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A look at Harlan Crow, the billionaire central in Clarence Thomas controversies

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas's name is once again in the headlines with Texas real estate magnate Harlan Crow, this time over a ProPublica investigation that found Crow paid private boarding school tuition for Thomas's grandnephew. Previous reporting by ProPublica in the last month has revealed a real estate deal and years of luxury travel that Clarence Thomas accepted but failed to disclose from Crow. But who exactly is Harlan Crow? Shelly Hagan has done some digging into Crow's background. She covers Texas politics and the economy for Bloomberg, and she joins me now from Dallas. Welcome to the program.

SHELLY HAGAN: Thank you, Juana.

SUMMERS: So we know that Harlan Crow is an incredibly wealthy businessman, and a lot has been written in recent weeks as well about his collections of historical artifacts, including Nazi memorabilia. But beyond that, what can you tell us about Crow himself, as well as his reputation in the Dallas area community?

HAGAN: Yes. So Harlan Crow is the son of Trammell Crow, who - you can see his name in buildings across Dallas. And he was reported to have been one of the largest landlords in the U.S. So Harlan Crow did grow up in a privileged family. He was born in Dallas. He, you know, is a prominent figure in the wealthy social circles in Dallas, but you wouldn't necessarily hear his name. He has a lot of influence. He is a big donor. He is a big philanthropist. But he doesn't come out publicly and speak, for example, among lawmakers or anything like that.

SUMMERS: What about his company, Crow Holdings? Can you tell us about it? What does it do, and how much is it worth?

HAGAN: So Crow Holdings - it's basically a real estate empire that manages about $29 billion in assets. It has, for example, holdings in residential real estate properties, commercial real estate, warehouses, student housing. So he is very well known in the real estate world.

SUMMERS: The reason that we're talking about Harlan Crow today is, of course, because of his relationship with Justice Clarence Thomas. What can you tell us about that relationship? How did they come to know each other? How long have they known each other?

HAGAN: Yeah. So Harlan Crow and Clarence Thomas met about 27 years ago. Harlan Crow was in D.C. at the time, and he was talking with some executives at the National Center for Policy Analysis, which is a center-right think tank. And while he was speaking with the executives, they told him that Thomas was doing a speaking engagement in Dallas. And Crow, living in Dallas, offered to fly Thomas back home on his private jet. He said he didn't know Thomas at the time, but he said he found that while they were on the jet together and talking, they were actually similar. His exact words were they were simpatico, even though both of these people came from very different backgrounds. Thomas has said he grew up in poverty in Georgia, and of course, Crow grew up in a very wealthy family.

SUMMERS: In the last month, these revelations about these big money transactions between Harlan Crow and Justice Thomas have prompted increased calls for ethics reform at the Supreme Court. But based on what you know, are there any cases involving Crow that have ended up before the Supreme Court, cases where there'd be a reasonable expectation that Justice Thomas would recuse himself?

HAGAN: So there actually was one case where one of the companies associated with Harlan Crow did go up before the Supreme Court. And a Bloomberg News colleague actually reported this scoop out a couple of weeks ago. But it was a case where an architecture firm was suing a Trammell Crow residential, which is a firm that develops apartment buildings. And they were suing the apartment developer for allegedly misusing its designs, so accusing them of copyright infringement. But the court issued a one-sentence order and didn't have any recusals, so Thomas didn't recuse himself in this case.

SUMMERS: Based on your reporting on Crow, do you think that his relationship with the Thomas family and Thomas's lack of transparency on some of that relationship - do you think that means it's time to rethink ethics on the Supreme Court?

HAGAN: I think there has been a lot of gray area in a lot of the relationships that Thomas had with Crow. For example, it was not his child that Crow donated money for education. It was actually his grandnephew. So in this case, Thomas could say that he didn't have to report that because it wasn't his dependent child. But that's just kind of a gray area where maybe the court's going to have to look closely at and try and reform so that justices in the future will disclose these.

SUMMERS: Shelly Hagan covers Texas politics and the economy for Bloomberg. Shelly, thank you.

HAGAN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
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.