Billionaire Harlan Crow bought Clarence Thomas' mom's house — which the justice partly owned — in 2014.
The sale was undisclosed, raising questions about the ethics of billionaires secretly doing business with Supreme Court justices.
Thomas' lawyers now say the secret deal happened in part because of the terrible conditions of the neighborhood.
Earlier this year, we learned that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas secretly sold his childhood home, which his mother still lives in, to billionaire Harlan Crow in 2014. The justice was a one-third owner of the property at the time. Despite the obvious ethical concerns of a Supreme Court justice doing business with a billionaire, the sale was never disclosed, and only came to light thanks to ProPublica's reporting.
Today, in light of Thomas' most recent financial disclosure, which, wouldn't you know it, suddenly details all sorts of ties to Crow, the Supreme Court justice's lawyer released a statement defending the home's sale.
"In 2014, Harlan Crow, a longtime friend of Justice and Mrs. Thomas, visited Savannah with Justice Thomas," the statement from Elliot S. Berke reads. "Mr. Crow witnessed firsthand how the neighborhood was blighted and dangerous with derelicts, drug users, and junkies, notably in the house next to the Justice's mother and in the other houses on her street."
Thomas joined the Supreme Court in 1991, meaning that in 2014, when his mother was still living in a neighborhood "blighted and dangerous with derelicts, drug users, and junkies," he'd been one of the most powerful people in the country for more than 22 years.
The statement went on.
"Mr. Crow asked Justice Thomas what he intended to do with the home after his mother (who was in her 80s at the time) passed away, and the Justice replied that he intended to have the property bulldozed," it reads. "Mr. Crow indicated he wanted to preserve the home for a possible museum and asked his team to review the idea of doing so. When he first raised the idea of purchasing this home to preserve it, Mr. Crow did not know that Justice Thomas had a 1/3 interest in the property."
As part of the transaction, Crow guaranteed Thomas' mother that she could continue to live in the house — and its then-"blighted" neighborhood — in perpetuity, a deal that Berke described as necessary to get her to sign (she also owned a third of the property).
"Without it, Mrs. Williams would likely not have sold the home at that time if she had to move," Berke wrote. "This would have defeated Mr. Crow's intent to purchase the home in order to preserve it."
In other words — according to Thomas' lawyer — the transaction was structured in such a way as to guarantee that Thomas' mother could continue to live among "junkies" and "derelicts."
The idea, Berke wrote, was that by buying Thomas' mother's home and a neighboring property, Crow could build a "seed home with a good tenant" and improve the neighborhood.
Thomas' mother, who is 94, reportedly still lives in the property. It's unclear if the "derelicts," "drug users," and "junkies" are still there. According to ProPublica, Crow's seeds have begun to sprout, with "pristine two-story homes," an artisanal coffee shop," and "a Mediterranean bistro" nearby. "Down the street, a multicolored pride flag blows in the wind."
A representative for Berke didn't immediately reply to a request for comment.
Correction: September 1, 2023 — An earlier version of this story inaccurately described Berke's statement as referring to renovations that Crow made to Thomas' mother's home. While Crow did indeed renovate Thomas' mother's home, Berke did not mention those renovations in his statement. A summary bullet also inaccurately said Crow's purchases were motivated by the condition of Thomas' mother's home. As the story notes, Berke said Crow was concerned with the condition of the neighborhood, not Thomas' mother's home specifically.
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