The Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism announced Monday that “The Secret IRS Files” by ProPublica won Gold and "The Cutting," a Local Reporting Network project in partnership with The Oregonian/OregonLive and Oregon Public Broadcasting, won Bronze in the Barlett & Steele Awards. Named after the formidable team of investigative business journalists Don Barlett and Jim Steele, these annual awards honor “incisive business reporting that ‘tells us something we don’t know.’”
“The Secret IRS Files” is an unprecedented analysis of wealth and inequality that reveals in startling detail precisely how the richest Americans routinely — and usually perfectly legally — sidestep the U.S. tax system.
In the first story, “The Secret IRS Files: Trove of Never-Before-Seen Records Reveal How the Wealthiest Avoid Income Tax,” Jesse Eisinger, Jeff Ernsthausen and Paul Kiel showed how the wealthiest Americans can pay income taxes that are only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions, if not billions, their fortunes grow each year. The second major story in the series, “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” by Justin Elliott, Patricia Callahan and James Bandler, examined how the ultrawealthy hijacked a middle-class vehicle for retirement savings, the Roth IRA, and quietly converted it into a mammoth on-shore tax shelter. The third major story, “The Billionaire Playbook: How Sports Owners Use Their Teams to Avoid Millions in Taxes” by Robert Faturechi, Elliott and Ellis Simani, revealed how sports team owners save massive sums in taxes by reporting team losses to the IRS even as the teams make real-world profits.
ProPublica’s analysis, based on a vast trove of never-before-seen IRA data, showed that many effectively live outside the income tax system altogether. In some years, the team’s reporting showed, some of America’s most powerful billionaires paid literally zero income taxes. For the first time, such stories quantify precisely how much is being gained from such maneuvers — at a cost of higher deficits and less money for pressing societal needs.
The series is spurring leading lawmakers, including the chairs of the key committees in both houses of Congress, to call for tax reforms. Beyond this, ProPublica’s reporting has reignited conversations about inequality and inspired dozens of further reports and commentary across the country and the full spectrum of views.
“The Cutting,” by reporters Rob Davis of The Oregonian/OregonLive and Tony Schick of Oregon Public Broadcasting, was the first systemic investigation into the Oregon timber industry’s unseen role in hollowing out the state’s rural communities. Also contributing to the project were ProPublica staff members Lylla Younes, a data journalist, and Maya Miller, an engagement reporter.
Reporters examined the industry’s ownership shift toward Wall Street real estate trusts and investment funds. The news organizations scrutinized a series of decisions by lawmakers that permanently cut timber taxes; created a tax-funded agency, the Oregon Forest Resources Institute, to promote logging; and weakened environmental regulations.
The result was an unprecedented look at how the ownership of Oregon’s private forests has become concentrated among a handful of Wall Street investors and wealthy timber families, and how the tax burden for these corporations is in some cases 100 times lower than for local residents.
Following the news organizations’ reporting on OFRI, Gov. Kate Brown called for an audit, which was released in July by Oregon’s secretary of state. It found that the institute misled the public by presenting a biased view of forestry and might have broken the law by trying to influence policy. In a written response, the agency’s director agreed to implement the auditors’ recommendations by late 2022.
View the full list of winners.