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What we know about Justice Thomas' relationship with the Koch Brothers


We begin this hour with another eyebrow-raising investigation into ethics and the Supreme Court. Reporting by ProPublica and others over the last year has raised questions about the conduct of Supreme Court justices accepting and not disclosing luxury travel from rich friends, for example. Now ProPublica is out with a story that Justice Clarence Thomas traveled on a private jet and spoke at major fundraisers hosted by the Koch brothers at least twice.

Well, The New Yorker's Jane Mayer has reported extensively on the Koch brothers as political operators. She joins us now to talk through their role in conservative political circles. Jane Mayer, hey there.

JANE MAYER: Hi. How are you?

KELLY: I am all right. Thank you. I am curious what your first thought was when you saw this ProPublica story, headlined "Clarence Thomas Secretly Participated In Koch Network Donor Events."

MAYER: Well, I thought it was a terrific story. ProPublica's doing really invaluable work these days about the Supreme Court and the conflicts of interests and ethical problems up there. But at the same time, I kind of thought I'm not surprised because in my book, "Dark Money" - I was just checking - there it is - that the - that it was both Justices Scalia and Justice Thomas attended these very exclusive and secretive fundraisers that the Koch brothers have held twice a year for many years. And we don't know how many they attended, but we know they attended several of them.

KELLY: Interesting. So this, quote, "secret" participation was something of an open secret, it sounds like.

MAYER: Well, you know, I mean, yes and no. I mean, the thing is, basically, these stories are so hard for everybody to nail down that what you've got is sort of, like, little dots. And the reporters are more and more connecting the dots. And what you're getting is sort of a pointillist picture that is not pretty, but it's all very hard to put that picture together because there's - it's so hard to follow the money as it affects the Supreme Court.

KELLY: So I want to drill down on the Koch brothers' side of this story. Just remind us what we need to know about them, who they are, where their money comes from.

MAYER: They were, for many years - we call them the Koch brothers. It was Charles Koch and his brother, David Koch. David has since died. Charles is still very much alive. And for years, they were the sort of - the foremost funders of far-right libertarian politics in America. They really moved the Republican Party far, far to the right. And they did so by spending millions and millions - many more millions than you could possibly be able to trace - from their family fortune, which was made mostly in oil - in refining oil. They inherited the company from their dad, and they built it up into the second largest private company in the United States.

KELLY: And when you say they - their politics are far-right libertarian, give me an example of what that means. What causes do they invest in?

MAYER: Well, basically, they put out a kind of - an agenda many years ago that explained what they were aiming for. And what they wanted to do was to vastly weaken the size and the scope of the federal government. They wanted to get rid of the CIA, the FBI, the FDA, the IRS, the EPA, you - the - you name it. There were very few federal agencies they really believed in. They also have opposed public schools. What they wanted to do was kind of shrink the government down to the size that you can drown in your bathtub, as Grover Norquist, one of their sort of people that they've worked with, has put it.

KELLY: So now that we have established their politics, does having Justice Clarence Thomas headline their fundraisers call into question his judicial independence?

MAYER: Well, it certainly seems so. From reading the ProPublica story, you've got any number of experts in judicial ethics who are appalled by it. I think at least one of them said they thought that Clarence Thomas needs to recuse himself from any of the cases the Kochs have been involved in. And that really is the reason why this is a problem, is that a company as big as Koch Industries run by people who have as many political and financial interests as the Kochs do - they have just countless conflicts of interest with the Supreme Court. They have huge interests in front of the Supreme Court. There's a case coming up this year that is something that they've dreamed of bringing and have pushed for for years. And many other cases have been cases that they have a great interest in the outcome of. So it - to have one of the justices seem so closely socializing with them and rubbing shoulders with them is - it creates a - kind of an unseemly image.

KELLY: What questions would you put to Justice Thomas if he were on the line with us now?

MAYER: I guess I would ask him, why did he go, you know? I mean, the - what drew him to this crowd of billionaires who have such a strong ideological interest in issues in front of the court? And why does he feel that it doesn't create a conflict of interest or the perception of that?

KELLY: Jane Mayer of The New Yorker and author of the book "Dark Money." Thank you.

MAYER: Thanks, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.