Harlan Crow believes he and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas are the victims of a “political hit job.”
The 73-year-old real estate magnate, who is widely known as a pillar of Dallas business, finds himself in a maelstrom that was unimaginable to him two weeks ago.
That’s when ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative news publication, broke its story about Justice Thomas vacationing in luxury at the expense of Crow for more than two decades without disclosing Crow’s largesse.
The controversy flared up again last week when ProPublica further revealed that Thomas sold his mother’s home to Crow but failed to disclose the transaction, possibly in violation of the post-Watergate Ethics in Government Act of 1978.
On Sunday, Crow, who shuns the media, agreed to sit down with The Dallas Morning News for his first interview in response to coverage that he says is “factually incorrect and being written with a strong political agenda.
“I have to set the record straight.”
The interview took place in his private office suite at his Highland Park estate and lasted two hours.
He clearly had something to get off his chest.
“I think it’s a political hit job,” Crow said. “I don’t think the media cares really much about Harlan Crow, and I think they’re right. They shouldn’t care much about Harlan Crow.
“But I think that the media, and this ProPublica group in particular, funded by leftists, has an agenda to destabilize the [Supreme] Court. What they’ve done is not truthful. It lacks integrity. They’ve done a pretty good job in the last week or two of unfairly slamming me and more importantly than that, unfairly slamming Justice Thomas.”
Stephen Engelberg, editor in chief of ProPublica, responded to Crow’s assertions by saying that ProPublica is an independent, nonpartisan nonprofit news organization funded by 36,000 donors. “As investigative journalists, our job is to unearth the facts. If Harlan Crow disputes the accuracy of our reporting involving Justice Clarence Thomas, we invite him to provide us with the details so we can correct any inaccuracies.
“It’s worth noting that he and Justice Thomas were given detailed, written questions in advance of our stories. Thomas declined to respond. Crow’s answers were included in full. He questioned none of the facts we reported.”
Crow said he isn’t too happy with The News, either.
“I have always felt that The Dallas Morning News was better than that. And I believe they’ve been a part of it this week,” he said. “That makes me sad.”
Buddies by fate
Crow met Thomas 27 years ago by happenstance, he said.
Crow was in Washington, D.C., and talking with executives of the National Center for Policy Analysis. They told him that Thomas was doing a speaking engagement for them in Dallas, and Crow offered to fly Thomas to Texas since he and his private jet were headed home.
“I had never met him,” Crow said. “During that flight, we found out we were kind of simpatico. We’re the same age. We grew up in the same era. We come from absolutely polar opposite life stories, but we had a lot in common.”
That grew into a deep friendship of the Crow and Thomas families, Crow said.
“A lot of people that have opinions about this seem to think that there’s something wrong with this friendship. You know, it’s possible that people are just really friends. It blows my mind that people assume that because Clarence Thomas has friends, that those friends have an angle.”
Crow said he is “pro-choice” and Thomas is not.
“Do you think I would try to influence him about my point of view on that matter? No, of course not. That’s insane,” he said. “We have different points of view on that and probably other issues.”
So what do Crow and Thomas talk about?
“You know, I can’t talk to Clarence without him asking all about the kids. ‘What are they doing?’ We have a dog named Otis that Clarence particularly likes. We talk about dogs a lot.”
Crow remembered Thomas supporting his son’s wrestling team at St. Mark’s School of Texas. “Friends do stuff like that.”
But would Crow be friends with Thomas if he weren’t a Supreme Court justice?
“It’s an interesting, good question. I don’t know how to answer that. Maybe not. Maybe yes. I don’t know.”
He’s standing by Thomas
Did he ever consider his friendship as a ticket to quid pro quo?
“Every single relationship — a baby’s relationship to his mom — has some kind of reciprocity,“ he said.
“You and I have a relationship,” he said, referring to 20-plus years of my interaction with him as a reporter for The News. “I try to be friendly, polite and kind to you, and you do that back to me. If that’s reciprocity, then yes, there’s reciprocity. But if it’s anything beyond that, there’s no reciprocity.”
Does he think that it’s possible that some might raise their eyebrows about Thomas’ ethics for failing to disclose the travel and sale of his mother’s home?
