This story was originally published by ProPublica.
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Series: Friends of the Court
Clarence Thomas’ Beneficial Friendship With a GOP Megadonor
In 2008, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas decided to send his teenage grandnephew to Hidden Lake Academy, a private boarding school in the foothills of northern Georgia. The boy, Mark Martin, was far from home. For the previous decade, he had lived with the justice and his wife in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Thomas had taken legal custody of Martin when he was 6 years old and had recently told an interviewer he was “raising him as a son.”
Tuition at the boarding school ran more than $6,000 a month. But Thomas did not cover the bill. A bank statement for the school from July 2009, buried in unrelated court filings, shows the source of Martin’s tuition payment for that month: the company of billionaire real estate magnate Harlan Crow.
The payments extended beyond that month, according to Christopher Grimwood, a former administrator at the school. Crow paid Martin’s tuition the entire time he was a student there, which was about a year, Grimwood told ProPublica.
“Harlan picked up the tab,” said Grimwood, who got to know Crow and the Thomases and had access to school financial information through his work as an administrator.
Before and after his time at Hidden Lake, Martin attended a second boarding school, Randolph-Macon Academy in Virginia. “Harlan said he was paying for the tuition at Randolph-Macon Academy as well,” Grimwood said, recalling a conversation he had with Crow during a visit to the billionaire’s Adirondacks estate.
ProPublica interviewed Martin, his former classmates and former staff at both schools. The exact total Crow paid for Martin’s education over the years remains unclear. If he paid for all four years at the two schools, the price tag could have exceeded $150,000, according to public records of tuition rates at the schools.
Thomas did not report the tuition payments from Crow on his annual financial disclosures. Several years earlier, Thomas disclosed a gift of $5,000 for Martin’s education from another friend. It is not clear why he reported that payment but not Crow’s.
The tuition payments add to the picture of how the Republican megadonor has helped fund the lives of Thomas and his family.
“You can’t be having secret financial arrangements,” said Mark W. Bennett, a retired federal judge appointed by President Bill Clinton. Bennett said he was friendly with Thomas and declined to comment for the record about the specifics of Thomas’ actions. But he said that when he was on the bench, he wouldn’t let his lawyer friends buy him lunch.
Thomas did not respond to questions. In response to previous ProPublica reporting on gifts of luxury travel, he said that the Crows “are among our dearest friends” and that he understood he didn’t have to disclose the trips.
ProPublica sent Crow a detailed list of questions and his office responded with a statement that did not dispute the facts presented in this story.
“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 said. “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 added that Crow and his wife have “supported many young Americans” at a “variety of schools, including his alma mater.” Crow went to Randolph-Macon Academy.
Crow did not address a question about how much he paid in total for Martin’s tuition. Asked if Thomas had requested the support for either school, Crow’s office responded, “No.”
Last month, ProPublica reported that Thomas accepted luxury travel from Crow virtually every year for decades, including international superyacht cruises and private jet flights around the world. Crow also paid money to Thomas and his relatives in an undisclosed real estate deal, ProPublica found. After he purchased the house where Thomas’ mother lives, Crow poured tens of thousands of dollars into improving the property. And roughly 15 years ago, Crow donated much of the budget of a political group founded by Thomas’ wife, which paid her a $120,000 salary.
“This is way outside the norm. This is way in excess of anything I’ve seen,” said Richard Painter, former chief White House ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, referring to the cascade of gifts over the years.
Painter said that when he was at the White House, an official who’d taken what Thomas had would have been fired: “This amount of undisclosed gifts? You’d want to get them out of the government.”
A federal law passed after Watergate requires justices and other officials to publicly report most gifts. 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.
Justices also must report many gifts to their spouses and dependent children. The law’s definition of dependent child is narrow, however, and likely would not apply to Martin since Thomas was his legal guardian, not his parent. The best case for not disclosing Crow’s tuition payments would be to argue the gifts were to Martin, not Thomas, experts said.
But that argument was far-fetched, experts said, because minor children rarely pay their own tuition. Typically, the legal guardian is responsible for the child’s education.
“The most reasonable interpretation of the statute is that this was a gift to Thomas and thus had to be reported. It’s common sense,” said Kathleen Clark, an ethics law expert at Washington University in St. Louis. “It’s all to the financial benefit of Clarence Thomas.”
