Wednesday, 12 June 2024 09:06

Reader Tips Propelled Our Supreme Court Reporting. Now Your Info Could Power Our 2024 Election Coverage.

A few hours after we published a story on the luxury travel a billionaire provided to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, the email arrived in my inbox.

A reader had tapped out a single sentence on their iPhone and hit send: We should look, it said, at a relative Thomas had taken in and raised as a son. The reader informed me that Harlan Crow, the same politically connected billionaire who had bankrolled the justice’s travels around the globe, had also paid private school tuition for the relative.

My colleagues and I chased down the tip; a key break came when we found direct evidence of the billionaire’s tuition payments in some bankruptcy filings for one of the private schools in question. As we reported in the resulting story a few weeks later, the billionaire had paid roughly $100,000 for private school tuition, essentially a gift of cash to a sitting Supreme Court justice.

Crow’s office told us that he “has long been passionate about the importance of quality education and giving back to those less fortunate.” Thomas didn’t respond to questions for the story. On Friday, the justice acknowledged for the first time in a new financial disclosure filing that he should have publicly reported two free vacations he received from Crow.

At ProPublica, we often discuss the concept of the “maximum story.” It comes up when we’re deciding whether it’s worth spending a chunk of time reporting on a given topic. In gambler’s terms, it translates to what’s the biggest potential payoff of making this bet? What’s the best story, the one most vital to the public, that we might land?

It’s a useful idea, but the truth is the maximum story is often one we can’t even imagine. That was the case with the private school tuition tip. My co-workers and I had spent the previous four months piecing together the luxury travel provided to Thomas, but we had not dreamed that a billionaire was also secretly paying basic living expenses for a justice.

And we never would have thought to look if not for the reader who made the decision to write in with that tip. I’ve been a reporter here at ProPublica for more than 12 years covering politics and business, and every major story I’ve worked on has been propelled forward by tips.

I spent years reporting on how Intuit, the maker of TurboTax, has worked against making tax preparation easier and less costly. When I wrote about misleading marketing tactics by Intuit that cost Americans tax filers billions of dollars, I relied on tips from employees at all levels of the company. Sometimes we heard from executives who attended strategy meetings; other times we heard from customer service reps who were unsettled by what they were being asked to do.

After we published, we heard from hundreds of readers who’d experienced deceptive tactics, and we wrote about that, too. In the end, those stories directly led to a legal settlement that delivered $141 million back to consumers.

Many of my sources need to be anonymous, so I’m somewhat limited in what I can tell you about them. In the past, they’ve included company insiders like the Intuit employees or whistleblowers who have seen something that troubled them. But I’m constantly surprised by what I think of as the hydraulics of information: something heard in a restaurant, seen on the street or mentioned by a relative. Those, too, are often important leads for our reporting.

The team behind the award-winning Supreme Court series: from left, Brett Murphy, Alex Mierjeski, Justin Elliott, Kirsten Berg and Joshua Kaplan Credit: Sarahbeth Maney/ProPublica

Going from a tip or rumor to a confirmed story can take weeks or months of reporting, of course. That’s especially true because I focus on the rich and powerful: people, companies and organizations that use money and influence to shield themselves from scrutiny. My ability to home in on those important stories relies on hearing from people like you.

Right now I’m reporting on the election. There’s no shortage of political coverage, but I’m still convinced there are important stories about wrongdoing that haven’t been told yet. I’m interested in the world of Donald Trump — his campaign, businesses and the people around him — as well as the broader 2024 political scene. Tips about other candidates, Democrats and Republicans, are also welcome.

I’m also always looking for under-covered stories about business and politics more broadly, no matter the specific subject.

If you know something you think I should know — a rumor, an observation, something you’ve noticed that’s unusual or concerning — please get in touch. Even if it seems small or you heard it second hand, what you know may be hugely important.

How to Reach Me

My email is [email protected]. You can call or text me at 774-826-6240. If you use the secure messaging apps Signal or WhatsApp, I’m also at that number.

My Mailing Address

Justin Elliott
ProPublica
155 Ave. of the Americas
13th Floor
New York, NY 10013

Here’s What to Expect if You Reach Out

I’ll read whatever you send. I check my texts and email often. You can also leave a voicemail or even send a physical letter.

Many of my stories rely on people who need to be anonymous, and I take privacy very seriously.

If you have an idea but you think it’s a better fit for another reporter, you can find instructions for how to share information with us securely on our general tips page.