Uncovering an investigation in Ohio

The New Republic finds news that local papers hadn't. Why did that happen, and how big a problem is it?

OHIO — In August 2011, The Blade of Toledo published an eyebrow-raising report: 16 employees of a Canton-based direct marketing firm, had made the maximum legal donation—$5,000—to two Republican congressional candidates, Senate hopeful (and state treasurer) Josh Mandel and incumbent Rep. Jim Renacci. Six of the employees’ spouses had also given maximum donations, bringing their household contribution to $20,000.

As the detailed, well-crafted article by Tony Cook pointed out, the donations were unusual because many of the employees at the Suarez Corporation had never before contributed to federal campaigns. Furthermore, several lived in modest homes and did not appear to work in high-paying jobs. But the company’s owner, Benjamin Suarez, is wealthy, and, as The Blade reported, has a history of giving to Republicans. Those circumstances raised suspicions—denied by the company—that the workers’ donations had been reimbursed by their employer, which would be a violation of campaign finance laws.

Cook followed up his original report a day later with an interview with Suarez, who said his employees “make enough money that they can easily pay $10,000.” Other than that, though, his coverage seemingly did little to spark the curiosity of the Ohio press.

Then, nine months later, the story was advanced by a national reporter, Alec MacGillis of The New Republic. Deep into a lengthy, in-depth cover story about political upheaval in the Buckeye State, MacGillis revealed that federal investigators have been looking into the Suarez employees’ donations. He explained that he had gotten tipped off to the story by the original Blade article, writing:

This sort of pattern raises red flags: Federal law bars employers from reimbursing employees for giving to a certain candidate - a method employers could use to evade limits on their own giving. To find out whether that had happened in this instance, I set off to ask the employees themselves.”

By the second interview, MacGillis had a hint of “an investigation.” His third employee interview revealed that the FBI had initiated a probe.

The New Republic piece roused Ohio’s media, which within days jumped on the story with articles from The Associated Press, The Blade, The Plain Dealer of Cleveland, the Dayton Daily News, the Canton Repository, and The Columbus Dispatch. A few days after the local follow-up, Mandel’s campaign returned the donations from the Suarez employees, saying the move was taken out of an abundance of caution until the FBI probe was finished.

Several days after his TNR story hit the Web, MacGillis weighed in again with a blog post titled, “Who Will Tell the People?” He patted Ohio’s press corps on the back for quickly following his story and for getting Mandel’s campaign to acknowledge the investigation. But MacGillis also lamented the fact that no local reporters had unearthed the federal investigation before him:

But one also can’t help but look at this episode as another example of the public cost of the woes of local journalism. Consider: the questionable donations have been public knowledge since last August, when they were brought to light in an article by Tony Cook of The Blade. Yet as far as I can tell, that initial report did not lead to any follow-up pieces, least of all by the papers that cover the corner of northeast Ohio where the company, Suarez Industries, is based—the Canton Repository and the [Akron] Beacon Journal. Glad as I am to take credit for uncovering the FBI investigation, it did not exactly require Watergate-level reporting—while in Ohio, I simply visited the homes of some of the Suarez employees and asked them about their contributions, which prompted a couple of them to mention the FBI inquiry.

… The cost of this journalistic contraction cannot be overstated—it helps explain, for one thing, how lobbyists targeting state legislatures, like the conservative ALEC network, can have such under-the-radar success on issues like the stand-your-ground laws, which can be passed all across the country without anyone really noticing until the Trayvon Martin case.

MacGillis—who closed his post by “urg[ing] everyone to read and support their local papers, wherever they are”—raises some valid points. While the presence of only two reporters in the Statehouse press room isn’t actually all that unusual—most papers with Columbus bureaus have their own offices, and with sessions ongoing, reporters may have been attending hearings—Ohio is no exception to the bleeding the newspaper industry has seen nationwide. When I worked at The Plain Dealer’s Statehouse Bureau, we had six reporters and a secretary. Today, that bureau has shrunk to three reporters. The Columbus bureau for the Akron Beacon Journal once had four reporters and two interns. Today, that bureau is closed.

The shrinking-staff scenario is one reason the Beacon Journal, which is less than 20 miles from North Canton, has used the wire to report the Suarez story. In a phone interview, reporter Stephanie Warsmith noted that the newsroom had 210 people when she joined the paper in 1998; it has since dropped by two-thirds.

