In 2014, one of Texas billionaire Harlan Crow’s companies purchased a string of properties on a quiet residential street in Savannah, Georgia. It wasn’t a marquee acquisition for the real estate magnate, just an old single-story home and two vacant lots down the road. What made it noteworthy were the people on the other side of the deal: Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his relatives.
The transaction marks the first known instance of money flowing from the Republican megadonor to the Supreme Court justice. The Crow company bought the properties for $133,363 from three co-owners — Thomas, his mother and the family of Thomas’ late brother, according to a state tax document and a deed dated Oct. 15, 2014, filed at the Chatham County courthouse.
The purchase put Crow in an unusual position: He now owned the house where the justice’s elderly mother was living. Soon after the sale was completed, contractors began work on tens of thousands of dollars of improvements on the two-bedroom, one-bathroom home, which looks out onto a patch of orange trees. The renovations included a carport, a repaired roof and a new fence and gates, according to city permit records and blueprints.
A federal disclosure law passed after Watergate requires justices and other officials to disclose the details of most real estate sales over $1,000. Thomas never disclosed his sale of the Savannah properties. That appears to be a violation of the law, four ethics law experts told ProPublica.
The disclosure form Thomas filed for that year also had a space to report the identity of the buyer in any private transaction, such as a real estate deal. That space is blank.
“He needed to report his interest in the sale,” said Virginia Canter, a former government ethics lawyer now at the watchdog group CREW. “Given the role Crow has played in subsidizing the lifestyle of Thomas and his wife, you have to wonder if this was an effort to put cash in their pockets.”
Thomas did not respond to detailed questions for this story.
In a statement, Crow said he purchased Thomas’ mother’s house, where Thomas spent part of his childhood, to preserve it for posterity. “My intention is to one day create a public museum at the Thomas home dedicated to telling the story of our nation’s second black Supreme Court Justice,” he said. “I approached the Thomas family about my desire to maintain this historic site so future generations could learn about the inspiring life of one of our greatest Americans.”
Crow’s statement did not directly address why he also bought two vacant lots from Thomas down the street. But he wrote that “the other lots were later sold to a vetted builder who was committed to improving the quality of the neighborhood and preserving its historical integrity.”
ProPublica also asked Crow about the additions on Thomas’ mother’s house, like the new carport. “Improvements were also made to the Thomas property to preserve its long-term viability and accessibility to the public,” Crow said.
Ethics law experts said Crow’s intentions had no bearing on Thomas’ legal obligation to disclose the sale.
The justice’s failure to report the transaction suggests “Thomas was hiding a financial relationship with Crow,” said Kathleen Clark, a legal ethics expert at Washington University in St. Louis who reviewed years of Thomas’ disclosure filings.
There are a handful of carve-outs in the disclosure law. For example, if someone sells “property used solely as a personal residence of the reporting individual or the individual’s spouse,” they don’t need to report it. Experts said the exemptions clearly did not apply to Thomas’ sale.
The revelation of a direct financial transaction between Thomas and Crow casts their relationship in a new light. ProPublica reported last week that Thomas has accepted luxury travel from Crow virtually every year for decades, including private jet flights, international cruises on the businessman’s superyacht and regular stays at his private resort in the Adirondacks. Crow has long been influential in conservative politics and has spent millions on efforts to shape the law and the judiciary. The story prompted outcry and calls for investigations from Democratic lawmakers.
In response to that reporting, both Thomas and Crow released statements downplaying the significance of the gifts. Thomas also maintained that he wasn’t required to disclose the trips.
“Harlan and Kathy Crow are among our dearest friends,” Thomas wrote. “As friends do, we have joined them on a number of family trips.” Crow told ProPublica that his gifts to Thomas were “no different from the hospitality we have extended to our many other dear friends.”
It’s unclear if Crow paid fair market value for the Thomas properties. Crow also bought several other properties on the street and paid significantly less than his deal with the Thomases. One example: In 2013, he bought a pair of properties on the same block — a vacant lot and a small house — for a total of $40,000.
