Justice Clarence Thomas' Florida Trips Dredged Up Amid Supreme Court Ethics Questions | Miami New Times


Clarence Thomas' Trip on Dolphins Private Jet Back in Spotlight in Wake of Ethics Questions

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas's past trips to Fort Lauderdale have been dredged up in the wake of reports he did not disclose sojourns bankrolled by billionaire Harlan Crow.
Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy testify before the House Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee on Capitol Hill March 13, 2008 in Washington, DC.
Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy testify before the House Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee on Capitol Hill March 13, 2008 in Washington, DC. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
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As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas faces media scrutiny over vacations he took with billionaire Republican donor Harlan Crow, the judge's past connections to the Sunshine State and the Miami Dolphins have come back under the microscope.

In April, a ProPublica investigation found that for two decades, Thomas failed to formally disclose lavish vacations he took on Crow’s private jet as well as cruises on the billionaire's superyacht. The outlet later reported that Thomas and his family had taken a handful of other gifts from Crow over the years, from home renovations to private school tuition for Thomas' grandnephew.

The justice's financial disclosures show that he was at one point receiving more freebies right here in South Florida.

An archival Tampa Bay Times article recounts that on May 6, 2003, following a question-and-answer session at Nova Southeastern University’s business college — a Fort Lauderdale school that bears the name of the late Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga — Thomas arrived in the city of Zephyrhills via a private Gulfstream 4 jet emblazoned with the Dolphins logo. An administrative assistant at Zephyrhills Municipal Airport told the outlet that it was a "big, pretty airplane" that was "actually bigger" than the jet on which former President George H.W. Bush had recently arrived.

Thomas' financial disclosure form from that year makes note of the May 2003 trip, complete with "transportation, meals, and accommodations," but it does not mention a private jet. If the term "transportation" was meant to include the flight, it would have been a departure from Thomas' disclosure form from the prior year, which explicitly mentions the phrase "private plane" in the reimbursement section when referring to a past trip.

Passed in the wake of the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s, the Ethics in Government Act outlines when government officials must disclose gifts and compensation from third parties. The law generally requires federal officials to report gifts and reimbursements worth more than $415, defined as "anything of value" that they don’t repay in full. (Among other exemptions, gifts of "food, lodging, or entertainment received as personal hospitality" don’t have to be disclosed; however, this only applies to gifts received at the grantors' home or at properties that they or their family own.)

Kathleen Clark, an ethics law expert at Washington University in St. Louis, tells New Times that Thomas is allowed to fly private as a Supreme Court justice so long as he follows the disclosure requirements. She questions why the private flight was not specifically listed on the disclosure sheet.

"Supreme Court justices are permitted to fly in private jets," Clark says. "But if they're accepting travel in a private jet, they have to pay for it. At the very least, if it was a gift, they'd have to disclose it."

On Thomas' disclosure for the 2003 South Florida excursion, he lists Nova Southeastern as the source of reimbursement. According to Clark, if Huizenga or anyone else paid for the jet flight or any large expenses associated with the trip, their identity should have been disclosed on the form.

"It's not so much whether Thomas went on the trip or not. The issue is whether he paid for that private jet from Fort Lauderdale," Clark says.

She recalls a past instance in which the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia paid out of his own pocket for transportation for a hunting excursion around the time he spoke at a Kansas law school in 2003.

As a member of the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, a Virginia-based nonprofit, Thomas made annual visits to Fort Lauderdale in the 2000s to help Huizenga hand out scholarships, occasionally meeting with the Dolphins, the New York Times reported.

Anthony Hutcherson, a former event producer for the association, told the Times that Thomas flew in a private jet with the Dolphins logo "at least once" during that time period and also left the Dolphins' practice field on a helicopter.

Thomas' yearly disclosures from 2004 to 2008 indicate that he received travel reimbursement from the Horatio Alger Association for the yearly trips to the association's ceremonies and events in Fort Lauderdale.

A U.S. Supreme Court spokesperson has not responded to New Times' request for comment.

On the heels of the ProPublica report on his trips with Crow, Thomas maintained that early in his tenure on the Supreme Court, he had been advised by his colleagues and other members of the judiciary that "this sort of personal hospitality from close personal friends, who did not have business before the Court, was not reportable."

"I have endeavored to follow that counsel throughout my tenure, and have always sought to comply with the disclosure guidelines," Thomas said.

Calls for ethics reform have grown louder after the release of an AP report that detailed how Supreme Court justices across the ideological spectrum have headlined speaking events at U.S. universities alongside wealthy political donors in recent years. While the high court justices are restricted from attending fundraising affairs, the AP found that organizers and university officials routinely sought to capitalize on events the justices headlined and in some instances appeared to be monetizing access to the justices.

Huizenga, who was one of the wealthiest men in Florida during his lifetime, owned the Miami Dolphins, Florida Panthers, and the then-Florida Marlins. He also built Blockbuster into a movie rental giant and founded car seller AutoNation and garbage collection firm Waste Management.

Click this link to read "Citizen Wayne," Steve Almond's 1994 unauthorized biography of H. Wayne Huizenga

According to the New York Times, Huizenga’s foundation donated $25,000 to name a wing of Savannah, Georgia’s Carnegie Library in honor of Thomas. (Crow donated $175,000.)

A long-time GOP donor, Huizenga made hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to Republican causes dating back to the 1980s, including $60,000 to the RNC Republican National State Election Committee in 1992, $50,000 to the super-PAC American Crossroads in 2010, and $250,000 to then-governor Rick Scott'ss 2014 re-election campaign, to name a few.

His son, Wayne Huizenga Jr., who was appointed by Scott in 2013 to serve on the Board of Governors of the Florida State University System, has carried on the cause, donating at least $150,000 to a political committee tied to Gov. Ron DeSantis in the 2022 election cycle.

Shortly after joining the Supreme Court in 1991, Thomas became a member of the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans — a nonprofit scholarship association that "honors the achievements of outstanding individuals who have succeeded in spite of adversity." Members of the organization have included billionaire businessmen, writers, politicians, football coaches, and actors. Notable inductees include former President Donald Trump's father, Fred Trump; poet and memoirist Maya Angelou; Harlan Crow's father, Trammell Crow; and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

Thomas also reportedly formed a close friendship with fellow Horatio Alger Association member David Sokol, a former executive at Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate who has hosted Thomas and his wife Ginni at his waterfront mansion in Florida, according to the New York Times.

Thomas attended Huizenga's funeral after the Dolphins owner died in 2018.

The justice's ties to the Dolphins have been laid out in local news articles since the early 2000s. In 2007, the Sun Sentinel reported that Thomas had gushed about the Dolphins and the elder Huizenga to a crowd during a book tour in West Palm Beach.

"I happen to be a Dolphins fan," Thomas told those assembled. "I like their uniforms. And they’re a wonderful team."
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