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Published: Sunday, 5/28/2006

Anonymous letter to Pulitzer Board spurs investigation by The Blade

BY DAVE MURRAY
BLADE SPECIAL ASSIGNMENTS EDITOR
<br>
• View a <a href=http://www.toledoblade.com/assets/pdf/TO6775528.PDF>summary of the letter</a> to the Pulitzer board.
<br>
• View the <a href=http://www.toledoblade.com/assets/pdf/TO6774528.PDF>e-mail trail to E&P</a>.

<br> • View a <a href=http://www.toledoblade.com/assets/pdf/TO6775528.PDF>summary of the letter</a> to the Pulitzer board. <br> • View the <a href=http://www.toledoblade.com/assets/pdf/TO6774528.PDF>e-mail trail to E&P</a>.
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On April 3, Blade editors were informed that an eight-page anonymous letter attacking the newspaper's Coingate entry was received by the Pulitzer Prize Board at Columbia University.

Editors believed that the letter was written by someone working at the newspaper. The letter mentioned "our readers" and detailed Blade meetings, story assignments, and past disciplinary actions against staff members.

The letter raised questions about the journalistic ethics of Fritz Wenzel, former politics writer for The Blade. Mr. Wenzel had nothing to do with the reporting and writing of the Ohio Coingate scandal, which began with the newspaper's reports in April, 2005, into Tom Noe's failed $50 million rare-coin investment for the state and expanded into corruption in the office of Gov. Bob Taft.

Editors made a hard choice to investigate their own staff to determine who wrote the letter. The probe would also address the allegations against Mr. Wenzel.

As part of the investigation the newspaper hired the Toledo law firm of Marshall & Melhorn. Two private investigators and two forensic computing firms were eventually retained.

Their work began on April 18, the day after 2006 Pulitzer Prizes were announced.

The Blade's Coingate entry was not awarded a Pulitzer Prize but was one of three finalists in the public service category, considered the highest Pulitzer honor.

The public service award was shared this year by the Sun Herald of Biloxi-Gulfport, Miss., and the Times-Picayune of New Orleans for their coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

"We don't really comment on our decisions, but I think it would be wrong to conclude that the letter of complaint was a factor," Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitizer Prize office, told the Associated Press last week.

From the beginning, editors believed a reporter George Tanber was a likely suspect. A reporter on and off for 30 years, including 14 years at The Blade, it was well-known that Mr. Tanber was upset about his current reporting assignment on the regional desk. He had also had conflicts with former Blade politics writer Fritz Wenzel, the subject of much of the letter received by the Pulitzer Board.

By early last week the newspaper's investigation had concluded that Mr. Tanber had written and sent the letter. On Tuesday, after learning that Blade editors had interviewed several staff members whose names had surfaced in the investigation, Mr Tanber asked for a meeting at The Blade.

When he arrived, he handed editors a two-page statement that acknowledged that he had written the letter to the Pulitzer Board.

He refused to discuss why he sent the letter, and instead released a statement.

"I have been relentless and unyielding in seeking the truth My zeal in journalism ethics matters is well-known and well-established in the newsroom and in the industry," the statement read in part.

His statement also said that "Coingate was brilliantly researched and reported." This view was in sharp contrast to that expressed in his anonymous letter to the Pulitzer Board, in which he wrote: "In reality, Coingate has proved to be journalism at its worse."

On Wednesday, Mr. Tanber was suspended and on Thursday he was fired for, among other things, "displaying a pattern of conduct which was dishonest, inappropriate, or both."

He issued a second statement saying that The Blade had committed ethics violations "and it's my responsibility as a journalist to report them."

"I'm saddened that it came to this," Mr. Tanber said. "I hope The Blade becomes a more honest newspaper as a result."

Mr. Tanber rejected repeated requests for a sit-down interview with The Blade.

John Robinson Block, publisher and editor-in-chief of The Blade, said no one had appointed Mr. Tanber as the ethical conscience of the newspaper.

"The Blade and ethics are synonymous," Mr. Block said. "We're a victim of a disgruntled employee. We and his co-workers are the victims, not him.

The six-members of the reporting team that uncovered the Ohio Coingate scandal whose work was attacked by Mr. Tanber s letter to the Pulitzer Board said yesterday that they continue to stand behind their work.

We have spent thousands of hours over the past 17 months pursuing a story that has had broad implications for the state and the nation, said reporters James Drew, Mike Wilkinson, Steve Eder, Christopher Kirkpatrick, Jim Tankersley, and Joshua Boak in a written statement. We are extremely proud of our work, which we consider the highest service in journalism. We appreciate The Blade s support because without it, the story would not have been fully told.

From our perspective, Blade reporters and editors conducted themselves ethically throughout the Coingate investigation, which continues, the statement from the coin team said. We re disappointed that anyone would question the quality and integrity of our work.