In his statement, Crow said his company purchased the properties “at market rate based on many factors including the size, quality, and livability of the dwellings.”
He did not respond to requests to provide documentation or details of how he arrived at the price.
Thomas was born in the coastal hamlet of Pin Point, outside Savannah. He later moved to the city, where he spent part of his childhood in his grandfather’s home on East 32nd Street.
“It had hardwood floors, handsome furniture, and an indoor bathroom, and we knew better than to touch anything,” Thomas wrote of the house in his memoir, “My Grandfather’s Son.”
He inherited his stake in that house and two other properties on the block following the death of his grandfather in 1983, according to records on file at the Chatham County courthouse. He shared ownership with his brother and his mother, Leola Williams. In the late 1980s, when Thomas was an official in the George H.W. Bush administration, he listed the addresses of the three properties in a disclosure filing. He reported that he had a one-third interest in them.
Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court in 1991. By the early 2000s, he had stopped listing specific addresses of property he owned in his disclosures. But he continued to report holding a one-third interest in what he described as “rental property at ## 1, 2, & 3” in Savannah. He valued his stake in the properties at $15,000 or less.
Two of the houses were torn down around 2010, according to property records and a footnote in Thomas’ annual disclosure archived by Free Law Project.
In 2014, the Thomas family sold the vacant lots and the remaining East 32nd Street house to one of Crow’s companies. The justice signed the paperwork personally. His signature was notarized by an administrator at the Supreme Court, Perry Thompson, who did not respond to a request for comment. (The deed was signed on the 23rd anniversary of Thomas’ Oct. 15 confirmation to the Supreme Court. Crow has a Senate roll call sheet from the confirmation vote in his private library.)
Thomas’ financial disclosure for that year is detailed, listing everything from a “stained glass medallion” he received from Yale to a life insurance policy. But he failed to report his sale to Crow.
Crow purchased the properties through a recently formed Texas company called Savannah Historic Developments LLC. The company shares an address in Dallas with Crow Holdings, the centerpiece of his real estate empire. Its formation documents were signed by Crow Holdings’ general counsel. Business records filed with the Texas secretary of state say Savannah Historic Developments is managed by a Delaware LLC, HRC Family Branch GP, an umbrella company that also covers other Crow assets like his private jet. The Delaware company’s CEO is Harlan Crow.
A Crow Holdings company soon began paying the roughly $1,500 in annual property taxes on Thomas’ mother’s house, according to county tax records. The taxes had previously been paid by Clarence and Ginni Thomas.
Crow still owns Thomas’ mother’s home, which the now-94-year-old continued to live in through at least 2020, according to public records and social media. Two neighbors told ProPublica she still lives there. Crow did not respond to questions about whether he has charged her rent. Soon after Crow purchased the house, an award-winning local architecture firm received permits to begin $36,000 of improvements.
Crow’s purchases seem to have played a role in transforming the block. The billionaire eventually sold most of the other properties he bought to new owners who built upscale modern homes, including the two vacant lots he purchased from Thomas.
Crow also bought the house immediately next door to Thomas’ mother, which was owned by somebody else and had been known for parties and noise, according to property records and W. John Mitchell, former president of a nearby neighborhood association. Soon the house was torn down. “It was an eyesore,” Mitchell said. “One day miraculously all of them were put out of there and they scraped it off the earth.”
“The surrounding properties had fallen into disrepair and needed to be demolished for health and safety reasons,” Crow said in his statement. He added that his company built one new house on the block “and made it available to a local police officer.”
Today, the block is composed of a dwindling number of longtime elderly homeowners and a growing population of young newcomers. The vacant lots that the Thomas family once owned have been replaced by pristine two-story homes. An artisanal coffee shop and a Mediterranean bistro are within walking distance. Down the street, a multicolored pride flag blows in the wind.
This story was originally published April 13, 2023, by ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom.