By: Graham Webster
When someone at The Blade in Toledo, Ohio, heard that a local coin dealer named Tom Noe might be doing some business with the state, Jim Drew, the Blade’s Columbus bureau chief, started asking around. After all, what business does a coin dealer — one who is also one of the most prominent non-elected Republicans in the Toledo area — have with the government?
After calling several state agencies to ask whether they were doing business with Noe, Drew found out that the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation had invested $50 million of taxpayer money with a rare-coin business run by Noe, a major donor to the Republican administration in Ohio, and a “Pioneer” Bush fund-raiser. And so began the Blade’s local probe, which has now drawn national attention and shows no signs of coming to an end.
“I’ve been in the business for 11 years here and 18 years total,” said reporter Mike Wilkinson. “I’ve never worked on a story like this that’s had this much impact and has been this much fun.”
Even before it got national attention, the investigation was making waves locally, Wilkinson said: “In Toledo, you can’t drop a coin on the street without someone making a joke.”
In late 2004, after the initial tips, the investigation picked up steam as Wilkinson set out to survey about 20 states to see if any of them had ever invested in coins. When it turned out none had, the story seemed even more odd.
When the first story on the phenomenon ran on April 3, there was a lot of investigation still to do. Some of the revelations about missing coins and the criminal past of one of Noe’s contractors were yet to surface.
“Some advocates have said we should have waited and done a longer review than the one we did and come out with this all at once,” Wilkinson told E&P this week. But the Blade knew that the more questions they asked, the more likely one of the other papers in the state would pick up the scent.
After the paper published its first report, tips started pouring in, and Drew and Wilkinson started following them. Somewhat surprisingly in retrospect, many in the public didn’t think what Noe was doing was that big of a deal. After all, their reasoning went, the coin investments were making money for the state.
The Blade had considered in the beginning whether it was a story at all, but it became clear that there was something to it when the reporters found out that the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation’s internal auditor had written a memo in 2000 raising questions about Noe’s activities, Drew said. “In many ways this would not have been a story, if this one internal auditor for the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation hadn’t done his job,” he added.
“What was unusual to me is that we didn’t have any competition at that point,” said Drew, who called this the biggest investigative story he’s covered in 20 years in journalism. “No other newspapers were picking it up.”
Then, through some standard database work, including a LexisNexis search, Wilkinson discovered that one of Noe’s subcontractors had been convicted of using his coin dealership to launder drug money. The investigation built even more momentum when the Blade discovered that 119 coins had gone missing. “A lot of people had defended Mr. Noe in Columbus. The governor was saying this is just a vendetta of the newspaper,” Wilkinson said. When more stories came along, “the tenor” of the response changed, he added.
And as Noe’s status as a “Pioneer” Bush fund-raiser became better known, blogs and other national alternative media started watching the story. Ultimately the coverage has triggered several additional investigations, and it’s far from over.
For the Blade, which Wilkinson said has put the story on the front page more times than he can count, this investigation represents a major outlay of resources. Drew and Wilkinson both work full time (plus overtime) on the story. Three other reporters spend most of their time on it, and reporters have traveled to several states, as far away as California. “When this paper believes in a story, the cost doesn’t seem to matter, which is great to know as a reporter,” Wilkinson said.
But that doesn’t mean the Blade, which has fewer than 25 city desk reporters, doesn’t feel the strain. The only other reporter in the Columbus bureau now has to cover almost all of the beat reporting, and Wilkinson, for one, said there are plenty of stories he doesn’t get to work on because of the investigation. And no one knows when the story will settle down.
“There’s no end in sight,” Wilkinson said.