From newsroom pranks to insubordination

Firecrackers set off in the newsroom and in fellow reporters cigarettes marked Mr. Tanber s first stint at The Blade from 1984 to 1987. And after returning to the newspaper in 1996, his newsroom conduct shifted from pranks to insubordination.

After editors declined to publish a column he wrote on Blade time that stated he believed 9/11 happened because of the United States alliance with Israel, Mr. Tanber sent the commentary to the Daily Star, a Lebanese Web site. The column carried his byline George Tanber, Blade staff writer without receiving permission from the newspaper, as required by Blade policy. He received counseling from a senior editor.

In 2002, Mr. Tanber was ordered to apologize to a fellow employee for throwing two small balls at him in the newsroom because he claimed the employee was staring at him. In response, he submitted the apology on lined grade-school paper, writing five times: I will not throw balls in the newsroom and make [the employee] mad.

In the following months, Mr. Tanber had several run-ins with editors, which led to disciplinary action.

Among them: After Ron Royhab, Blade executive editor, added three paragraphs to a draft of one of Mr. Tanber s stories during the editing process, the reporter said the proposed change was the most unethical thing he had ever witnessed.

Mr. Royhab assigned other editors to work with the story, and Mr. Tanber refused to work with them as well and was eventually taken off the story.

He received a written reprimand for displaying unprofessional and insubordinate behavior during the editing process.

Fake identity used in communications

The Blade s investigation interviews with current and former employees and nonemployees including current and former public officials, and a review of dozens of e-mails obtained from Mr. Tanber s Blade laptop computer showed that by June, 2005, he was actively engaged in a campaign to investigate his own newspaper and to show that Mr. Wenzel, the former Blade politics writer, and the newspaper s top editors were unethical.

In 2005, according to his e-mails, Mr. Tanber hoped to expose The Blade on a national level by convincing Editor & Publisher, a journalism trade publication, to write about what he was convinced were ethical violations at his own newspaper.

He created a fake identity, Nick Faroh, to communicate with E&P senior editor Joe Strupp, based in New York City.

Everybody is getting nervous about the story Wenzel is nervous, too: He has hired an attorney, states a June 27, 2005, e-mail from Nick Faroh to Mr. Strupp at 6:13 p.m.

Thanks, do you have names of Blade attorney and Wenzel attorney? Let me know if you do, hope all is well, Mr. Strupp replied.

Blade guy is Fritz Byers. Smooth + very smart. Wenzel s attorney apparently is a Republican party guy. Can get it later. [Former Blade reporter and editor Mike] Sallah has it if you need it now. Out of action until 3, Nick Faroh, aka George Tanber, wrote back at 9:42 a.m. on Tuesday, June 28.

Mr. Strupp wrote a story about The Blade and Mr. Wenzel published in E&P on Aug. 1, 2005. The article focused on rumors swirl[ing] around veteran Blade scribe, former political reporter Fritz Wenzel.

The story characterized the rumors as unsubstantiated, noting nothing at all is proven.

Mr. Strupp refused to comment about whether he knew Nick Faroh was George Tanber.

Greg Mitchell, the editor of Editor & Publisher, also would not comment. Why would we ever talk about a source? Mr. Mitchell said.

Seeking information on Blade s politics writer

Mike Sallah handled some of the biggest stories in Toledo for The Blade before leaving in July, 2005, to become the investigative editor at the Miami Herald.

He and two other Blade reporters won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 2004 for Buried Secrets, Brutal Truths a series of articles about Tiger Force, an elite U.S. Army unit that committed atrocities in the Vietnam War that were covered up by military brass. It was The Blade s first Pulitzer Prize.

Mr. Tanber, 56, stayed in touch with Mr. Sallah, 50, after he left Toledo, according to e-mails and Blade phone records.

Last week, Mr. Sallah said he knew before he left Toledo that Mr. Tanber was seeking information about Fritz Wenzel, who left the newspaper in May, 2005, to start a political consulting firm.

The only thing George wanted to do is find out what Fritz did. Fritz wasn t at the paper anymore, and I didn t think there was any great harm in doing that, Mr. Sallah said. I didn t have great allegiance to Fritz. I was hearing all these other things, and I thought to myself, Jesus, maybe Fritz shouldn t work in journalism anymore.

Tale of two reporters: Tanber and Wenzel

For years, Mr. Tanber and Mr. Wenzel sat a few feet apart in the newsroom. But their journalistic interests were miles apart.

Mr. Tanber thought himself an investigative reporter destined to write the big stories. He once told an editor he wasn t a beat reporter.

Mr. Wenzel, 47, a reporter at The Blade almost 10 years when he left in May, 2005, was and still is a political junkie a Republican political junkie. Before coming to The Blade, he helped run GOP campaigns in the state of Oregon. He liked to write about political parties, polls, and politicians. He preferred the daily story to the investigative project.

