Investigative Reporters & Editors announced on Wednesday that three ProPublica investigations, including a project by the joint Texas Tribune-ProPublica investigative unit, are winners of its IRE Awards.
“The Secret IRS Files” won an award in the print/online category. The series opened with a historic scoop: the greatest trove of heretofore secret financial information on the ultrawealthy ever made public. The story revealed a series of systemic inequities that allow America’s wealthiest citizens to pay little or nothing in federal taxes. In some years, business leaders such as George Soros, Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg, Carl Icahn and Elon Musk owed not a single dollar in income tax. But these billionaires weren’t cheating on their taxes — they were using completely legal strategies that are far beyond the reach of ordinary wage earners.
Jesse Eisinger, Paul Kiel, Jeff Ernsthausen, Justin Elliott, James Bandler, Patricia Callahan, Robert Faturechi, Ken Ward Jr., Ellis Simani, Doris Burke, Agnes Chang, Lucas Waldron, Almudena Toral, Nadia Sussman, Mauricio Rodríguez Pons, Joseph Singer, Sherene Strausberg, Maya Eliahou, Chris Morran and Kristyn Hume contributed to the series.
Many of the findings in the series were jaw-dropping. In “Lord of the Roths: How Tech Mogul Peter Thiel Turned a Retirement Account for the Middle Class Into a $5 Billion Tax-Free Piggy Bank,” the team showed not only how Thiel but other moguls (including Warren Buffett) exploit IRAs. “Secret IRS Files Reveal How Much the Ultrawealthy Gained by Shaping Trump’s “Big, Beautiful Tax Cut” uncovered how ultrawealthy donors lobbied U.S. Senator Ron Johnson, resulting in legislation that saved $1 billion in taxes for just 82 households. “The Billionaire Playbook: How Sports Owners Use Their Teams to Avoid Millions in Taxes” takes readers inside an NBA arena, toggling from a concession-stand worker who made $44,810 in a year and paid a federal tax rate of 14.1% to superstar player LeBron James, who made $124 million that year and paid 35.9%. Sitting inside that same arena was Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer. He made $656 million and paid a 12% rate, the lowest of the three.
The series led to a flurry of legislative activity to close IRA loopholes. In March, a new tax proposal released by President Joe Biden took direct aim at billionaires. The administration’s plan would introduce a 20% tax on increases in wealth for households worth more than $100 million, signaling a paradigm shift since it would change what gets counted as income.
“What Parler Saw During the Attack on the Capitol” won the IRE Award for breaking news. On Jan. 6, hundreds of people stormed the U.S. Capitol, sending legislators and the vice president fleeing for their lives and fatally injuring police. Without documentary evidence, it was easy to rely on motivated reasoning and political expediency to describe events. While politicians argued about how to characterize the day, ProPublica journalist Jeff Kao gathered the facts.
Kao obtained from a source a cache of more than a million videos that had been shared on right-wing social media site Parler, a site where many of the would-be insurrectionists spent time, before it was taken down by its web host. Over the next week, the newsroom worked around the clock to identify videos posted by insurrectionists themselves, and the News Apps team worked to develop the most impactful way of publishing the videos. Less than two weeks after Jan. 6, ProPublica published an interactive timeline of more than 500 videos taken at or around the Capitol, providing one of the most comprehensive historical records of the infamous day at a moment when the public needed it to truly understand what had happened.
Kao, Lena V. Groeger, Al Shaw, Moiz Syed, Maya Eliahou and 31 other ProPublica staff members contributed to the project.
Together the videos created a social media-like experience, allowing users to scroll and watch videos from the day in chronological order. In them, you can see placid flag waving give way to rising tensions during Trump’s speech; you flow along with the mob as they march toward the Capitol; and you find yourself enveloped in tear gas and shattered glass as the crowd forces its way into the building. To accompany the presentation, we published a bracing, urgent overview of the day by Alec MacGillis and a behind-the-scenes explainer on why we published the videos.
Within days of publication, FBI agents began filing affidavits in support of arrests that drew on images from our app — there are dozens that cite the videos we published. Videos we surfaced were also cited throughout the second impeachment hearing of former President Trump. Many others have since been used by open source analysts to identify insurrectionists.
In a tie with ProPublica’s Jan. 6 coverage, reporting by The Texas Tribune and ProPublica on the 2021 Texas winter storm also won the IRE Award for breaking news. In February 2021, the deadliest winter storm North America has faced in almost three decades hit Texas, leaving millions of residents without access to electricity. As the blackouts extended from hours to days amid freezing weather and impassable roads, The Texas Tribune and ProPublica provided accountability reporting that explained why Texans were suffering. Jolie McCullough, Duncan Agnew, Erin Douglas, Kate McGee, Jeremy Schwartz, Kiah Collier and Vianna Davila contributed to the series or articles.
In one story, the Tribune reported that Texas officials knew winter storms could leave the state’s power grid vulnerable, but the government left the choice to prepare for harsh weather up to the power companies — many of which opted against the costly upgrades. An article by The Tribune and ProPublica further revealed how, time and time again, Texas regulators and lawmakers furthered the interests of large electricity providers instead of protecting its power grid.
See a list of all IRE Award winners.