Insurance companies and their employees were among the top political donors to state commissioner candidates during the past decade in at least six of the 11 states that elect the regulators. The Center for Public Integrity found a pattern of coziness between the insurance industry and the state commissioners who regulate them, ranging from political donations to job offers. Here, a campaign worker puts up a poster for a 2014 insurance commissioner candidate in Los Angeles. Chris Carlson/AP
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An in-depth Center for Public Integrity investigation unveiling close ties between state insurance commissioners and the industry they regulate has been honored with a prestigious Online Journalism Award.

The project, Drinks, dinners, junkets and jobs: how the insurance industry courts state commissioners, received the Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award in the small newsroom category on Saturday at the Online News Association’s conference in Washington, D.C.

“This was a vitally important investigation that shined a revealing light on the little-understood conflicts-of-interest that continue to plague state government,” said Gordon Witkin, the Center’s executive editor.

Using interviews, lobbyist reports, regulator financial disclosures, court documents, campaign finance records and more than 3,700 pages of emails obtained through open records laws in 13 states, the initial piece documented the cozy relationships between the nation’s insurance companies and their regulators.

It documented the extent of a revolving door in which jobs are sought over lunches and dinners while commissioners are still in office. It mapped the financial ties regulators have to the insurers they oversee, even as their government offices are underfunded and understaffed. And it showed how these tight bonds diminish consumers’ voices as insurers press rate increases, shape regulations and scuttle investigations.

A follow-up piece highlighted the millions of dollars in political contributions that insurers made to sway 2016 races determining who would regulate the nation’s insurance companies.

The pieces were written by Michael J. Mishak, with data assistance by Ben Wieder, and edited by Kytja Weir.

Versions of the stories were co-published in The Washington Post, the Hartford Courant, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and TIME.

The project was also honored as a finalist for the Gerald Loeb Awards and the Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism from the Association of Health Care Journalists.

The Center has been recognized by the ONA digital journalism contest at least 19 times since the awards were launched in 2000. Among other honorees this year were The New York Times, The Washington Post, ProPublica, the Marshall Project and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.

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