When Mr. Tanber sat down to write his anonymous letter to the Pulitzer Board, Mr. Wenzel was his star character. His name is on each of the eight pages of the letter. In fact, the name Wenzel appears 61 times in the document.

Mr. Tanber s anonymous letter made several assertions about Mr. Wenzel and Blade journalistic ethics. The assertions and the results of The Blade s investigation into them follow:

  • His son, P.J. Wenzel, was elected to the Lucas County GOP central committee while Bernadette Noe, wife of Tom Noe, was party chairman.

    According to county board of election records, P.J. Wenzel was elected a precinct committeeman in the March 2, 2004, elections, but he was never sworn into the central committee and never served because he had moved to Columbus before Election Day.

  • P.J. Wenzel was on the payroll of the Ohio GOP in the spring of 2005.

    According to Ohio Republican Party records, he was paid $5,385 in April and May, 2005, by the state party. He also received $30,549 from the Republican National Committee between April and November, 2004, while his father was covering the presidential race for The Blade.

    My son had nothing to do with local politics, Fritz Wenzel said. When he decided to seek work with the Ohio Republican Party he came to me and informed me. He s a married son I can t control.

    Mr. Wenzel said last week that he kept John Block, Blade publisher and editor-in-chief, and Ron Royhab, Blade executive editor, apprised of his son s work for the GOP.

    They deny that he did so. Mr. Wenzel did not disclose his son s GOP ties to readers in his weekly politics column.

  • Mr. Wenzel freelanced for the polling firm Zogby International during the 2004 presidential campaign and reported on Zogby polls in stories he wrote.

    I did freelance for John [Zogby]. I did analysis of some presidential polls for him that he was doing during the 2004 presidential elections. I don t see the conflict, Mr. Wenzel said. I told Ron [Royhab] that I was doing that ... on my own time.

    Mr. Royhab said the conversation never took place.

    Added Mr. Block: That is a direct conflict. Had we known about it we would have made him choose right there whom he wanted to work for.

  • On May 17, 2005, the Monday after leaving The Blade to start his political consulting firm, Mr. Wenzel received the first of two $30,000 payments to handle media buys for the Cincinnati-area congressional campaign of Jean Schmidt.

    Mr. Wenzel admits receiving the money from the campaign but denies doing anything wrong.

    I never covered the Schmidt campaign in my work for The Blade. That was an entire state away. There was no conflict of interest, he said. Truthfully, this job with Schmidt didn t come up until the weekend after I d left The Blade.

  • While working at The Blade, Mr. Wenzel had an improperly close relationship with the Noes, and Mr. Noe offered to help Mr. Wenzel start his own consulting business.

    Mr. Wenzel acknowledged that he and Mr. Noe discussed that it would be good to work on stuff together after leaving The Blade. But, he said, nothing ever came of those discussions.

    Did a reporter sit on the big story?

    The biggest journalistic transgression alleged in Mr. Tanber s anonymous letter is that Mr. Wenzel sat on a story a huge story.

    The letter claims the politics reporter met three times in 2004 with Joe Kidd, then director of the Lucas County Board of Elections, and was told by the GOP insider about a scheme by Mr. Noe, the Maumee coin dealer, to illegally launder money to the Bush-Cheney campaign.

    Mr. Kidd said that he met with Mr. Wenzel in January, February, and September, 2004, and says that at each meeting he told Mr. Wenzel about the scheme.

    Mr. Wenzel says he does not remember being told of the money laundering until the meeting in September, 2004. He says he did not believe Mr. Kidd because the former election director failed to give him evidence to back up the claims and because Mr. Kidd had been fired by Bernadette Noe.

    These rumors that Noe was involved in funneling money to the Bush campaign would occasionally come up, but nobody could substantiate them in any way, Mr. Wenzel said.

    Federal prosecutors believed Mr. Kidd, and in May, 2005, a grand jury in Toledo indicted Mr. Noe on three felony counts of laundering money to President Bush s campaign.

    On Wednesday, Mr. Noe is expected to change his not guilty plea to the federal charges.

    Prosecutor denies making statements

    Mr. Tanber s anonymous letter also attributed to Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates a statement that had Wenzel called any of her assistant prosecutors who are in nonpolitical positions they would have confirmed the investigation, triggering the Coingate series a year earlier.

    On Friday, Ms. Bates said Mr. Tanber had made off-hand comments to her about The Blade in a yoga class they shared but said she never made a statement to him or anyone similar to the one in the Pulitzer letter attributed to her.

    That was absolutely not true, Prosecutor Bates said. What is unethical for me to reveal is unethical for any of the lawyers who work for me to reveal. You can t violate the secrecy of the grand jury.

    Ms. Bates said three Blade reporters Larry Vellequette, