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Are Justice Clarence Thomas's denials credible?
Here's a point-by-point breakdown of Justice Clarence Thomas's response to ProPublica's latest blockbuster exposé
Justice Clarence Thomas is finally responding to allegations in the latest blockbuster ProPublica exposé about lavish gifts from billionaires that he secretly accepted. But is Thomas’s defense credible?
The rebuttal comes from Mark Paoletta, a former Trump official who is a longtime friend of Thomas and who served as Ginni Thomas’s lawyer during the select committee’s investigation of Jan. 6. Paoletta defended Thomas in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, which has become an open microphone for justices to respond to allegations without any scrutiny.
But by cherry-picking just a few allegations in ProPublica’s piece, Paoletta seems to lend credence to most of the article’s findings. ProPublica compiled a long list of gifts, but Paoletta ignored most of them. And by using a proxy, Thomas preserves his ability to later claim that Paoletta misquoted or misunderstood him.
The WSJ column is difficult to interpret without carefully going through the original article point by point. So I’ve done that for you.
Here’s a detailed breakdown of what Paoletta writes about ProPublia’s findings.
Thomas was never on a yacht
Paoletta starts by flatly denying that Thomas was ever on a 126-foot yacht, the Le Montrachet, owned by oil baron Paul “Tony” Novelly who regularly cruises to the Bahama’s Exuma Islands. Novelly charges outsiders $60,000 a week to charter this boat.
Paoletta’s key source here is Thomas himself, who unequivocally denies ever even seeing the yacht. Beyond that, Paoletta cites an anonymous source who then cites company records. He doesn’t ask for anyone’s recollection, including Novelly’s. It’s curious that Novelly doesn’t join Thomas in denying the trips. Paoletta writes:
Justice Thomas tells me he has never seen this yacht and hasn’t been to the Bahamas since the 1980s, before he joined the high court. A senior official with the Novelly organization confirmed that its records show Justice Thomas was never a passenger on any yacht owned by Mr. Novelly.
ProPublica cites four unnamed sources, including a ship caption.
Three of Novelly’s former yacht workers, including a captain, told ProPublica they recall Thomas coming on board the vessels multiple times in recent years. Novelly’s local chauffeur in the Bahamas said his company once picked Thomas up from the billionaire’s private jet and drove him to the marina where one of the yachts, Le Montrachet, frequently docks.
Thomas acknowledges stepping foot on one of Novelly’s yachts, but claims he never went anywhere and never went aboard any other boat owned by Novelly.
Mr. Novelly co-owned a different yacht, the Daybreak, with Mr. Sokol. That boat was docked at Mr. Sokol’s home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., when Justice Thomas visited in 2018. Mr. Sokol and Justice Thomas have both confirmed that Justice Thomas walked onto the boat, got a tour of the engine room, and left within 30 minutes. Mr. Novelly wasn’t there, and the boat never left the dock. That’s the only time he has set foot on a boat owned by Mr. Novelly.
ProPublica never mentions this yacht or any other. But it does mention a trip on an unnamed yacht to Novelly’s private ranch in South Florida. This time, ProPublica names its source, who recalls having conversations with Thomas at the ranch.
Another past guest on Novelly’s yacht is “Alligator” Ron Bergeron, one of the biggest land and roadway developers in Florida. Around 2018, Novelly and Thomas went to Bergeron’s private ranch on the edge of the Everglades — a sprawling, gated estate with centuries-old cypress trees and an 1800s-style saloon on site. He described Novelly as a man who likes to share his success with others. “He’s very generous with all his friends,” Bergeron told ProPublica.
Paoletta doesn’t deny that Thomas was a guest at the ranch.