Another reason is that, with its remaining staff, the paper had some other pressing business to cover, Managing Editor Doug Oplinger wrote via email. “At the beginning of August, we had a mass killing in Copley Township—8 shot and killed, and a ninth injured—as a gunman chased family through a nice suburban neighborhood,” he wrote. “That consumed us.”

Oplinger, a former Statehouse reporter himself, said the new reality requires a new approach. “[I]t is frustrating when we don’t have those stories first, but this is a new era, and news organizations have to rely on one another to hold leaders accountable,” he wrote. “One of the things all newsrooms have to do, and this is a change in thinking, is have every reporter watching his or her beat at the state level, too, and that has to be learned. That means daily checking competing newspapers and wires. We’re still working through that.”

At The Repository, reporter Robert Wang followed the accounts from The Blade and The New Republic. Wang referred my inquiries to his newspaper’s executive editor, Don Detore. In an email response to five questions, Detore wrote: “Like all news-gathering organizations, we make hundreds of news decisions every week. We did publish this story by The Toledo Blade in our print edition on Saturday, Aug. 20, as part of the content-sharing cooperative we have with the seven other largest Ohio dailies. We have done some reporting on this story recently, and we will continue to follow it as much as our time and resources allow.”

For his part, The Blade’s Tony Cook, who first broke the story, said via email that he jumped on it because of Mandel’s statewide status, even though Canton is 160 miles from Toledo. The paper did check back in after the initial report, he wrote.

“[W]e followed up with law enforcement to see if they planned to investigate, but of course they wouldn’t comment. Nor did employees at the company return our calls,” Cook wrote. “I guess we could have gone out there to speak with employees, but even if we had, chances are no one would have been aware of an FBI investigation at that stage.” (The Blade did contact Suarez employees while reporting its original story, but the workers generally declined to comment.)

“I suppose we could have randomly driven out to Canton a couple months after the initial story and knocked on the doors of employees, but that would have required significant travel with very little potential return for our time and effort. We had to weigh all of that against other work we had on our plate.” (That work, he noted, included an investigation of how Toledo awarded housing rehabilitation contracts—an effort that resulted in the firing of top housing officials and another federal investigation.

Cook said The Blade has one dedicated political reporter, who isn’t him. But he offered a different explanation for why follow-up sometimes falls through.

“To me it’s a prioritization problem more than a resource problem,” Cook wrote. “Newspapers spend a lot of time covering and writing about events or meetings that readers could attend themselves. But ultimately it’s up to the individual reporter to dig and ask hard questions, and to use their experience covering government to draw connections and tell stories that have no other way of being told.”

The emphasis on priorities, too, is a valid point. The Blade may be too much of a hike from North Canton for the sort of down-the-road pursuit that unearthed the investigation, but more local papers like The Repository and Beacon Journal could have added this story to their “tickler file” and checked for periodic updates. As journalists are wont to say, this didn’t pass the smell test, so odds seemed high it might pique some kind of law enforcement interest.

Since they didn’t, it suggests that these papers have focused their remaining resources on narrowly local stories—a choice that has costs, but also in many ways makes sense in the current media landscape. Meanwhile, the fact that MacGillis uncovered the Ohio investigation and sparked a round of local coverage is a sign that for all of the industry turmoil, national political reporting remains pretty robust, and at times capable of reaching beyond the Beltway. (The New Republic in particular is now on firmer footing, and even looking to expand.) And we shouldn’t forget that the story that apparently prompted the investigation came from The Blade, which, like The Plain Dealer and a few others in Ohio, is a local paper that continues to provide strong politics coverage.

So while there are certainly worrying gaps and holes in contemporary politics coverage—and, as Oplinger of the Beacon Journal acknowledged, many newspapers are still “working through” how to make the most of their remaining resources—there are some silver linings to be found here. In the coming months, it will be up to reporters in the Buckeye State to make the most of what works in the current media landscape. An avalanche of money is coming our way, and the press is going to have to work hard—and work together—to sift through this heavily-funded bombast and help the public learn who these candidates really are.

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T.C. Brown covered government and politics in the Ohio Statehouse Bureau for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland for more than 17 years, and he has also written for other local, state and national publications. Brown is a founding partner in Webface, a social media communication company.