Saving Ohio

Did a reporter with GOP ties suppress a story that could have cost Bush the White House?

Published October 6, 2005 8:15AM (EDT)

In April 2005, the Blade newspaper of Toledo, Ohio, began publishing a remarkable series of articles about a well-connected Republican donor, Tom Noe, chair of the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign for Lucas County, which encompasses Toledo. The Blade, which had won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting in 2004, discovered that Noe, a Toledo coin dealer, was investing $50 million for the state through the novel practice of coin speculation: buying and selling rare coins to turn a profit. Noe, the Blade revealed, could not account for $10 million to $13 million in the fund.

The paper also divulged that Noe had been placed under federal investigation for allegedly laundering money -- perhaps state money -- to the Bush campaign. The Blade's initial reports on Noe started a chain reaction of related scandals for Ohio's dominant Republicans. Recently, Gov. Bob Taft pleaded no contest to accepting several gifts from influence peddlers -- including Noe -- without reporting them, as law requires. Noe is currently the subject of 13 investigations.

In November 2004, Lucas County was among the most hotly contested areas in the most hotly contested state. Kerry won the county by 45,000 votes, but George W. Bush went on to win Ohio by less than 120,000 votes, which swung the election for him.

But Bush's reelection may have been made possible by a Blade reporter with close ties to the Republican Party who reportedly knew about Noe's potential campaign violations in early 2004 but suppressed the story.

According to several knowledgeable sources, the Blade's chief political columnist, Fritz Wenzel, was told of Noe's potential campaign violations as early as January 2004. But according to Blade editors, Wenzel never gave the paper the all-important tip in early 2004.

Wenzel says that he heard allegations of Noe's misdeeds only in spring 2004 and that he promptly informed his editors of them.

Wenzel, who worked for years as a GOP political operative in Oregon before the Blade hired him, quit the Blade in May 2005 to take a job as a paid political consultant to Jean Schmidt, the Republican congressional candidate who in August narrowly defeated Democratic challenger (and Iraq war vet) Paul Hackett.

Of course, no one can say for sure whether Ohio voters would have cast their ballots differently if they had known about allegations that Bush's campaign boss in Toledo was hijacking money from the state to keep the campaign humming. But native Ohioan John Robinson Block, publisher and editor in chief of the Blade, which endorsed Kerry, thinks it's a strong possibility. Had the "Coingate" scandal blown up before the election, Block says, "most Republicans I know agree that Kerry would have won Ohio and won the presidency." Rep. Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat whose district includes Toledo, feels the same. "I think it would have tipped the election," she says.

The story of how Wenzel learned about the alleged violations, and why he allegedly sat on the information, reveals a Toledo political scene right out of "Peyton Place," complete with a cast of backstabbers. It begins in January 2004, when Tom Noe's wife, Bernadette Noe -- who chaired the local Republican Party and sat on the Board of Elections -- approached Lucas County prosecutor Julia Bates, a Democrat. Bernadette Noe raised ethical questions about Joe Kidd, a well-connected Republican who was then director of the Board of Elections. She told the prosecutor's office she suspected Kidd was receiving money from Diebold, the now-notorious manufacturer of voting machines. Bates says that Bernadette Noe's source for the allegations was Joe Kidd's estranged wife, Tracy, with whom Bernadette practiced law. Bates says it's possible that Bernadette's allegations against Kidd were motivated by sympathy for her friend Tracy.

Paula Ross, a former Lucas County Democratic Party chair, who also sat on the Board of Elections, confirms that Bernadette Noe went to the prosecutor to tarnish Kidd. Ross says she talked with both Bernadette and Kidd. In January 2004, Ross says, "I was contacted by Bernadette, who made allegations about Joe. I then spoke with Joe, who assured me that the allegations were false. He believed he could persuade Bernadette to stop making these false allegations because he had information about [Noe and her husband] that could put them in jail." The information, says Ross, was that Tom Noe was laundering money to the Bush campaign.

