In April 2005, the Blade
newspaper of Toledo, Ohio, began publishing a remarkable series of articles
about a well-connected Republican donor, Tom Noe, chair of the Bush-Cheney 2004
campaign for Lucas County, which encompasses Toledo. The Blade, which had won
a Pulitzer Prize for reporting in 2004, discovered that Noe, a Toledo coin dealer,
was investing $50 million for the state through the novel practice of coin speculation:
buying and selling rare coins to turn a profit. Noe, the Blade revealed, could
not account for $10 million to $13 million in the fund.
The paper also divulged that Noe had been placed under federal investigation
for allegedly laundering money -- perhaps state money -- to the Bush campaign.
The Blade's initial reports on Noe started a chain reaction of related scandals
for Ohio's dominant Republicans. Recently, Gov. Bob Taft pleaded no contest
to accepting several gifts from influence peddlers -- including Noe -- without
reporting them, as law requires. Noe is currently the subject of 13 investigations.
In November 2004, Lucas County was among the most hotly contested areas in
the most hotly contested state. Kerry won the county by 45,000 votes, but George
W. Bush went on to win Ohio by less than 120,000 votes, which swung the election
But Bush's reelection may have been made possible by a Blade reporter
with close ties to the Republican Party who reportedly knew about Noe's potential
campaign violations in early 2004 but suppressed the story.
According to several knowledgeable sources, the Blade's chief political
columnist, Fritz Wenzel, was told of Noe's potential campaign violations as
early as January 2004. But according to Blade editors, Wenzel never gave the
paper the all-important tip in early 2004.
Wenzel says that he heard allegations of Noe's misdeeds only in spring 2004
and that he promptly informed his editors of them.
Wenzel, who worked for years as a GOP political operative in Oregon before
the Blade hired him, quit the Blade in May 2005 to take a job as a paid political
consultant to Jean Schmidt, the Republican congressional candidate who in August
defeated Democratic challenger (and Iraq war vet) Paul Hackett.
Of course, no one can say for sure whether Ohio voters would have cast their
ballots differently if they had known about allegations that Bush's campaign
boss in Toledo was hijacking money from the state to keep the campaign humming.
But native Ohioan John Robinson Block, publisher and editor in chief of the
Blade, which endorsed Kerry, thinks it's a strong possibility. Had the "Coingate"
scandal blown up before the election, Block says, "most Republicans I know
agree that Kerry would have won Ohio and won the presidency." Rep. Marcy
Kaptur, a Democrat whose district includes Toledo, feels the same. "I think
it would have tipped the election," she says.
The story of how Wenzel learned about the alleged violations, and why he allegedly
sat on the information, reveals a Toledo political scene right out of "Peyton
Place," complete with a cast of backstabbers. It begins in January 2004,
when Tom Noe's wife, Bernadette Noe -- who chaired the local Republican Party
and sat on the Board of Elections -- approached Lucas County prosecutor Julia
Bates, a Democrat. Bernadette Noe raised ethical questions about Joe Kidd, a
well-connected Republican who was then director of the Board of Elections. She
told the prosecutor's office she suspected Kidd was receiving money from Diebold,
the now-notorious manufacturer of voting machines. Bates says that Bernadette
Noe's source for the allegations was Joe Kidd's estranged wife, Tracy, with
whom Bernadette practiced law. Bates says it's possible that Bernadette's allegations
against Kidd were motivated by sympathy for her friend Tracy.
Paula Ross, a former Lucas County Democratic Party chair, who also sat on the
Board of Elections, confirms that Bernadette Noe went to the prosecutor to tarnish
Kidd. Ross says she talked with both Bernadette and Kidd. In January 2004, Ross
says, "I was contacted by Bernadette, who made allegations about Joe. I
then spoke with Joe, who assured me that the allegations were false. He believed
he could persuade Bernadette to stop making these false allegations because
he had information about [Noe and her husband] that could put them in jail."
