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The low cost (for a rich person) of sponsoring a Supreme Court justice

There’s a line from “The Godfather” that’s been blinking into my thoughts more frequently these days. It’s from the scene where Don Corleone is hearing Virgil Sollozzo’s pitch for an alliance.

Sollozzo tells Corleone that, yes, he needs financing. But he also needs someone with “powerful friends.”

“I need, Don Corleone, all of those politicians that you carry around in your pocket, like so many nickels and dimes,” Sollozzo tells the Godfather.

The simile Sollozzo offers is that Corleone is so replete with influence that senators and judges are of no more consequence than a few pennies might be to anyone else. But the reason that line resonates with me in the moment is how it also captures the new sense of scale: For someone with hundreds of millions of dollars, shelling out tens of thousands of dollars to strengthen a relationship with a powerful person might be an investment at the scale of pocket change. A rich person’s nickels and dimes are, to a regular person, life-changing amounts of money.

That imbalance can be very useful.

On Thursday, ProPublica reported that wealthy investor Harlan Crow paid the private-school tuition of Mark Martin, a grandnephew of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas who Thomas has said he was raising as a son. It’s not clear how much tuition Crow paid, though tuition at one of the two schools Martin attended cost $6,000 a month. If Crow paid the tuition in its entirety at two schools, the tab would have run over $150,000.

This revelation comes on top of other reporting from ProPublica: that Crow in 2014 bought properties belonging to Thomas to the tune of more than $133,000, that Thomas has been treated to luxury trips by Crow repeatedly over the past two decades. There are ethical issues at play, given that Thomas failed to report all of this largesse. But those brief descriptions also fail to account for all of Crow’s investment. Thomas’s mother still resides at one of the properties Crow bought, for example, and tens of thousands of dollars were spent improving it after he did.

Thomas did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday from The Washington Post. Neither Thomas nor the court’s public information office has responded to previous questions about Crow’s spending.

These are also only more recent examples. Thomas’s relationship with Crow drew scrutiny over a decade ago, too. In 2011, the New York Times summarized what was known: Crow (at Thomas’s suggestion) investing millions of dollars in a museum celebrating the area where Thomas grew up, financing a library project dedicated to Thomas at a cost of $175,000, bolstering the activism of Thomas’s wife, Ginni, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. At the time, the revelations led to new scrutiny of Supreme Court ethics — the same scrutiny that’s unfolding now as we learn that an unchastened Thomas still failed to report gifts from Crow.

For the tycoon, though: Why not?

Harlan Crow’s wealth flows from his father, as Forbes reported last month. Trammell Crow made his fortune in Texas real estate and was ranked 26th on Forbes’s very first list of the 400 wealthiest people in America in 1982. Harlan and two brothers are majority owners of Crow Holdings Capital, which owns and manages $30 billion in real estate, according to Forbes. The brothers “share a fortune worth at least $2.5 billion,” Forbes estimates, though it’s not clear how much of that is Harlan Crow’s alone.

Let’s say it’s $1 billion. Paying $6,000 a month for tuition, then, is the equivalent of someone worth $60,000 paying 36 cents. Buying a home for $133,000 is like someone worth $60,000 paying eight bucks. Not a bad deal to become the landlord for a Supreme Court justice’s mother.

These are also not particularly large expenditures from Crow himself. Since 2016, Open Secrets reports that Crow has given more than $7.6 million to federal candidates for office, almost all of it to Republicans. He also donates to various other conservative causes and institutions.

What’s remarkable about the relationship between Crow and Thomas isn’t only that Thomas has been so indifferent to reporting Crow’s generosity. It’s also that there are so many other extremely wealthy Americans who could leverage their wealth to build relationships with people in power for whom $100,000 is anything but pocket change.

Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index, a list of the 500 richest people in the world, indicates that 173 of them live in the United States. Crow and his brothers are not among them. The poorest American on that list, Mark Shoen, is worth an estimated $5.1 billion. The most recent iteration of Forbes’s aforementioned list of the 400 wealthiest Americans ends with someone worth $2.7 billion — and, again, no Crows.

Forbes estimates that there are more than 730 billionaires in the United States. That’s net worth. There were also, according to IRS data, more than 26,500 tax returns filed in 2020 that reported earning more than $10 million a year in income. Even at a mere $10 million a year, that $6,000 a month in tuition is the equivalent of $60 to someone making $60,000.

This gap in the relative cost of luxury between the enormously wealthy and even powerful members of the D.C. establishment is precisely why it’s important that transparency exist. Even if Crow’s intentions were solely rooted in beneficence, his scattered pocket change is far more valuable to those who receive it. Crow has Thomas’s ear, should he want it — and even if he doesn’t.

And Crow isn’t even a particularly wealthy American by modern standards. What other powerful friends sit in the pockets of bespoke tailored suits alongside the coins that lured them there?

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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