David Cay Johnston is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter and best-selling author.
The Washington Monthly called him one of America’s most important journalists. The Portland Oregonian said his work equals the original muckrakers: Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, and Lincoln Steffens.
Johnston met Donald Trump in 1988 and in April 1990 revealed that Trump was no billionaire. When Trump announced his latest run for the White House in June 2015, Johnston was the only nationally-known journalist who immediately said Trump was serious this time and might get the GOP nomination. His reporting over the next year led to the Making of Donald Trump, published around the world in English and German on August 2, 2016, by Melville House.
The San Jose Mercury recruited Johnston when he was just 18 years old because of his reporting for two small weekly newspapers in Santa Cruz, Calif. At age 19 The Mercury hired him as a staff writer. Within weeks his byline made the front page.
Over the next four decades, his award-winning investigations appeared in that paper, the Detroit Free Press, Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The New York Times.
He was the first to expose LAPD political spying and brutality. He solved an especially vicious murder by confronting the real killer, winning freedom for an innocent man; deconstructed the way foreign agents from South Africa and Taiwan secretly influenced American government policy; explained the economics of former GE chairman Jack Welch’s retirement perks, prompting Welch to relinquish them; revealed the most secret partnership documents of Ernst & Young, resulting in its worldwide chief being forced out; saved hundreds of millions of dollars from being diverted from charities, and changed the way journalists report CEO pay by revealing aspects of executive compensation hiding in plain sight.
Long before inequality become a household concern, Johnston was documenting America’s growing income and wealth disparity, showing how little-known government policies take from the many to enrich the few. He also exposed how the law turns the income tax from a burden into a source of riches for many corporations and some individuals, including Donald Trump.
Johnston’s innovative coverage of tax issues in The New York Times from 1995 to 2008 exposed so many tax dodges and tax cheats that law Professor Richard Schmalbeck of Duke University called Johnston the de facto chief tax enforcement officer of the United States.
Just two of the many taxes dodges Johnston’s reporting shut down were valued by Congress, in just the first ten years, at more than $250 billion. His articles prompted many federal and state laws, regulations, and other changes as well as ended the careers of both Democrats and Republicans by revealing official misconduct.
Johnston’s work prompted the only major tax policy change by President George W. Bush, who quietly scrapped his stealth plan to allow super-wealthy Americans and their heirs to escape most income taxes.
Earlier reporting revealed that President Bill Clinton and Hillary paid more than twice as much federal income tax as the law required, after spending almost $10,000 a year to have their tax returns prepared. While this enraged Mrs. Clinton, the First Couple adopted Johnston’s implicit advice in their next tax return, lowering their income taxes and generating the maximum benefit for charity.
Johnston was the first national journalist to criticize President Obama’s failure to fulfill his promise of transparency, writing just nine days after his 2009 inauguration about policies that others would later confirm.
In 2012-14 Johnston was board president of the 5,700-member Investigative Reporters & Editors training organization. He has also been a trustee of a professional nonprofit theater and a graduate school of fine arts. With his oldest son, he co-founded American Family Resort Hotels, a lodging management company. He is currently board chairman of InvestigativePost.org, a nonprofit news agency in Buffalo.
Since 2009 Johnston has taught the business regulation, property, and tax law of the ancient world at Syracuse University College of Law. He previously taught writing, reporting, and magazine writing at the University of Southern California and UCLA Extension. He has lectured on four continents about journalistic techniques, ethics, legal theory, and tax policy.
Johnston was also a consultant on electricity regulation, rare earth, and journalism for the Netflix series House of Cards.
Johnston wrote a best-selling trilogy on the American Economy that is still in print Perfectly Legal (taxes), Free Lunch (subsidies), and The Fine Print (monopolies). He also wrote 1992 a casino industry expo Temples of Chance and edited Divided, a 2014 anthology on inequality.
His next book is The Prosperity Tax: A New Federal Tax Code for the 21st Century Economy. It will include both the legal language and an explanation of the economic, historical, and legal reasons that for the third time America needs to remake its federal tax laws.
Johnston was born in San Francisco on the last doubling birthdate of the 20th Century: 12-24-48.
In 1959, when he was 10, Johnston started working to help his family. He has worked full-time since age 13. He is the son of a disabled World War II veteran, a chef who worked for as long as he physically could, and a disowned heiress.
Able to attend college thanks to the War Orphans Act, Johnston earned enough credits for at least one master’s degree but has only a night high school diploma because he skipped most general education requirements in favor of upper-division and graduate study at seven schools including San Francisco State University and the University of Chicago. In 1974, at age 25, he wrote a textbook for the Michigan State University journalism department, A Guide to Michigan Public Records.
He writes a weekly column for TheDailyBeast.com and Investopedia.com as well as frequent opinion pieces for USA Today, the New York Daily News, National Memo.com, the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, and TaxAnalysts.org
Johnston is the father of eight grown children and has five grandsons. He is married to Jennifer Leonard, CEO of the Rochester Area Community Foundation and a national leader in promoting ethical standards in philanthropy. Since 1993 they have lived in Rochester, New York.