Shoptalk: More Dread in Ohio

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By: Joe Strupp

The Blade of Toledo, Ohio, is on top of the newspaper world, thanks to its “Coingate” reports (see feature, this issue). But while the paper is rightly thumping its chest with each new revelation, it’s also coming under some scrutiny ? not for what it has printed, but for what it may not have. Rumors swirl around a veteran Blade scribe, former political reporter Fritz Wenzel. Nothing at all is proven, but it’s worth recalling the dangers ? even if it’s just in public perception ? of jumping from political campaigning to political reporting and back again.

Wenzel, a longtime GOP campaign worker in Oregon, spent 10 years on the Blade politics beat before returning to the world of political consulting in May, virtually the day after he left the paper. One of the key contacts he made along the way was the man now at the center of the Coingate accusations, Tom Noe, a major Republican fund-raiser who attended the wedding of Wenzel’s son, P.J., a state GOP employee. Noe’s wife, Bernadette, even 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 Jean Schmidt, the GOP nominee for an open Cincinnati-area congressional seat that voters will fill in a special August election (she won a primary on June 14). Disclosure records show Wenzel received $30,000 from Schmidt’s campaign on May 16, the day his last column for the paper appeared, and three days after he left the Blade. 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 a related Noe scandal involving alleged illegal funneling of contributions to President Bush’s 2004 campaign. 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.

John R. 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.”

Block said, “There was always a concern that Fritz was a Republican. 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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