Pro Publica’s ground-breaking reporting on Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas accepting junkets from a real estate mogul has created a flurry of controversy about the lack of federal judicial ethics. The controversy raises a basic question: How much would it cost you, as an average citizen, to buy travel that Thomas was given over the last 20 years?
An analysis by the Checks and Balances Project (C&BP) estimates Thomas enjoyed at least $3 million worth of luxury travel from real estate magnate Harlan Crow over two decades but never reported it in his legally required disclosure forms, a Checks & Balances Project (C&BP) report shows.
Thomas has been a Supreme Court justice since 1991. ProPublica, the investigative news service, reported April 6 that he had accepted multiple junkets that included luxury travel and locations since 2004, the last time Thomas reported such free travel on his official financial disclosure forms.
Reforms passed in the 1970s require all justices to report gifts, travel and lodging from outside sources.
To determine the approximate value of the gifts Crow gave to Thomas, C&BP analyzed the Thomas junkets that have been identified so far by other news outlets. We compared the specifics of those trips and to pricing listed on websites for:
- The same or closest available equivalent of resorts to those at which Thomas stayed
- Private jet services
- Luxury yacht rental companies
Below are the comparable value of the junkets’ lodging and travel. We note the two line items that were already calculated by ProPublica. Travel costs were calculated by using a charter rate of $15,000 an hour for the Bombardier Global 5000 jet owned by Crow and by publicly cited yacht charter rates from various rental firms. We have included links to websites used to calculate equivalent values of the junkets:
Yacht travel to Indonesia, New Zealand, and Greek Islands: ProPublica estimated a 2019 junket around Indonesia aboard Crow’s 162-foot luxury yacht, which included a free flight on Crow’s private Bombardier Global 500 jet. Both would cost an estimated $500,000, according to ProPublica. C&BP estimated that a yacht trip around New Zealand could have cost at least $583,000. That includes an estimated $540,000 flight on a private and $43,000 weekly rental for a similarly sized yacht.
ProPublica reported that Thomas was photographed wearing a golf shirt with the yacht’s logo that said, “Greek Islands.” An almost-11-hour flight on the Crow jet would have cost about $156,750 each way, for a total of $313,500. Add $206,250 for the weekly rate to charter a 150-foot yacht in Greece (or 189,500 Euros). The total cost to an average citizen for that junket would be $519,750.
The Bohemian Grove Club in Monte Rio, Calif., is a private club with an all-male membership. There is no comparable resort in California, and outsiders can’t gain entrance unless they’re invited by a member.
Adirondack resort: Crow has hosted Thomas each year for the last 20 years at his home in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, which is called “Topridge.” ProPublica estimated that a comparable room at a nearby resort owned by the Rockefeller family costs a minimum of $2,250 a night. If Thomas spent seven nights a year at Topridge for 20 years, that would total $315,000 at those estimated rates.
If Thomas traveled to Topridge on the Crow jet each of those years, the estimated cost of all air travel to and from this location would be $600,000 in today’s dollars.
Domestic private jet flights: ProPublica cited six domestic flights that Thomas took on Crow’s jet – two round trips from Washington to Dallas, one from Washington to New Haven, Conn., one from Washington to New York, one from Washington to northern California to visit the exclusive Bohemian Grove retreat and one from Washington to Crow’s East Texas ranch. C&BP used the Bombardier Global 5000 hourly operating rate of $15,000 to calculate the total cost of those six flights: $540,000.
The estimated total cost of Crow’s generosity to Thomas comes to at least $3,053,000, because there were possibly other trips financed by Crow that were not known to ProPublica or other news organizations.
According to reporting by National Public Radio: “The code of judicial ethics that applies to all federal judges has rules that require reporting of all gifts and travel paid for by others, but until last month, those rules had an exception for private travel and hospitality paid for by a personal friend who had no cases currently pending before the court. That appears to be the provision that Thomas believes has allowed him to avoid disclosure of his privately financed travel.”
But when it comes to political spending, Thomas has been a consistent supporter of the idea of corporations should be given the same “free speech” rights as individual citizens. However, when it comes to his junkets, Thomas seems to draw a distinction between the rights of an individual to provide luxury travel and a corporation.
Ray Locker is the executive director for Checks & Balances Project, an investigative watchdog blog holding government officials, lobbyists, and corporate management accountable to the public. Funding for C&BP is provided by Renew American Prosperity and individual donors.
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