Investigative Reporters and Editors announced Monday that, in an unusual tie, two ProPublica projects won IRE Awards in the same category. The annual contest recognizes outstanding investigative work.
“He’s a Liar, a Con Artist and a Snitch. His Testimony Could Soon Send a Man to His Death.” by ProPublica senior reporter Pamela Colloff, co-published with The New York Times Magazine, won in the Print/Online Division 1 category for publications with a circulation larger than 400,000. “Profiting From the Poor” by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism editor Wendi C. Thomas, a project of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network, also won in this category.
“While the judges were impressed with all of the entries, they were unable to name just one winner in the Print/Online Division I category,” contest judge Ron Nixon said. "We felt that both pieces were important and strong. Both investigations saved lives in different ways."
In “He’s a Liar, a Con Artist and a Snitch. His Testimony Could Soon Send a Man to His Death,” Colloff revealed the corrosive effect that jailhouse informants play in the criminal justice system. She focused on a prolific jailhouse informant named Paul Skalnik, ultimately showing that he gave dubious testimony or questionable information in at least 37 cases in one Florida county alone. Skalnik helped send a total of four men to death row.
Colloff’s reporting also found that prosecutors let Skalnik out of jail, again and again, in exchange for his testimony, despite assuring jurors that he was receiving nothing in return. This leniency resulted not only in numerous injustices; it also created a whole new group of crime victims, who Skalnik preyed upon each time he was released from jail. These victims included two women Colloff interviewed, who were molested by Skalnik when they were 12 and 15.
Jailhouse informants are an opaque part of the criminal justice system cloaked in secrecy — a major reporting barrier for Colloff. In most states, prosecutors’ use of these witnesses is not tracked or regulated. The deals they receive are rarely made public. To tell this story, Colloff relied on extensive public records and conducted interviews with dozens of people who crossed paths with Skalnik. Another challenge was finding the two women who were molested by Skalnik when they were minors. Though Colloff was able to obtain police reports in one case and court records in another, the girls’ names were redacted. Using context clues within those documents and doing on-the-ground reporting in Texas and Florida, she was able to find both women and persuade them to speak on the record about what happened.
Newspaper editorial boards across Florida cited Colloff’s reporting in calling for Gov. Ron DeSantis to stop the execution of James Dailey, a man who Skalnik testified against, from moving forward. A week after the story’s publication, the Miami Herald published an opinion piece called “Don’t let Florida execute James Dailey, Gov. DeSantis. He might be innocent.” Similar editorials also appeared in the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times. Dailey’s case is now under new scrutiny in a Florida circuit court, and DeSantis has indicated that he will hold off on setting an execution date until Dailey’s appeals have played out in the courts.
In her series “Profiting From the Poor” from MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, Thomas exposed the predatory debt collection practices of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, the largest health care system in Memphis, Tennessee. Thomas showed how Methodist was suing and garnishing the wages of thousands of patients, including many of its own employees, for unpaid hospital bills. Over a five-year period, in the second-poorest large city in the nation, Methodist sued more than 8,300 people. The lawsuits made it hard, if not impossible, for poor people to make ends meet.
Week after week for five months, Thomas sat and took notes as hospital defendants appeared in court, encountering stern judges and a system that often pitted confused defendants against Methodist’s savvy legal team. In the hallway, many agreed to an interview later and gave Thomas their phone number or email address. To gain their trust, she spent time in their homes and their churches; to tell their stories, she expertly wove details of their lives with courtroom observations. Some of those defendants showed up to court wearing their Methodist uniforms. Asked how she manages to make ends meet, one hospital housekeeper said she doesn’t. “It’s killing me, killing me softly,” she said.
The small monthly payments many defendants could afford were drowned by the mountains of court costs and interest Methodist added onto cases. Not only was Methodist aggressive in court; its financial assistance policy for low-income patients was unusually stingy compared to other nonprofit hospitals across the state. Thomas gathered the policies of nonprofits throughout the state to reach that conclusion.
Outrage from the series was swift. Less than five weeks post-publication, chastened hospital officials — who had refused all interview requests — announced sweeping changes that in the end, wiped away $11.9 million in debt for more than 5,300 patients. Methodist also expanded its charity care policy to encompass more than 50% of area residents and raised the pay of its lowest-paid employees.
Deborah Douglas, Andrea Morales, Maya Miller, Beena Raghavendran, Doris Burke, Lylla Younes, Rebecca Davis and Martha Park also contributed to this series.
In addition, “The Quiet Rooms” by ProPublica Illinois and The Chicago Tribune was a finalist for the Print/Online Division 1 category. “A 911 Emergency” by The Public’s Radio, another ProPublica Local Reporting Network partner, was a finalist in the radio/audio category.
See a list of all the IRE Award winners here.