Cambridge, Mass. — Reporter Pamela Colloff’s investigation of the dangers of relying on jailhouse informants, “He’s a Liar, a Con Artist and a Snitch. His Testimony Could Soon Send a Man to His Death,” is winner of the 2019 Taylor Family Award for Fairness in Journalism.
The Taylor Award judges also recognized two finalists:
- “Ashley’s Story,” an Indianapolis Star series by Marisa Kwiatkowski that tells the story of Ashley Peterson, a young woman whose challenges in life reflect the devastating long-term impact of childhood trauma.
- “The TurboTax Trap” by ProPublica reporters Justin Elliott and Paul Kiel, which uncovered years of deceptive practices by Intuit, the maker of TurboTax software. The company made billions of dollars by charging customers for services that should have been free and by blocking the U.S. government’s attempts to offer a free tax-filing system.
In her winning article, Pamela Colloff, a senior reporter at ProPublica and staff writer for The New York Times Magazine, revealed that longtime con man Paul Skalnik—who falsely claimed to be everything from an undercover FBI agent to a decorated fighter pilot—is likely one of the most prolific jailhouse informants in U.S. history. He has testified or provided information in at least 37 cases in Pinellas County, Florida alone and helped to send four men to death row, including inmate James Dailey.
In examining Dailey’s case, Colloff raised serious questions both about Skalnik’s testimony and Dailey’s guilt, exposing the much broader systemic problems related to using untrustworthy jailhouse informants in court. Colloff showed that Skalnik often served as a closing witness for prosecutors in return for favorable treatment and shorter sentences, benefits not revealed to jurors.
In addition to appearing on ProPublica’s website, Colloff’s article was published as “False Witness,” a cover story for The New York Times Magazine, and as “How This Con Man’s Wild Testimony Sent Dozens to Jail, and 4 to Death Row” for The New York Times Magazine online.
Colloff collected and reviewed an extensive amount of material, including thousands of pages of police reports, arrest records, jail logs, probation and parole records, pretrial interviews and correspondence and court records dating back to the 1970s, in both Florida and Texas, from nearly 40 criminal cases. She interviewed dozens of people who knew Skalnik and filed more than 50 public records requests for documents.
After the piece was published, newspaper editorial boards and columnists in Florida cited Colloff’s reporting when raising concerns about Dailey’s pending execution and called on Gov. Ron DeSantis to take action. Dailey’s case is now under review in a Florida circuit court and DeSantis has vowed to postpone setting an execution date until Dailey’s appeals have gone through the courts.
Commenting on the series, Taylor Award judge Jason Grotto, a senior reporter for Bloomberg News, said: “This tale not only raises fundamental questions of fairness in criminal proceedings but also demonstrates the effectiveness of fairness in journalism. Pursuing the key character to his potential deathbed to confront him and give him his say brings the story to life while also exposing the man for who he is and revealing the hypocrisies of our criminal justice system. Neither the man nor the system can credibly withstand the reams of meticulously gathered evidence Colloff brings to bear. Hanging in the balance, meanwhile, is the life of a person who may be innocent.”
Taylor Award judge Kathleen McGrory, deputy investigations editor at The Tampa Bay Times, added: “As someone who lives and works in the Tampa area, I had read a lot about the case at the center of Colloff’s story. Still, I found her work to be surprising, damning and outrageous. In addition, I thought the writing was pristine and the story structure was flawless. The work is a master class in both records reporting and narrative writing.”
In “Ashley’s Story,” IndyStar investigative reporter Marisa Kwiatkowski, now an investigative reporter at USA Today, spent four years examining the effects of trauma on one woman’s life. The five-part narrative series follows Ashley Peterson from her birth in 1990 to the present, following her journey through daunting obstacles: She was taken from her birth mother when she was just 2 years old, sexually abused by her foster father, used as a political pawn in a debate over gay adoption and abandoned by her adoptive mother at the age 10. She later faced years of fights, hospital stays, rape and sexual encounters with older men.
With permission from Ashley and her family members, Kwiatkowski was granted access to confidential information including child welfare, birth, hospital, and mental health records, meeting notes, adoption packets, journal entries and emails. She also obtained police, court and legislative records from more than two decades.
Less than two days after IndyStar published the series, the man who abused Ashley as a child was arrested for parole violations. During his parole hearing, he admitted for the first time that he had abused four other children and was sent back to prison.