Martin, now in his 30s, told ProPublica he was not aware that Crow paid his tuition. But he defended Thomas and Crow, saying he believed there was no ulterior motive behind the real estate magnate’s largesse over the decades. “I think his intentions behind everything is just a friend and just a good person,” Martin said.
Crow has long been an influential figure in pro-business conservative politics. He has given millions to efforts to move the law and the judiciary to the right and serves on the boards of think tanks that publish scholarship advancing conservative legal theories.
Crow has denied trying to influence the justice but has said he extended hospitality to him just as he has to other dear friends. From the start, their relationship has intertwined expensive gifts and conservative politics. In a recent interview with The Dallas Morning News, Crow recounted how he first met Thomas. In 1996, the justice was scheduled to give a speech in Dallas for an anti-regulation think tank. Crow offered to fly him there on his private jet. “During that flight, we found out we were kind of simpatico,” the billionaire said.
The following year, the Thomases began to discuss taking custody of Martin. His father, Thomas’ nephew, had been imprisoned in connection with a drug case. Thomas has written that Martin’s situation held deep resonance for him because his own father was absent and his grandparents had taken him in “under very similar circumstances.”
Thomas had an adult son from a previous marriage, but he and wife, Ginni, didn’t have children of their own. They pitched Martin’s parents on taking the boy in.
“Thomas explained that the boy would have the best of everything — his own room, a private school education, lots of extracurricular activities,” journalists Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher reported in their biography of Thomas.
Thomas gained legal custody of Martin and became his legal guardian around January 1998, according to court records.
Martin, who had been living in Georgia with his mother and siblings, moved to Virginia, where he lived with the justice from the ages of 6 to 19, he said.
Living with the Thomases came with an unusual perk: lavish travel with Crow and his family. Martin told ProPublica that he and Thomas vacationed with the Crows “at least once a year” throughout his childhood.
That included visits to Camp Topridge, Crow’s private resort in the Adirondacks, and two cruises on Crow’s superyacht, Martin said. On a trip in the Caribbean, Martin recalled riding jet skis off the side of the billionaire’s yacht.
Roughly 20 years ago, Martin, Thomas and the Crows went on a cruise on the yacht in Russia and the Baltics, according to Martin and two other people familiar with the trip. The group toured St. Petersburg in a rented helicopter and visited the Yusupov Palace, the site of Rasputin’s murder, said one of the people. They were joined by Chris DeMuth, then the president of the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute. (Thomas’ trips with Crow to the Baltics and the Caribbean have not previously been reported.)
Thomas reconfigured his life to balance the demands of raising a child with serving on the high court. He began going to the Supreme Court before 6 a.m. so he could leave in time to pick Martin up after class and help him with his homework. By 2001, the justice had moved Martin to private school out of frustration with the Fairfax County public school system’s lax schedule, The American Lawyer magazine reported.
For high school, Thomas sent Martin to Randolph-Macon Academy, a military boarding school 75 miles west of Washington, D.C., where he was in the class of 2010. The school, which sits on a 135-acre campus in the Shenandoah Valley, charged between $25,000 to $30,000 a year. Martin played football and basketball, and the justice sometimes visited for games.
Randolph-Macon was also Crow’s alma mater. Thomas and Crow visited the campus in April 2007 for the dedication of an imposing bronze sculpture of the Air Force Honor Guard, according to the school magazine. Crow donated the piece to Randolph-Macon, where it is a short walk from Crow Hall, a classroom building named after the Dallas billionaire’s family.
Martin sometimes chafed at the strictures of military school, according to people at Randolph-Macon at the time, and he spent his junior year at Hidden Lake Academy, a therapeutic boarding school in Georgia. Hidden Lake boasted one teacher for every 10 students and activities ranging from horseback riding to canoeing. Those services came at an added cost. At the time, a year of tuition was roughly $73,000, plus fees.
The July 2009 bank statement from Hidden Lake was filed in a bankruptcy case for the school, which later went under. The document shows that Crow Holdings LLC wired $6,200 to the school that month, the exact cost of the month’s tuition. The wire is marked “Mark Martin” in the ledger.
Crow’s office said in its statement that Crow’s funding of students’ tuition has “always been paid solely from personal funds, sometimes held at and paid through the family business.”