The information, says Ross, was that Tom Noe was laundering money to the Bush
Kidd retaliated against the Noes by going to Wenzel, in January 2004, according
to a Toledo Republican Party insider familiar with the affairs of the Board
of Elections, and sources familiar with the Blade. Kidd told Wenzel that Tom
Noe was illegally funneling money to the Bush campaign and also running a questionable
coin investment with the state. Sources confirmed that Kidd told them he had
this conversation with Wenzel. Kidd would not comment for this article.
Bates, the Lucas County prosecutor, confirms that Kidd came to her in March 2004
with an outline of Noe's campaign money laundering, and that it was crucial in
helping her office ultimately build a case against Noe. The prosecutor won't say
if Kidd himself took Noe's money and gave it to Bush, thus laundering it (that
is, making it a legitimate campaign donation). But she does say that, upon first
glance, she found it "interesting" that he gave $2,000, considering
he was a civil servant on a modest income. Other sources say that Kidd, along
with several local Republican officials, did in fact launder money. This summer,
Kidd testified in front of the federal grand jury convened to investigate Noe's
alleged money-laundering scheme. Bates says her office considered offering Kidd
immunity in exchange for help building the case. "We thought the key was
Joe," says Bates, so she encouraged him to get a lawyer and produce all the
evidence he could. Kidd, who was also being investigated for the allegations Bernadette
Noe made against him, cooperated.
Wenzel declined to be interviewed for this story. He responded with this general
statement issued through attorney Mark Berling, who formerly sat on the Lucas
County Republicans' executive committee: "When a source conveyed an allegation
about Tom Noe's possible involvement with campaign finance irregularities in
the spring of 2004, I promptly informed Blade editors about what I had been
But Blade editors deny that Wenzel ever informed them about the allegations.
The Blade's special projects editor, Dave Murray, who was Wenzel's assigning
editor at the time, says Wenzel would have come to him with any such information
about Noe. But, Murray says, "he never came to me, and, as far as I know,
he never came to other Blade editors." Speaking for the other Blade editors,
assistant editor LuAnn Sharp says no one recollects Wenzel turning over any
such information. (Full disclosure: This reporter once applied for a job at
the Toledo Blade.)
Blade editor in chief Block and other editors say they don't believe that Wenzel
intentionally sat on the story.
Both Wenzel and his son had personal relationships with the Noes. In March 2004,
Wenzel's son, P.J., was elected to the Lucas County Republican Central Committee.
At the time, Bernadette Noe still chaired the Lucas County Republican Party. From
April 15, 2005, to the end of May, P.J. Wenzel was on the payroll of the Ohio
Republican Party. The Noes also attended the younger Wenzel's wedding.
A month before Wenzel left the paper, at the Lucas County Republicans' annual
"Lincoln Day" dinner, Bernadette Noe made a speech in which she announced
Wenzel would be leaving the paper for his consulting business. She wished him
well at the dinner, which was attended by all three Republican gubernatorial
As the Blade's chief political writer, Wenzel reported and commented on politics.
He also ran his own Web site, heartlandpolitics.com (whose homepage says it
is "temporarily out of commission"), which he touted as offering in-depth
analysis of northwest Ohio politics. Democrats charged that Wenzel's reporting
was biased toward Republicans. The Blade's ombudsman, Jack Lessenberry, agreed:
"At times I felt that his reporting was slanted to favor Republican positions
or Republican candidates," Lessenberry says.
The Noe story is not the first time Wenzel has been suspected of conflict of
interest. During the 2004 election season, Wenzel worked simultaneously for
the Blade and for Zogby International, the polling firm. President and CEO John
Zogby said that Wenzel worked for the company as a "senior political writer"
between roughly May and October 2004. The work he did for Zogby acknowledged
that Wenzel was a political reporter for the Blade. But in at least four columns
he wrote for the Blade at the time he was working for Zogby, Wenzel cited Zogby
polls without disclosing his affiliation. John Block expressed surprise and
concern that Wenzel cited Zogby without disclosure: "He shouldn't have
cited Zogby. I have to say, that's the first I've heard of that." According
to Bob Steele, a journalism professor specializing in ethics at the Poynter
Institute, the problem goes beyond Wenzel's failure to acknowledge the relationship.
