Is the friendship between Harlan Crow and Clarence Thomas a grave error in judgement, or abject corruption?

June 10th, 2024 by Tom Lynch

From 2017 through 2020, I chaired the Board of what became a $2 billion Massachusetts non-profit health care company (I retired at the end of 2020). I had been a founding Director in 2003. All the company’s revenue came from Medicare and Medicaid.

The Directors were not paid. We did it for the love of the work, which was helping poor, sick people become more healthy, thereby lowering their health care costs. The company did well by doing good.

At one of our meetings, I think it was the one where our CFO reported annual revenue of perhaps $1.6 billion, I suggested to the group that it might be time to begin paying Directors a modest stipend.

There was instant silence. Then our General Counsel said, “Tom, the optics. We can’t take that risk.”

She was right. Upon further discussion and thought, we all agreed that the last thing we needed was to see the name of  the wonderful organization we loved on the front page of the Boston Globe above the fold — in a bad light. Optics.

This stipend discussion came to mind as I thought about the relationship between Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and real estate billionaire Harlan Crow.

ProPublica, an investigative journalism enterprise, like a dog with a great big, juicy bone, has, over the last year, uncovered at least 38 instances over nearly three decades of Mr. Crow hosting luxury vacations and events for Justice Thomas and his wife, Ginni, who has distinguished herself as a far-right, extremist backer of Donald Trump’s “Stop the Steal” insurrectional movement.¹ Crow’s generosity includes trips aboard his Bombardier Global 5000 private jet and his 162-foot super-yacht, as well as stays at resorts most Americans could never afford. Consulting with travel experts, ProPublica estimated if the Thomas couple had to pay for all this themselves, it would cost into the millions. Justice Thomas’s Supreme Court salary is $285,400.

The problem the ProPublica journalists pointed out is that Justice Thomas never reported any of this on his yearly financial disclosure forms he and the other Justices are required to file.

And that is when the fecal matter hit the whirring instrument full on.

Thomas defended himself by saying he followed the Court’s rules in everything he reported. He sought guidance from the Court’s ethics officials. He did nothing wrong.

But last week things got worse when Justice Thomas revealed he had “inadvertently” neglected to report two other extravagant vacations with Mr. Crow.

The reactions to this continuing story have been what you’d expect. Thomas haters had more grist for their mills, and his allies cried foul. And, while I confess to deploring the Justice’s ideological bent, as well as his wife’s extremist leanings, and while to this day I continue to believe Anita Hill, I thought the story could not possibly be as binary as was being portrayed; there must be more there.

And the “there” I was looking for was all about Harlan Crow, the Dallas billionaire who was being made out to be a corrupting influence eating away at Supreme Court decisions. I began to read everything I could about him, and have now come to believe that, although the optics are terrible and two smart people made grave errors in judgement, Harlan Crow is anything but a corrupting influence. I write this because of who Harlan Crow is and has been for his seventy-plus years.

In a May, 2023, interview with The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood shortly after the ProPublica story broke, Crow kept insisting, “that he has little power over the American political scene.” Even with his fantastic wealth, he said he was incapable of preventing the rise of the politicians he most abhors, in particular Donald Trump and his sycophantic MAGA followers in Congress. Harlan Crow, although a decided conservative — old school, through and through — is a committed “Never Trumper,” who has proudly self-diagnosed himself with “Trump derangement syndrome.” He is also a backer of the “No Labels” movement, a quixotic, even foolhardy, attempt to find someone, anyone politically center-right, who could run against both Biden and Trump and who could garner support across party lines. He also supports legal access to abortion.

In an email to Wood, Crow wrote, “Trump is a man without any principles at all. Bernie Sanders has principles; I just think they’re wrong. Trump doesn’t have any.”

And Crow is a strong supporter of U.S. and NATO aid to Ukraine. “The Ukrainians’ courage is unique in recent history,” he wrote to Wood. “I believe they’ve earned the right to their own independence.”

Harlan Crow naively believes that a rich man and a Supreme Court justice can just be friends — with, he admits, some benefits only the super wealthy can offer. He sees nothing wrong with that.

Still, he admits his friendship with Thomas is indeed “ironic.” Crow grew up amid a family full of silver spoons. Crow’s father, Trammell, who died in 2009, was at one point described in the press as the largest private landowner in the United States. Clarence Thomas did not see an indoor toilet until late in childhood. Crow believes Thomas’s rise from poverty highly admirable and considers him “a person of the highest character.”

The two most important words in Harlan Crow’s personal lexicon are character and integrity. He staunchly maintains, “I have never, nor would I ever, think about talking about matters that relate to the judiciary with Justice Clarence Thomas. It would be wrong. From my point of view, that is off limits. He and I don’t go there.”

In an interview with Rose Hasham of the Harvard Business School’s Club of Dallas, Rasham asked him a series of rapid-fire questions she had prepared. Here are some of them with Crow’s instant answers.

RH: What do you hope your kids learn from you?
HC: Integrity

RH: What’s something your kids have taught you?
HC: Patience

RH: What would your wife say are your top three strengths?
HC: Creativity, patience, and candor

RH: What is the best real-estate advice that you have received?
HC: Share your success.

RH: What is the secret to making good deals in business?
HC: Make sure the other guy wins.

I come away from this affair thinking two things. First, Harlan Crow, who calls himself “a regular guy,” is a decent, patriotic man of good character who was just looking for a friend, albeit with all the delusional naivete a supremely wealthy person can hold. Second, there is fault here, great fault, and it rests with Clarence Thomas, who, as a Supreme Court Justice, should have realized long ago how this would eventually unfold. Perhaps their relationship, begun more than twenty years ago, began innocently, and perhaps it still is, but, as our General Counsel reminded me when I was about to stray from the path of light, “It’s the optics, Tom. The optics.”


¹ On March 24th, the Washington Post and CBS News revealed they had obtained copies of twenty-nine text messages between Ginni Thomas and Mark Meadows, the Trump White House chief of staff, in which she militated relentlessly for invalidating the results of the Presidential election, which she described as an “obvious fraud.”