Grimwood, the administrator at Hidden Lake, told ProPublica that Crow wired the school money once a month to pay Martin’s tuition fees. Grimwood had multiple roles on the campus, including overseeing an affiliated wilderness program. He said he was speaking about the payments because he felt the public should know about outside financial support for Supreme Court justices. Martin returned to Randolph-Macon his senior year.
Thomas has long been one of the less wealthy members of the Supreme Court. Still, when Martin was in high school, he and Ginni Thomas had income that put them comfortably in the top echelon of Americans.
In 2006 for example, the Thomases brought in more than $500,000 in income. The following year, they made more than $850,000 from Clarence Thomas’ salary from the court, Ginni Thomas’ pay from the Heritage Foundation and book payments for the justice’s memoir.
It appears that at some point in Martin’s childhood, Thomas was paying for private school himself. Martin told ProPublica that Thomas sold his Corvette — “his most prized car” — to pay for a year of tuition, although he didn’t remember when that occurred.
In 2002, a friend of Thomas’ from the RV community who owned a Florida pest control company, Earl Dixon, offered Thomas $5,000 to help defray the costs of Martin’s education. Thomas’ disclosure of that earlier gift, several experts said, could be viewed as evidence that the justice himself understood he was required to report tuition aid from friends.
“At first, Thomas was worried about the propriety of the donation,” Thomas biographers Merida and Fletcher recounted. “He agreed to accept it if the contribution was deposited directly into a special trust for Mark.” In his annual filing, Thomas reported the money as an “education gift to Mark Martin.”
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On World AIDS Day, DOJ Says Tennessee Law Discriminates Against Those With HIV
The Department of Justice celebrated World AIDS Day by calling out a Tennessee law that discriminates against people with HIV.
The DOJ released a report Friday that the state’s aggravated prostitution law violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. A person arrested under the aggravated prostitution law is normally changed with a misdemeanor, and faces up to six months in prison and a $500 fine. However, if the person arrested has HIV, the crime becomes a felony, and if they’re convicted, they would face between three and 15 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
“Tennessee’s aggravated prostitution law is outdated, has no basis in science, discourages testing and further marginalizes people living with HIV,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement. “People living with HIV should not be treated as violent sex offenders for the rest of their lives solely because of their HIV status. The Justice Department is committed to ensuring that people with disabilities are protected from discrimination.”
The law was originally passed in 1991. It classifies HIV-positive sex workers as violent sex offenders, according to WKRN-TV. This means that in addition to the sentence, those convicted are put on the Tennessee Sex Offender Registry, usually for the rest of their lives.
The DOJ advised the state—and particularly, the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office, which enforces the statute most frequently, the department says—to stop enforcing the law. It also calls on the state to repeal the law and remove anyone from the registry when aggravated prostitution is the only offense. If this doesn’t happen, Tennessee could face a lawsuit.
Tennessee isn’t the only state to have laws applying to only those living with HIV. In 1988, Michigan passed a law requiring those with HIV to disclose their status before sex, according to WLNS-TV. The law is still on the books, but was updated in 2019 to lift the requirement if the HIV-positive person has an undetectable viral load. The law now also requires proof that the person set out to transmit HIV.
Laws like these can work against public health efforts, according to the National Institutes of Health. The NIH says these types of laws can make people less likely to be tested for HIV, as people cannot be punished if they didn’t know their status. In addition, critics say, the laws can be used to further discriminate. A Canadian study found a disproportionate number of Black men had been charged under HIV exposure laws.
World AIDS Day was first launched in 1988 by the World Health Organization and the United Nations to highlight awareness of the then-relatively new disease. The theme of the 2023 World AIDS Day is “Let Communities Lead,” calling on community leaders to end the AIDS epidemic.
Featured image by UNIS Vienna/Flickr via Creative Commons License.
John Fetterman Says Bob Menendez ‘Senator for Egypt,’ Should Be Expelled Next
Senator John Fetterman (D-PA) called Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) a “senator for Egypt,” and said he needed to be expelled from Congress, much like the now-former Representative George Santos.
Fetterman appeared on The View on Friday. The live broadcast aired as Santos had been kicked out of the House. When host Joy Behar asked what he thought of the vote, Fetterman immediately replied, “I’m not surprised.”
