More Dread in Ohio

By: Joe Strupp

In this off-year campaign season, one congressional election in Ohio had all the makings of an eye-opener, particularly in light of the state’s current “Coingate” scandal. With an open seat in the Buckeye State?s conservative 2nd congressional district, voters there went to the polls Tuesday to choose between two quite different opponents.

Democrat Paul Hackett drew national attention as the first Iraq War veteran to garner a major party congressional nomination, while heavily favored Jean Schmidt, who knocked out rivals in the primary, carried the Republican banner. They both sought to fill the seat left vacant by former Republican Rep. Rob Portman, who left to become U.S. trade representative under President Bush. (Schmidt narrowly won the heavily Republican district.)

The campaign had one added twist: Schmidt?s media strategist, Fritz Wenzel, is a former political reporter for The Blade of Toledo, which has gained fresh renown in breaking the Coingate story this spring. Wenzel spent 10 years on the Blade?s political beat before jumping ship to work for Schmidt, virtually the day after he left the paper in May.

Wenzel, a one-time reporter at The Oregonian in Portland, left that paper in the late 1980s to serve several stints in Oregon GOP campaigns — both paid and unpaid — before he joined the Blade in 1995. Blade Publisher John R. Block says he liked the fact that Wenzel had worked in the campaign world when he brought him aboard to cover politics in northwest Ohio.

One of the key contacts Wenzel made along the way in Ohio was the man now at the center of the state?s ?Coingate? scandal, Tom Noe, who orchestrated the investment in rare coins of tens of millions of dollars in state funds. After the Blade uncovered the investments, and the millions of dollars that have been lost through them, Noe found himself at the center of a number of investigations.

While nothing improper has been proven, Wenzel?s ties to Noe have drawn new interest following the Coingate revelations, and a more recent investigation into the possible laundering of campaign contributions to Bush?s 2004 race by Noe. Neither investigation was ever reported by Wenzel when he was chief poltical reporter at the Blade.

Noe, a major Republican fund-raiser, attended the wedding of Wenzel’s son, P.J., a state GOP employee, while Noe’s wife, Bernadette, praised Wenzel during a GOP Lincoln Day Dinner this spring. “It was obvious that [Wenzel] was a Republican, he never hid the fact,” Dennis Lang, interim chair of the Lucas County Republican Central Committee, told me last month. “But his work stayed in neutral ground.”

Not according to the Lucas County Democratic Party, which devoted a page on its Web site to blasting Wenzel for alleged inaccuracy and bias. Suspicions about partisan leanings were further fueled when Wenzel signed on as media strategist for Schmidt. Disclosure records show Wenzel received $30,000 from Schmidt’s campaign on May 16, the day his last column for the Blade appeared, and three days after he left the paper. He got another $30,000 from those coffers a week later, according to records. Part of the money went to media buys.

Wenzel’s career change also renewed rumors, so far unsubstantiated, that his ties to Noe and the GOP may help explain why he not only failed to uncover Coingate but also the illegal funneling investigation. Several Blade editors told me they’d heard rumors that Wenzel learned as early as January 2004 about a federal investigation into Noe’s alleged illegal donations, none of which emerged in the press until this past spring.

Wenzel, in a statement to E&P, said he “promptly informed Blade editors” in the spring of 2004 after hearing that Noe might have been involved in campaign irregularities, but that he could never prove anything because “no source ever produced any evidence.” Dave Murray, the Blade’s special projects editor, told me the paper had a reporter check out the rumors, and found that Wenzel knew nothing. Editor Ron Royhab said he did not know “what Fritz may or may not have known,” but did not believe he would purposely withhold information.

Block, the Blade’s publisher and editor-in-chief, acknowledges that Wenzel might have known about the investigation, but not Noe’s involvement, and in any case, it was a grand jury with no leaks. He contends Wenzel’s failure to follow it might have been more laziness than bias. “For whatever reason, Fritz did not call this to our attention,” Block told me. “But anyone who says he did it for politics, it’s a cheap shot. I don’t believe with an agenda in mind he sat on the story. He might have been lazy with the story. But I’m sure any reporter on a beat makes a mistake with a story.”

The publisher went on to defend Wenzel, saying that he had a lot to juggle. Wenzel was based in Toledo, and the Coingate story eventually emerged out of Columbus. “He had to get everything — the municipal, county, and state and national [stories],” Block said. “It is a rumor beat, and a lot of what passes on the political beat is gossip. They hear a lot of stuff.” The publisher agreed, however, that if either the contribution or Coingate scandal had been reported before Election Day, it “might have” cost Bush the election, but added, “I don’t believe we were in a position to bring it out before Election Day.” (The Blade endorsed John Kerry for president.)

Other editors at the paper contend that rumors about Noe’s alleged link to illegal campaign contributions were swirling for years, but nailing them down was not possible. “Did he hear things?” Assistant Managing Editor LuAnn Sharp asked, referring to Wenzel. “Yes, but we all heard things. Many reporters had heard about those rumors.”

“There was always a concern that Fritz was a Republican,” Block said. “He became social friends [with Noe], and that is always a danger for a reporter. But you don’t want your reporters to be social outcasts. It is unrealistic to think that they cannot have those relationships.”

But Block admitted that he was not pleased about Wenzel jumping quickly right into a partisan political race in May, adding, “There is no question that perception is reality in this business.”

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