Kidd retaliated against the Noes by going to Wenzel, in January 2004, according to a Toledo Republican Party insider familiar with the affairs of the Board of Elections, and sources familiar with the Blade. Kidd told Wenzel that Tom Noe was illegally funneling money to the Bush campaign and also running a questionable coin investment with the state. Sources confirmed that Kidd told them he had this conversation with Wenzel. Kidd would not comment for this article.

Bates, the Lucas County prosecutor, confirms that Kidd came to her in March 2004 with an outline of Noe's campaign money laundering, and that it was crucial in helping her office ultimately build a case against Noe. The prosecutor won't say if Kidd himself took Noe's money and gave it to Bush, thus laundering it (that is, making it a legitimate campaign donation). But she does say that, upon first glance, she found it "interesting" that he gave $2,000, considering he was a civil servant on a modest income. Other sources say that Kidd, along with several local Republican officials, did in fact launder money. This summer, Kidd testified in front of the federal grand jury convened to investigate Noe's alleged money-laundering scheme. Bates says her office considered offering Kidd immunity in exchange for help building the case. "We thought the key was Joe," says Bates, so she encouraged him to get a lawyer and produce all the evidence he could. Kidd, who was also being investigated for the allegations Bernadette Noe made against him, cooperated.

Wenzel declined to be interviewed for this story. He responded with this general statement issued through attorney Mark Berling, who formerly sat on the Lucas County Republicans' executive committee: "When a source conveyed an allegation about Tom Noe's possible involvement with campaign finance irregularities in the spring of 2004, I promptly informed Blade editors about what I had been told."

But Blade editors deny that Wenzel ever informed them about the allegations. The Blade's special projects editor, Dave Murray, who was Wenzel's assigning editor at the time, says Wenzel would have come to him with any such information about Noe. But, Murray says, "he never came to me, and, as far as I know, he never came to other Blade editors." Speaking for the other Blade editors, assistant editor LuAnn Sharp says no one recollects Wenzel turning over any such information. (Full disclosure: This reporter once applied for a job at the Toledo Blade.)

Blade editor in chief Block and other editors say they don't believe that Wenzel intentionally sat on the story.

Both Wenzel and his son had personal relationships with the Noes. In March 2004, Wenzel's son, P.J., was elected to the Lucas County Republican Central Committee. At the time, Bernadette Noe still chaired the Lucas County Republican Party. From April 15, 2005, to the end of May, P.J. Wenzel was on the payroll of the Ohio Republican Party. The Noes also attended the younger Wenzel's wedding.

A month before Wenzel left the paper, at the Lucas County Republicans' annual "Lincoln Day" dinner, Bernadette Noe made a speech in which she announced Wenzel would be leaving the paper for his consulting business. She wished him well at the dinner, which was attended by all three Republican gubernatorial candidates.

As the Blade's chief political writer, Wenzel reported and commented on politics. He also ran his own Web site, (whose homepage says it is "temporarily out of commission"), which he touted as offering in-depth analysis of northwest Ohio politics. Democrats charged that Wenzel's reporting was biased toward Republicans. The Blade's ombudsman, Jack Lessenberry, agreed: "At times I felt that his reporting was slanted to favor Republican positions or Republican candidates," Lessenberry says.

The Noe story is not the first time Wenzel has been suspected of conflict of interest. During the 2004 election season, Wenzel worked simultaneously for the Blade and for Zogby International, the polling firm. President and CEO John Zogby said that Wenzel worked for the company as a "senior political writer" between roughly May and October 2004. The work he did for Zogby acknowledged that Wenzel was a political reporter for the Blade. But in at least four columns he wrote for the Blade at the time he was working for Zogby, Wenzel cited Zogby polls without disclosing his affiliation. John Block expressed surprise and concern that Wenzel cited Zogby without disclosure: "He shouldn't have cited Zogby. I have to say, that's the first I've heard of that." According to Bob Steele, a journalism professor specializing in ethics at the Poynter Institute, the problem goes beyond Wenzel's failure to acknowledge the relationship. Steele points to a question of "competing loyalty," and says, "To disclose his connection to Zogby alerts readers to that conflict of interest and competing loyalty, but that disclosure doesn't make the problem go away."