“If you are going to expel Santos, how can you allow somebody like Menendez to remain in the Senate? And, you know, Santos’ kind of lies were almost, you know, funny,” Fetterman said. “Menendez, I think is really a senator for Egypt, you know, not New Jersey. So I really think he needs to go.”
Host Sunny Hostin then asked if Fetterman was uncomfortable with expelling Menendez, as, like with Santos, he had only been indicted, not convicted.
“He has the right for his day in court and all of it, but he doesn’t have the right to to have those kinds of votes and things. That’s not a right,” he said. “I think we need to make that kind of decision to send him out.”
This September, Menendez was indicted on corruption charges. He is accused of accepting bribes of cash, gold and a car, as well as giving “highly sensitive” information about U.S. Embassy staffers in Cairo to the Egyptian government, according to USA Today. Menendez was forced to step down as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was replaced by Ben Cardin, Maryland’s Democratic senator.
Menendez denied wrongdoing, and has refused to resign, despite many calls to do so from both Democrats and Republicans.
“For years, forces behind the scenes have repeatedly attempted to silence my voice and dig my political grave,” Menendez said in a statement following his indictment. “Since this investigation was leaked nearly a year ago, there has been an active smear campaign of anonymous sources and innuendos to create an air of impropriety where none exists.”
This is not Menendez’s first brush with the law. Menendez was indicted in 2015 on federal corruption charges. He was accused of helping Salomon Melgen, one of Menendez’s campaign contributors, by intervening in a dispute with federal regulators and helping Melgen get a port security contract in the Dominican Republic.
In 2017, Menendez’s trial ended with a hung jury, and the Department of Justice declined to retry the case, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Menendez denied all wrongdoing.
House Votes to Boot George Santos 311-114
Representative George Santos (R-NY) has been expelled from Congress following a 311-114 vote; two House members voted “present.”
The expulsion of Santos follows a debate on his fate on Thursday. The vote required a two-thirds majority, or 290 of the 435-seat chamber. This is Santos’ third vote of expulsion; last month, a vote failed with 31 Democrats voting against, according to The Hill.
While the vote was decisive, some notable Republicans voted to save Santos, including House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) and House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-MN).
“We’ve not whipped the vote and we wouldn’t,” Johnson told CNN Wednesday. “I trust that people will make that decision thoughtfully and in good faith. I personally have real reservations about doing this, I’m concerned about a precedent that may be set for that.”
Santos himself had harsh words for the House following the vote. Leaving the capitol building, he briefly spoke with reporters.
“The House spoke that’s their vote. They just set new dangerous precedent for themselves,” he told CNN. “Why would I want to stay here? To hell with this place.”
He then cut his time short, telling reporters, “You know what? As unofficially no longer a member of Congress, I no longer have to answer your questions.”
Santos also faces 23 federal charges, which include fraud, money laundering and misuse of campaign funds, according to CNN. He has pleaded not guilty. An Ethics Committee report found evidence that Santos used campaign funds for Botox and even an OnlyFans account.
On Thursday, Santos said he refused to resign because otherwise, “they win.”
“If I leave the bullies take place. This is bullying,” Santos said. “The reality of it is it’s all theater, theater for the cameras and theater for the microphones. Theater for the American people at the expense of the American people because no real work’s getting done.”
Santos also threatened to file a resolution to expel Representative Jamaal Bowman (D-NY). Bowman pulled a fire alarm in September. Bowman pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charge, and said it was an accident. He said he thought the fire alarm would open a locked door as he rushed to a vote. Bowman paid a $1,000 fine.
There have only been six total expulsions from the House, including Santos. Santos is the only Republican to ever be expelled from the House.
The previous expulsion was in 2002, when Representative James Traficant (D-OH) was expelled after a 420-1 vote. Traficant had been convicted on 10 counts of corruption-related crimes.
Before Traficant, Representative Michael “Ozzie” Myers (D-PA) was the first representative of the modern era to be expelled. Myers got the boot following his conviction for accepting bribes. Myers couldn’t keep out of trouble; in 2022, he was convicted and sentenced to 30 months in prison on charges of election fraud.
Prior to Myers, the only expulsions from the House were in 1861, at the start of the Civil War. Henry Cornelius Burnett (D-KY), John William Reid (D-MO) and John Bullock Clark (Whig-MO) were all expelled for joining the Confederacy.
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