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Megadonor's purchase of Clarence Thomas' property was never disclosed, report says

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

There is new information out about the connection between Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his friend, the Republican Megadonor Harlan Crow. Last week, the investigative journalism site ProPublica reported that for over two decades, Thomas has received luxury vacations around the world from Crow without disclosing them. Thomas has said he understood those trips were not reportable and said he intended to follow new rules about disclosure going forward.

Today, ProPublica is reporting that in 2014, one of Harlan Crow's companies bought property from Clarence Thomas and his family, including the house where his elderly mother was living. This was also never disclosed, which would appear to violate a federal ethics law. Justin Elliott is one of the authors of this reporting. Thanks for joining us.

JUSTIN ELLIOTT: Good to be here.

SUMMERS: So, Justin, what more can you tell us about these properties that Clarence Thomas and his family sold to Harlan Crow?

ELLIOTT: Yeah. So we're talking about three lots in Savannah, Ga. One is a house where, as you mentioned, Justice Thomas's mother was actually living. And it's a house where Justice Thomas spent part of his childhood. And then also in addition to that, two vacant lots on the same street. And Harlan Crow paid Justice Thomas and some other of his relatives around $133,000 for these properties.

SUMMERS: And so far, what have Crow and Thomas said about these purchases?

ELLIOTT: Well, Thomas hasn't said anything. He didn't respond to our detailed questions. Crow said that he bought the properties, in particular the house, with plans to someday build a museum to sort of honor Clarence Thomas's life. He didn't address our questions about why he needed to buy the vacant lots down the road to do that. So there's actually still a lot we don't know about this. We also don't know, for example, whether Justice Thomas's mother, who appears to still live there, is paying Harlan Crow rent.

SUMMERS: OK. So help us understand some of the law here. What does the federal law in question say about real estate transactions?

ELLIOTT: Yeah. Well, the law we're talking about with Justice Thomas here is - it's a disclosure law. And, you know, the idea is you're supposed to disclose transactions so people can monitor potential conflicts of interest or influence. And, you know, we talked to several ethics lawyers who said you simply have to report most real estate transactions, and they said you would have to report this one. But this transaction was nowhere on Justice Thomas's disclosure filing for that year, 2014.

SUMMERS: As we mentioned, your first report came out about a week ago. And I'd like to ask you, what's happened in the weeks since that initial reporting? Has Congress or perhaps the Justice Department or the Supreme Court itself taken any action?

ELLIOTT: We haven't heard anything from the Supreme Court itself other than a statement from Justice Thomas. But the Senate Judiciary Committee announced that they're going to have a hearing on Supreme Court ethics. And we've been hearing from a lot of people with information, including information about this sale, which we were able to confirm through public records. So we're still reporting on this.

SUMMERS: So I'm curious, Justin. Given that we're talking about a Supreme Court justice here, how is a law like the one that we've just been talking about enforced or perhaps even prosecuted?

ELLIOTT: You know, that's a great question that interestingly no one seems to have a very good answer to. You know, with the rest of the federal government, there's a whole sort of infrastructure of ethics lawyers who enforce these sorts of rules. You know, people can get fired or fined or occasionally even criminally prosecuted. With the Supreme Court, it's incredibly opaque. And it's not clear anyone is enforcing these rules or even, frankly, reading these forms when they're filed to see if they're complete. So we don't really know at this point.

SUMMERS: OK. That is Justin Elliot from ProPublica with new reporting about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Justin, thank you so much.

ELLIOTT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.