By: Jennifer Saba
Today was a first for both the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and its reporter David Umhoefer in capturing a Pulitzer Prize. Even sweeter for Umhoefer and his colleagues: the prize was for the local reporting category.
“It’s great for the paper!” said an exuberant Umhoefer reached by phone just 45 minutes after the announcement was made. “We do local news as our bread and butter. To win the Pulitzer in this category is just outstanding!”
He won the prize for his investigation of county officials rigging the pension system with buybacks that benefited county workers. Days before the story was published, county officials turned themselves in to the IRS.
Umhoefer, 47, first proposed the story after finding a “new wrinkle” in earlier pension scandals that he covered. “I was just joking with the staff that I said it would [take] two or three weeks. It became six months,” said Umhoefer.
The investigation required a lot of number crunching and the paper consulted with several experts to vet the calculations and meaning, said Umhoefer, who is one of 10 staffers who make up the Journal Sentinel’s “watchdog team.” The group is exclusively dedicated to investigative projects.
Umhoefer started with the Milwaukee Journal in 1985, which later merged to become the Journal Sentinel in the mid-90s. His specialty on the watchdog team is local government.
“I think there is a lot of pride here,” Umhoefer said about the fact that his paper was one of the smaller ones awarded the prize today. “A lot of times papers in the Midwest are overlooked for what we can do. … I just think that the paper as a whole should be congratulated for encouraging this.”
The paper was a Pulitzer finalist in 2003 and 2006. Its predecessor, Milwaukee Journal, was awarded five Pulitzers.