From Pipe Dream to Pulitzer

Journalist rewarded for untangling tax policy

Feature Image
Richard Perry, The New York Times
With David Kocieniewski in the Times newsroom are, from left: Audrey Gray, girlfriend, and daughters Devin and Katia Barrircklow.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Kocieniewski ’85 recalls the day he walked into The New York Times Assistant Managing Editor Glenn Kramon’s office to tell him he was intrigued by the paper’s tax beat, which had gone unfilled for two years.

“Glenn’s eyes started to glow,” he says. “I heard a click behind me. Somehow he’d managed to close and lock the door without moving a muscle. I realized instantly that I was not getting out of there before I signed on the dotted line.”

Kocieniewski (coach-uh-NESS-key), 49, who had written for the Times since 1995, yearned to carve out a new area of expertise after years spent covering New Jersey and, before that, crime. His investigations often explored the tawdry crossroads of money and politics in the careers of U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., and U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y. He exposed New York City police corruption and discovered street gangs so powerful in New Jersey that prosecutors were reluctant to bring homicide charges against them because witnesses felt so intimidated.

Kocieniewski’s stories on Rangel’s high-handedness — an oil driller who gave $1 million to a school named for Rangel received a $100 million tax break — convinced him that writing about tax policy held promise. He took the beat in 2010. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for his 2011 series, “But Nobody Pays That.” The series chronicled how some of the nation’s largest corporations and richest individuals used a complex web of loopholes to avoid paying income taxes.

“We were fortunate with the timing,” he says. “It added facts to the debate and helped people understand an issue that had been distorted by corporate double-talk, with companies pushing for lower tax breaks because they said they were paying too much.”

The series struck a chord with readers in 2011, as the Occupy movement focused attention on the 1 percent of Americans who control a significant part of the nation’s wealth, and debates raged about the future of the American middle class.

His findings were disturbing. General Electric, he discovered, paid no U.S. taxes on $5.1 billion in U.S. profits in 2010. Cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder used an aggressive tax strategy to preserve his manifold holdings. Video game manufacturers, meanwhile, used tax write-offs to make it one of the nation’s most highly subsidized businesses.

“He’s a relentless, meticulous, fair-minded reporter with the patience to learn one of the most complicated beats in journalism,” Kramon says. “Many businesses and wealthy Americans count on the fact that people find taxes too difficult and boring, and therefore won’t be watching when they try questionable means of avoiding them. David helps ensure that attention will be paid.”

Kocieniewski was the toast of the Times when the awards were announced in April. At the Times’ ceremony, his daughters, Katia, 11, and Devin Barricklow, 14, were at his side, with his girlfriend, Audrey Gray.

That day, he referred to himself as “an obsessive method-actor reporter who likes to immerse himself in what he covers. And when your assignment is something as arcane as the U.S. tax system, that can leave you sounding like one of those snarling street-corner preachers who wear fur coats in summer.”

For Kocieniewski, the Pulitzer capped a writing career that began at Binghamton University’s Pipe Dream. In the classroom, he was inspired by journalism faculty members Peter Benjaminson and Susan Harrigan, MBA ’86.

While an undergraduate, he wrote reviews for the local papers, The Evening Press and The Sun-Bulletin, on concerts by The Grateful Dead, Aerosmith and John Cougar Mellencamp. He earned his master’s in journalism at Columbia University, then landed his first job covering crime at The Detroit News. Four years later, he returned to New York, writing for New York Newsday during its bid to break into New York City’s newspaper market.

When the tabloid folded in 1995, Kocieniewski landed at the Times. He received his $10,000 Pulitzer check at a ceremony at
Columbia University’s Low Library, not far from the journalism building where he earned his master’s degree.

“At the Times, I’ve covered cops, New Jersey and taxes — these aren’t the glamour jobs. So to be given an award for an issue like this feels great, like an honor for everyone who toils in the trenches every day to put out the paper without getting much recognition. It’s like this one’s for all us working dogs.” 