In spring 2004, while Lucas County prosecutors began to investigate Noe's campaign irregularities, the Blade, without Wenzel's scoop, remained in the dark. Assistant editor Sharp says that the Blade's editors and reporters received worthwhile tips about the Noe campaign finance improprieties "around September." Prosecutor Bates, whose daughter and son-in-law are Blade reporters, says she can't remember anyone from the paper coming to her about the investigation until then. "I don't recall any official inquiry until [Blade reporter] Mark Reiter came to me in early fall," she says. Bates says that was right around the time she was obliged to turn over the investigation to federal prosecutors, which made it much more difficult for reporters to unearth information. At any rate, it was only a few weeks before the election.

On April 3, 2005, the first Blade story about Noe and the coin investments appeared. With the Blade's aggressive reporting, the story quickly gathered state and national attention, but Wenzel, who was still at the Blade, never wrote anything about it in the paper. Additionally, he never wrote about it in the many posts on his personal blog. Sharp says the Blade did not restrain Wenzel from writing about Coingate.

Although he never wrote about Coingate, Wenzel did blog on his Web site about Bernadette Noe and the Lincoln Day dinner on April 14. Although this was 11 days after the Blade published its first Coingate story, Wenzel failed to mention one of the biggest political scandals in Ohio history. Instead, Wenzel fawned over Bernadette Noe. "Also not fading is former GOP chairman Bernadette Noe. She was honored last night for her service to the party, then held up a copy of yesterday's Toledo Free Press, reminding those present to check out her new column (Great picture, Bernie!). But that's not all. A new television talk show and radio program are in the works. Talk about multi-tasking."

After leaving the Blade on Friday, May 13, Wenzel officially went to work the following Monday as congressional candidate Jean Schmidt's media consultant. Schmidt, a Cincinnati-area Republican who formerly headed Cincinnati Right to Life, was running for Congress in the most staunchly conservative corner of the state. Wenzel's company, Wenzel Strategies, received $30,000 from the Schmidt campaign that Monday and another $30,000 a week later. His role was to handle media issues in the hotly contested special election.

News organizations, including Salon, have questioned whether Wenzel was already working as a consultant for Schmidt prior to leaving the Blade, which would constitute an obvious conflict of interest. As early as May 3, Wenzel wrote blog entries about the Schmidt race and made disparaging remarks about Schmidt's primary opponents on his Web site. Regarding Pat DeWine, one of Schmidt's primary opponents, Wenzel wrote: "DeWine also has personal problems. He left his wife when she was eight months pregnant with their third child to take up with another woman. You could say he thinks so much of family values that he has decided to start another."

Wenzel's blog entries were pulled from the Web shortly after his ties to the Schmidt campaign came under scrutiny, but Wenzel denies he was working for Schmidt and the Blade simultaneously. He reportedly told a Cincinnati paper that he had a "busy weekend" drumming up Schmidt's business right after he left the Blade.

Block, the publisher and editor in chief, says he has confidence in the integrity of Wenzel's overall tenure at the Blade, but doesn't believe Wenzel kept the Schmidt job separate from his time at the paper. "You don't just leave on one day and then immediately set up your consulting business," Block says. "I think that in his final period at the Blade, it was getting close to a conflict of interest. I'm not going to deny that."

In October 2004, Bates turned her investigation into Noe's campaign irregularities over to the U.S. Department of Justice. That was three weeks before the election, not enough time, Bates says, to affect the outcome.

The Coingate scandal continues to grow. The Blade still diligently hounds the story amid growing revelations about the Noes and Republican problems statewide. Wenzel is basking in political success, having helped take Schmidt from being an outside contender in the primaries to sitting in the U.S. House of Representatives. Ohio government is still thoroughly dominated by Republicans, but, as Blade editors and Democrats are quick to note, that might soon be changing, thanks to the scandal. What won't change is that Coingate never got reported in 2004, and George W. Bush won the presidency.

By Bill Frogameni

Bill Frogameni lives and writes in northwest Ohio.

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