Thomas was never a member of an elite country club
The next denial actually confirms part of ProPublica’s story. The exposé reports that H. Wayne Huizenga, a billionaire who built Blockbuster and Waste Management into major companies, had an exclusive country club where membership was free and by invitation only. Paoletta writes:
As for Mr. Huizenga, ProPublica reports that in the early 2000s he “gave Thomas something that was priceless at the time: a standing invitation to his exclusive, members-only golf club”—but leaves out that Justice Thomas, who doesn’t play golf, declined the invitation. His only connection to the club is that he visited once a year, no more than five times in total, to have lunch with Mr. Huizenga when he traveled to Florida to visit Ginni Thomas’s parents, who lived in the Sunshine State.
This denial tracks closely to what ProPublica reported:
It’s unclear if Thomas was a member or Huizenga’s frequent guest with similar privileges. The billionaire’s former personal photographer and two former golf pros at the club recalled seeing Thomas there multiple times over the years. One of Huizenga’s helicopter pilots said he had picked the justice up from the property. And a fifth employee, a former waitress and concierge, said she once served Thomas and Huizenga, who were wearing golf attire, as they dined alone in the enormous waterfront clubhouse for lunch. “Have you met a Supreme Court justice?” Huizenga asked the waitress before she took their order. “This is Clarence Thomas.”
ProPublica had a list of lavish gifts Huizenga bestowed on Thomas, including trips on his private helicopter and jet, but Paoletta is silent about those. As ProPublica reported:
For 20 years, Thomas benefited from Huizenga’s attention as well, availing himself of the billionaire’s fleet of aircraft and other luxuries. Huizenga took Thomas to see the Miami Dolphins and Florida Panthers several times between the mid-’90s and mid-2000s, according to interviews and photographs. Huizenga owned both teams at the time.
Thomas wasn’t required to disclose VIP tickets to a Nebraska football game
Paoletta again confirms most of ProPublica’s reporting in his last denial. He acknowledges that Thomas accepted two tickets to a luxury suite hosted by former University of Nebraska coach Tom Osborne. That trip was paid for by David Sokol, a former executive at Berkshire Hathaway. Thomas took his wife to the game, who grew up in Omaha and attended the University of Nebraska.
Paoletta’s defense here is technical. He claims the seats’ retail value was only $65 each. (He says he knows because he was in the suite with Thomas.) Since it was less than $415, Thomas had no legal obligation to disclose the gift, Paoletta contends.
Yet Paoletta doesn’t dispute ProPublica’s reporting that a typical luxury box costs $40,000 a year. But he writes, “The price of a ticket has nothing to do with the price of a suite.”
The retail price listed on a luxury-suite ticket means little, since no one can buy seats in a suite. They have to be invited. Tom Osborne was given a suite with 26 seats, which meant that the value of two tickets was worth at a bare minimum $440, paid for by the University of Nebraska. That’s not to mention all the other costs associated with the trip, which would have had to have been disclosed, according to ProPublica.
Sokol himself gave a detailed statement before the story was published. He didn’t deny a single fact. As to the private flights, he defended them as necessary given Thomas’s position:
Further as to the use of private aviation I believe that given security concerns all of the Supreme Court Justices should either fly privately or on governmental aircraft consistent with the other branches of government.
Paoletta concludes by saying that ProPublica only does “hit” pieces on conservative justices.
ProPublica limits its investigations to conservative justices—ignoring, for instance, that Justice Stephen Breyer took at least 17 trips, eight of them international, funded by the Democratic Pritzker Family organization. Its reporters have every right to investigate whatever they want, but they also have a duty to get their facts straight.
Paoletta knows this because Breyer disclosed the gifts in financial statements. ProPublica has in fact reported this. Thomas, on the other hand, didn’t disclose his expensive gifts.
The bottom line is that Paoletta only flatly denies one fact in ProPublica’s story, that Thomas was ever aboard one yacht. Even if this were true, that leaves most of the story confirmed. But ProPublica cites four unnamed sources, including one of the boat’s captains, and one named source saying that Thomas was on Novelly’s yacht. That’s strong evidence that ProPublica got it right.
You can read ProPublica’s series of stories on the Supreme Court here.