toured a room that Yale Law School planned to display a portrait of him. He returned to Washington three hours after arriving, the reporting indicated, which was based in part on US Marshals Service records.

- The ‘height of hypocrisy’

“It’s just the height of hypocrisy to wear the robes and live the lifestyle of a billionaire," Don Fox, former general counsel of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, told ProPublica.

Fox said he would routinely inform new political appointees that the wealthy friends they had when they assumed office were the same set they were supposed to have while in office. “You don’t get to acquire any new ones,” he would advise them.

That is likely not the case for Thomas, who appears to have met Crow, Huizenga, Novelly and Sokolhave after he took his seat on America's highest court.

While other justices have accepted similar gifts, ProPublica said Thomas stands far and apart from his colleagues in that he has not disclosed them, and because of "the volume and frequency of" the gifts received.

Highlighting the lack of transparency from Thomas, ProPublica said that he has only ever publicly disclosed one sporting event gift during his tenure – a paid-for flight and accommodations at the Daytona 500 in 1999.

But Thomas and his wife Ginni have been given VIP room access to at least seven University of Nebraska-Lincoln sporting events, including five arranged by Sokol, ProPublica reported.

Justices are supposed to disclose gifts valued at above $415.

Novelly, the petroleum billionaire, also hosted the Thomases on his high-end yachts for deep sea fishing trips to the Bahamas’ Exuma Islands. One local chauffeur told ProPublica that his company picked up the Supreme Court justice directly from Novelly's private jet, and took him directly to one of the yachts, Le Montrachet, which is named after a high-end French wine.

Novelly rents out Le Montrachet, a 126-foot (38-meter) vessel that features a baby grand piano, jet skis, and a full bar, for roughly $60,000 per week.

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