“Clarence Thomas is one of the most honorable people I’ve ever met in my life. He’s a man of incredibly high personal and moral standards,” Crow said. “For me to comment about what kind of reporting any judge is required to do legally or morally, is just not something I know about. That’s not my world. Justice Thomas is a man of integrity and the idea that he would do anything that’s not exactly correct is just not true.”
Why buy Thomas’ mother’s house?
Crow said he thought Thomas’ mother owned the house that she was living in when Crow set out to buy it, thinking one day he would turn it into a museum honoring the Justice.
ProPublica reported that Crow bought a single-story home and two vacant lots down the road for $133,363 from three co-owners — Thomas, his mother and the family of Thomas’ late brother.
“I assumed his mother owned the home,” Crow said. “His life story is an amazing American life story: born into deep poverty. Father gone. Mother — the lady whom we’re talking about — really not able to do a lot to help raise her two sons. Ultimately raised by his grandparents, who were illiterate. Growing up in Jim Crow Georgia.
“So I approached him with the idea that I might purchase that home for the purpose that in due course it could be the boyhood home of a great American.”
The thought that it was more than that “kind of drives me crazy.”
As for the improvements?
“She works as a greeter in the local hospital — a 94-year-old lady,” Crow said. “When we made this purchase, she was just an 84-year-old lady, or something like that. I built a carport, so that she can park her car. It’s not an enclosed garage. That’s what I did. Now, you said improvements to the house. I don’t remember any other rooms. However, if there was a commode that was terrible, I might have fixed it. I don’t know.”
No trust-fund baby
Much of the recent coverage has implied that Crow, chairman of Crow Holdings, inherited his wealth from his father, Trammell Crow.
That’s not the true picture, Crow said. When Harlan took over Crow Holdings in 1990, the real estate industry and banking system were in crisis.
“Our company was also in distress,” he recalled. “Our economic value had deteriorated. It’s hard to know if it was zero, but it was low. I spent about five years doing workouts. We negotiated with a large number of financial institutions over a long period of time doing all this and we tried to do it as honorably as we could. And I believe we did it very honorably after it was all over.”
Today, Crow Holdings has about $30 billion in assets under management and is profitable, he said.
Recent coverage has also consistently called Crow a “Republican megadonor.”
“I don’t know what megadonor means,” he said. “I have been a donor to moderate Republican individuals running for office, as well as groups that are involved in that kind of world to support more moderate Republican stuff.
“I’m 73. So for probably 50 years, I’ve been doing that.
“There are so many people in the country that I think are megadonors. I’ve given a fair amount of money away. But the amount of money I can give away to causes and individuals that are seeking office by comparison to what I think of as a megadonor is pretty small.”
“I just don’t know, but I would say it is in the low number of millions in the past five years.”
A Schlotzsky’s guy
Crow and his wife, Kathy, are generous philanthropists who support a number of causes throughout North Texas. They host more than a hundred events at their massive library in their home. But you won’t see society photos of them, even in Dallas where many like to be seen..
Why the low profile?
“For a long time, I’ve wanted to be a good, private citizen. I work hard in our business. I work hard in our family. I work hard in our community to be a good citizen. I also don’t want to be a public figure,” Crow said. “I grew up in a family in which my dad was a fairly prominent figure, and that was fine. I just determined that I would rather be more reticent. I don’t like people — particularly business people — who constantly want to bring attention to themselves. I think it’s a lot about ego. And I just don’t like that.
“I just don’t want to be famous. I want to go to Schlotzsky’s or Arby’s, those are my kinds of places, and be a regular person.”
His greatest treasure
He has a particular love for the Founding Fathers.
“I think America is one of the greatest things that’s happened in world history. Here we are governing ourselves, or trying to govern ourselves,” Crow said. “There are other times in world history in which that’s happened, but nothing like this. I love the American experiment in self-governance. It’s actually kind of shaky right now. I’m worried about it right now.
“But it’s been shaky in the past, and we’ve come through. So I’m confident it will come through OK.”
Crow said we’ve had some morally good, brilliant leaders in the past. “I almost think there’s a divine intervention sometimes in these humans. It’s damn near a miracle that it happened,” he said. “So sometimes, I think, ‘How could the world and this country have been so lucky?’”
