How an academic uncovers major national news

Seamus Hughes was doing what he does, reading a federal court document, when he noticed something strange: a reference to Julian Assange being secretly charged with a crime. But Hughes didn’t think much of it when he tweeted out an image of the document.

“And so when I sent it out, you know, my wife and I went to bed and then I woke up and it was the front page of The Washington Post that day and everywhere else,” Hughes said.

The nation’s federal court system produces thousands of pages of documents every single week. The indictments, detention memos and criminal complaints can reveal plenty of important information. But the problem is, almost no one reads them.

Seamus Hughes does.

The Assange document didn’t strike Hughes as a big deal because he’s almost constantly finding things in court filings that few others bother to read. Because of his searches we know the FBI raided campaign offices linked to Rep. Duncan Hunter and that a man from New Jersey secretly became an ISIS commander in Syria.

Hughes is also the person who discovered that a lieutenant in the U.S. Coast Guard had been charged with plotting a massive domestic terror attack. He fired off a series of tweets about it and the story led the evening news.

Hughes finds these scoops through a buggy government website called PACER that charges 10 cents per search.

“It’s godawful. You can’t use it unless you know how to use it right,” Hughes said. “It is absolutely a quirky system. You know, if you search a certain way you’re gonna get zero results. You search a different way you’ll get 10,000 results.”

Most of what Hughes finds – even the Julian Assange thing – doesn’t much matter to him. Hughes studies extremism and is supported by a staff of eight at George Washington’s Center for Extremism. Court filings are his best research material and he says he reads about 1,000 pages a day.

“You have to go through all of the haystack to get the needle,” Hughes said. “Because you’re dealing with a lot of stuff that is not talked about or possibly classified and you’ve got to break through that.”

What the program doesn’t have is a big platform. So Hughes will sometimes share what he’s found with journalists like The New York Times’ Adam Goldman.

“When Seamus contacts you, it’s usually a good thing. He’s probably got something,” Goldman said.

Most times though, he’ll just fire off a tweet. On the day CBS News visited he’d learned about an American woman’s ongoing support of ISIS. He tweeted the news to his 28,000 followers and hoped someone would notice.

“One of the things about Seamus that I find frustrating is sometimes he’ll take these sexy documents and he’ll just tweet them out,” Goldman said. “I don’t think it’s a good idea. I think he should give them to reporters so we can report them out and then write stories about them and put them on the front page of The New York Times. While giving credit to Seamus of course.”

Sometimes the tweet ends up on the front page anyway. Like when Hughes revealed members of the L.A. City Council were under investigation for a kickback scheme. The L.A. Times rushed a story onto the next morning’s cover all because Seamus had been bored the night before.

“It was purely ’cause the L.A. Rams were playing in the playoffs. Now that sounds silly, but I was watching the Rams. It was kinda boring … and so I just figured, what’s going on in L.A. in general and looked at the search warrants on PACER,” Hughes said. “It’s insane. Let’s be honest here, it makes no sense, but people have hobbies. I’ve got PACER. I’m okay with that in life.”

Hughes may be PACER’s foremost expert, but he’s also probably it’s biggest critic, complaining that even though he’s benefited from how hard it is to search, the rest of the public is not getting true access to its federal courts. He wants PACER fees eliminated and the website to actually work.

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