Steele points to a question of "competing loyalty," and says, "To
disclose his connection to Zogby alerts readers to that conflict of interest
and competing loyalty, but that disclosure doesn't make the problem go away."
In spring 2004, while Lucas County prosecutors began to investigate Noe's campaign
irregularities, the Blade, without Wenzel's scoop, remained in the dark. Assistant
editor Sharp says that the Blade's editors and reporters received worthwhile
tips about the Noe campaign finance improprieties "around September."
Prosecutor Bates, whose daughter and son-in-law are Blade reporters, says she
can't remember anyone from the paper coming to her about the investigation until
then. "I don't recall any official inquiry until [Blade reporter] Mark
Reiter came to me in early fall," she says. Bates says that was right around
the time she was obliged to turn over the investigation to federal prosecutors,
which made it much more difficult for reporters to unearth information. At any
rate, it was only a few weeks before the election.
On April 3, 2005, the first Blade story about Noe and the coin investments
appeared. With the Blade's aggressive reporting, the story quickly gathered
state and national attention, but Wenzel, who was still at the Blade, never
wrote anything about it in the paper. Additionally, he never wrote about it
in the many posts on his personal blog. Sharp says the Blade did not restrain
Wenzel from writing about Coingate.
Although he never wrote about Coingate, Wenzel did blog on his Web site about
Bernadette Noe and the Lincoln Day dinner on April 14. Although this was 11
days after the Blade published its first Coingate story, Wenzel failed to mention
one of the biggest political scandals in Ohio history. Instead, Wenzel fawned
over Bernadette Noe. "Also not fading is former GOP chairman Bernadette
Noe. She was honored last night for her service to the party, then held up a
copy of yesterday's Toledo Free Press, reminding those present to check out
her new column (Great picture, Bernie!). But that's not all. A new television
talk show and radio program are in the works. Talk about multi-tasking."
After leaving the Blade on Friday, May 13, Wenzel officially went to work the
following Monday as congressional candidate Jean Schmidt's media consultant.
Schmidt, a Cincinnati-area Republican who formerly headed Cincinnati Right to
Life, was running for Congress in the most staunchly conservative corner of
the state. Wenzel's company, Wenzel Strategies, received $30,000 from the Schmidt
campaign that Monday and another $30,000 a week later. His role was to handle
media issues in the hotly contested special election.
including Salon, have questioned whether Wenzel was already working as a consultant
for Schmidt prior to leaving the Blade, which would constitute an obvious conflict
of interest. As early as May 3, Wenzel wrote blog entries about the Schmidt
race and made disparaging remarks about Schmidt's primary opponents on his Web
site. Regarding Pat DeWine, one of Schmidt's primary opponents, Wenzel wrote:
"DeWine also has personal problems. He left his wife when she was eight
months pregnant with their third child to take up with another woman. You could
say he thinks so much of family values that he has decided to start another."
Wenzel's blog entries were pulled from the Web shortly after his ties to the
Schmidt campaign came under scrutiny, but Wenzel denies he was working for Schmidt
and the Blade simultaneously. He reportedly told a Cincinnati paper that he
had a "busy weekend" drumming up Schmidt's business right after he
left the Blade.
Block, the publisher and editor in chief, says he has confidence in the integrity
of Wenzel's overall tenure at the Blade, but doesn't believe Wenzel kept the
Schmidt job separate from his time at the paper. "You don't just leave
on one day and then immediately set up your consulting business," Block
says. "I think that in his final period at the Blade, it was getting close
to a conflict of interest. I'm not going to deny that."
In October 2004, Bates turned her investigation into Noe's campaign irregularities
over to the U.S. Department of Justice. That was three weeks before the election,
not enough time, Bates says, to affect the outcome.
The Coingate scandal continues to grow. The Blade still diligently hounds the
story amid growing revelations about the Noes and Republican problems statewide.
Wenzel is basking in political success, having helped take Schmidt from being
an outside contender in the primaries to sitting in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Ohio government is still thoroughly dominated by Republicans, but, as Blade
editors and Democrats are quick to note, that might soon be changing, thanks
to the scandal. What won't change is that Coingate never got reported in 2004,
and George W. Bush won the presidency.