The University of California, Los Angeles, Anderson School of Management announced that two ProPublica projects are winners of this year’s Gerald Loeb Awards, among the most prestigious prizes in business and financial journalism.
“The TurboTax Trap” by Justin Elliott and Paul Kiel won the Loeb Award for personal finance and consumer reporting. The series revealed that Intuit, whose TurboTax business has helped the company become a $69 billion Silicon Valley colossus, has spent millions in lobbying to ban the IRS from offering free, simple tax filing, in addition to deceiving customers who should qualify for its Free File product.
The series’ first story in April of 2019 revealed that Congress was poised to bar the government from creating its own free, online tax filing system as part of the innocuous-sounding Taxpayer First Act. An outcry followed, and multiple members said they had not been aware of the implications of the provision, which had long been sought by lobbyists for Intuit. In June, Congress removed the provision.
Later stories showed how TurboTax uses deceptive design and misleading ads to get people to pay to file their taxes, even when they are eligible to file for free. Elliott and Kiel detailed how the website steers lower-income tax filers to paid versions of its service. They also revealed that Intuit was deliberately hiding the free edition from Google search by adding code on its site telling Google and other search engines not to list TurboTax Free File in search results.
In response to this reporting, the IRS launched an internal review, which resulted in major changes to its deal with the tax-prep industry. Among other changes, the IRS barred companies from hiding their free products from search engines and scrapped a years-old prohibition on the IRS creating its own online filing system.
“Profiting From the Poor,” a project by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a partner in the ProPublica Local Reporting Network, won the Loeb Award for local. Reporter Wendi C. Thomas exposed the predatory debt collection practices of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, the largest health care system in Memphis, Tennessee. She showed how Methodist was suing and garnishing the wages of thousands of patients for unpaid hospital bills.
Thomas found that, over a five-year period, in the second-poorest large city in the nation, Methodist sued more than 8,300 people. Another story revealed that many of the people who Methodist sued were its own employees. The lawsuits made it hard, if not impossible, for poor people to make ends meet. The small monthly payments many defendants could afford were drowned by the 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 with other nonprofit hospitals across the state. Deborah Douglas from MLK50 and ProPublica’s Maya Miller, Beena Raghavendran and Doris Burke also contributed to the series.
Outrage from the series was swift. Less than five weeks after 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.
See all of this year’s Loeb Award winners here.