The Republican billionaire donor Harlan Crow for several years paid the pricey private school tuition of a great nephew of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, a new report reveals.
Thomas had custody of the boy at the time. He never disclosed in official filings that Crow was paying the tuition, even though he disclosed another, much less generous payment of $5,000 for a fraction of Martin’s tuition by another friend, the report by ProPublica noted. (The great nephew, Mark Martin, is now in his 30s.)
“Ethics law experts told ProPublica they believed Thomas was required by law to disclose the tuition payments because they appear to be a gift to him,” ProPublica wrote.
The same news outlet recently revealed how Crow paid for luxurious vacation trips over more than two decades for Thomas and his wife, Ginni, without the conservative justice reporting the gifts on annual financial disclosures.
ProPublica also exposed that a Crow company bought properties in Savannah, Georgia, owned by Thomas’ family, including a home where the justice’s mother still lives rent-free.
Thomas likewise had never disclosed, before the outlet’s reporting, either the trips gifted by the Texas real estate developer or the fact that he bought the properties.
That failure by Thomas to do so had led to growing calls, including by Democratic members of Congress, for ethics reform at the Supreme Court, which unlike lower federal courts does not have a mandatory code of ethics.
Martin, who is now in his 30s, is the son of Thomas’ nephew, who at one point when Martin was a boy was in prison on drug charges, ProPublica noted.
Picking up the tab
Thomas took legal custody of Martin and became his legal guardian around January 1998, the report said. Martin lived with Thomas and his wife from the age of 6 to 19, Martin told ProPublica.
The tuition at one of the two institutions Martin attended, a boarding school in Georgia, was more than $6,000 per month, according to ProPublica. Martin attended went there for his junior year of high school.
“Harlan picked up the tab,” Christopher Grimwood, a former administrator at that school, Hidden Lake Academy, told ProPublica.
Martin spent the rest of his high school years at a military boarding school in Virginia, which Crow himself had attended, which charged between $25,000 and $30,000 annually, the report said.
“Harlan said he was paying for the tuition at Randolph-Macon Academy as well,” Grimwood told ProPublica.
The outlet said Grimwood recalled Crow telling him that during a visit to the billionaire’s estate in the Adirondacks region of New York.
A friend of Thomas, the attorney Mark Paoletta, in a Twitter post on Thursday morning said that Crow paid only for one year, Martin’s first, at Randolph-Macon, and then for his year at Hidden Lake Academy.
Paoletta said Crow’s office confirmed – to whom Paoletta does not identify – “that he did not pay the great nephew’s tuition for any other year at Randolph Macon.”
Thomas, who did not respond to questions from ProPublica, did not immediately return a request for comment by CNBC.
Crow pushes back
In a statement to CNBC, Crow’s office said: ”Harlan Crow has long been passionate about the importance of quality education and giving back to those less fortunate, especially at-risk youth.”
The statement added that Crow and his wife, Kathy, “have supported many young Americans through scholarship and other programs at a variety of schools, including his alma mater.”
“It’s disappointing that those with partisan political interests would try to turn helping at-risk youth with tuition assistance into something nefarious or political,” the statement concluded.
Paoletta, an attorney who served in the Trump administration, in his statement on Twitter wrote: “The Thomases have rarely spoken publicly about the remarkably generous efforts to help a child in need. They have always respected the privacy of this young man and his family.”
“It is despicable that the press has dragged him into their effort to smear Justice Thomas,” Paoletta wrote.
Paoletta argued that Thomas was not legally obligated to disclose the tuition payments as a gift from Crow because the Ethics in Government Act does not include a great nephew under its definition of “dependent child,” but instead limits that to “son, daughter, stepson or stepdaughter.”
But Mark Bennett, a former federal judge appointed by President Bill Clinton, told ProPublica, “You can’t be having secret financial arrangements.”
And Richard Painter, who served as the chief White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush, called Thomas’ failure to disclose the tuition and other gifts from Crow “way outside the norm.”
“This is way in excess of anything I’ve seen,” Painter told ProPublica. “This amount of undisclosed gifts? You’d want to get them out of the government.”