There is one person who stands tallest in Crow’s book.
If he had to grab one historical artifact from a burning building, it might be a tough decision given the tens of thousands of irreplaceable and priceless pieces to choose from — except it’s not.
“My answer to the question is, Abraham Lincoln wrote a syllogism about slavery,” Crow said, holding up a small, handwritten sheet of paper that’s in a protective sleeve, a word or two crossed out. It’s not that well-known, but I own it.
“It’s right here. This is in Lincoln’s hand. Now it’s a little bit hard to read Lincoln’s hand sometimes, so it’s transcribed right there,” he said, holding up a larger document. “It’s a brilliant piece of Lincoln… It’s game, set, match, about the intellectual and moral argument on slavery.”
Heroes and bad guys
A lot has been made in recent coverage about Crow’s Nazi and communist collections of artifacts. He wanted to put that into perspective with a bit of a long wind up.
“I decided that I like American historical manuscripts and books that relate to American history. That became a real passion for me most of my life, and I built a pretty substantial library. I collect pretty much anything that relates to American history.
“I don’t do sports, and I don’t do Hollywood, because they could take over the whole library. But it really covers American history comprehensively, and I define American history broadly.
“So I include John Locke, who was a public figure from The Enlightenment, who never came to America but he influenced American history. And I even define American history as including the Americas, not not just North America.
“So it’s pretty comprehensive in science, literature, politics, government, and elements of government. It’s a big collection. But it’s many thousands of documents, and books.”
And you have to present the good and the bad to present reality, he said.
“We have a small number of things here that are about bad guys.
“We have a lot on slavery. Slavery was a great evil in American history. There’s a lot more about Frederick Douglass here than there is about the bad guys of slavery. You can’t have a library and talk about that without including the bad.”
He points to his collection on the Japanese internment during World War II.
“That was one of our moments that we’re not very proud of, but we have stuff about that here.
“We’ve got Jesse James and Al Capone and Lee Harvey Oswald and John Wilkes Booth. Those are bad guys. They did bad things to America.
“So yeah, World War II was a fairly big event in American history. We have a bunch of stuff about World War II, including some of our enemies… For somebody to say that I like those guys would be a weird conclusion, but that’s been in the press recently.
“It really, really bothers me that — what I’m going to call yellow journalism — has decided to say that I like some of that stuff. That’s exactly the opposite of what the truth is.”
For example, there is no love lost for Germans in World War II.
“My mom was on a ship that was sunk by Germans during World War II. If you try to kill my mom, I don’t like you. I mean, that’s reasonably obvious. And so the idea that I could have sympathy for Nazism is insane.”
His love for history includes statues, too.
“When [Mikhail] Gorbachev was the leader of Russia, and the world changed overnight, I decided that it might be possible to get a statue of [Vladimir] Lenin to commemorate that era … and our Cold War with communism.”
In 1990, Crow figured a lot of communist statues would be coming down. He hired a young local man who found a statue of Lenin in the former Soviet Georgia after it became an independent country.
“We bought it, brought it to Dallas, and it’s out in the yard right now,” he said, cocking his head toward the backyard. “I don’t think it [cost] a great deal of money. The people in those newly independent countries were very anxious to get Western currency, and so it was probably cheap, but I don’t remember.”
Once he had Lenin implanted, Crow decided to make a rogue garden of bad guys, sending his buyer around Eastern Europe for statues of other communist leaders.
“Ultimately, I ended up buying — I don’t know the exact number, but call it 15 or some number like that – other statues of other people, most of whom people have never heard of.”
Crow watched a recent documentary on CNN by Wolf Blitzer about the Holocaust that originally aired in August.
“It was a great documentary. And the whole theme of the documentary was we must remember. That’s the theme of Holocaust museums. That’s the same thing that I’m saying here: We must remember. So yes, I have things from bad guys.
“I have been in the news a lot in the last week in your paper and elsewhere, and I have not enjoyed that.”
CORRECTION: Due to a transcription error, an earlier version of this report stated that Crow had purchased approximately 50 statues of communist leaders instead of about 15.
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