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How a trio of ProPublica reporters landed an explosive story on Justice Clarence Thomas

<i>Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images</i><br/>
AFP via Getty Images
Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images

By Oliver Darcy, CNN

It all started with a little curiosity.

A team of ProPublica reporters earlier this year began looking into the travel of various Supreme Court justices, not entirely sure what they would find, if anything. But after a little digging, the trio of journalists stumbled upon something that piqued their interest.

In fact, what they uncovered raised their eyebrows to such a degree that they believed the discovery was an explosive story in its own right: a trip that Clarence Thomas had taken aboard billionaire Harlan Crow’s private jet between Connecticut and Washington, D.C.

But their editors encouraged the team to keep working the story, Justin Elliott, a member of the reporting team, told me by phone on Thursday. “So we started grinding,” Elliot explained.

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From there, the story quickly grew in size and scope. “It snowballed,” Elliott said. Elliot and his co-authors, Joshua Kaplan and Alex Mierjeski, assembled a spreadsheet comprised of hundreds of people, methodically contacting potential sources as they built the story.

“The progress was gratifyingly steady,” Elliot told me, cautioning, however, that “it was not easy.”

Easy or not, the final product that published on Thursday morning was unquestionably worth the effort. The bombshell report included stunning details that accuse Thomas of having accepted ultra-luxury vacations and private jet travel from a Republican mega-donor for decades.

Even worse? “These trips appeared nowhere on Thomas’ financial disclosures,” the ProPublica team wrote. “His failure to report the flights appears to violate a law passed after Watergate that requires justices, judges, members of Congress and federal officials to disclose most gifts, two ethics law experts said.”

The story landed with a bang, shaking the political world and immediately eliciting statements of serious concern from legal experts and Washington lawmakers. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, a Democrat, said in a statement that the report was “a call to action.” Durbin added that “the Senate Judiciary Committee will act.”

What ultimately happens remains to be seen. But the immense fallout has already underscored the importance of journalism produced by non-profit newsrooms like ProPublica.

“From my perspective as a reporter,” Elliott told me, “I feel so lucky to have the reporting resources and time resources to do a heavy lift like this. There are not that many places where you can do that anymore. So we are grateful to have jobs at ProPublica.

“If there are any rich people reading,” Elliott added, “give your money to nonprofit journalism.”

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