In addition to Kwiatkowski, the others who worked on the IndyStar series were photojournalist Mykal McEldowney and Steve Berta, investigative editor.
Taylor judge and journalist Finlay Young said: “This is a really good example of fairness in journalism, particularly in the way it did not seek to simplify or patronize any of the people featured. I admired this engagement with complexity and the commitment of the journalist to getting to the bottom of Ashley’s story over a period of years, reaching beyond interlocutors who had clearly spoken on her behalf for a long time. Gaining the trust of someone who had been treated so poorly by so many people must have been extremely difficult, and it’s a tribute to the journalist that she managed to tell this story so beautifully and accurately.”
The Turbo Tax Trap
In “The TurboTax Trap” ProPublica reporters Justin Elliott and Paul Kiel disclosed that Intuit, the maker of the popular tax-reporting software TurboTax, had for years used tricks to charge customers for services that should have been provided free of charge and lobbied to prevent the U.S. government from offering its own free tax-filing program to the public.
After the first story was published, the response from taxpayers and industry insiders was so great that Elliott and ProPublica’s engagement team created two questionnaires to help compile information. More than 700 people submitted stories, leading to new reporting. That included details about how Intuit had hidden the website for the government-sponsored free filing program from Google in order to direct traffic to its own commercial product. The investigation also exposed collusion between Intuit and the government that allowed the company to earn billions in profit.
Elliott and Kiel obtained confidential information about the work environment inside Intuit, where employees were expected to sign NDAs and warned not to speak to reporters. They also filed 13 FOIA requests during the course of their investigation.
The series has led to a number of reforms regarding the tax-filing system and has generated multiple investigations and lawsuits. Congress abandoned a provision that would have prevented the government from creating its own free online tax-filing system and companies are now barred from hiding their free products from search engines.
At least five state attorneys general began investigations of Intuit in response to ProPublica’s reporting and numerous individual tax filers sued Intuit in federal court. Intuit issued refunds to hundreds of people who claimed, following the publication of ProPublica’s stories, that they had been tricked into paying for service. Intuit also requested that the Free File agreement no longer ban the IRS from developing an online filing system. The IRS recently announced that use of the Free File program has increased by about 600,000 users since last year.
In addition to reporters Justin Elliott and Paul Kiel, the members of the team that produced “The TurboTax Trap” are engagement editor Ariana Tobin, visual investigations producer Lucas Waldron and social media and platforms editor Kengo Tsutsumi.
Taylor Award judge Zeke Faux, a reporter for Bloomberg News, said: “Congress created a program to save people money. A big company subverted it. And the company would have kept making millions if these reporters hadn’t exposed what they were up to—a classic exposé that will help taxpayers for years to come.”
The judges who selected this year’s Taylor Award winner and finalists are Jason Grotto, a senior projects and investigations reporter at Bloomberg News and a 2015 Nieman Fellow who won the 2017 Taylor Award for “The Tax Divide,” reported for the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois; Zeke Faux, a reporter for Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Businessweek magazine who won the 2018 Taylor Award for “Sign Here to Lose Everything”; Finlay Young, a Scottish reporter and 2018 Taylor Award finalist for ProPublica’s “Unprotected”; and Kathleen McGrory, deputy investigations editor at The Tampa Bay Times, and Neil Bedi, an investigative reporter at The Tampa Bay Times, whose series “Heartbroken” was a finalist for the 2018 Taylor Award.
The Taylor Award is presented by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. The honor includes a $10,000 prize for the winner and $1,000 each for the two finalists. The award program was established through gifts for an endowment by members of the Taylor family, who published The Boston Globe from 1872 to 1999. The purpose of the award is to encourage fairness in news coverage by America’s journalists and news organizations.
The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard educates leaders in journalism and elevates the standards of the profession through special programs that convene scholars and experts in all fields. More than 1,600 journalists from 99 countries have been awarded Nieman Fellowships since 1938. The foundation’s other initiatives include Nieman Reports, a quarterly print and online magazine that covers thought leadership in journalism; Nieman Lab, a website that reports on the future of news, innovation and best practices in the digital media age; and Nieman Storyboard, a website that showcases exceptional narrative journalism and explores the future of nonfiction storytelling.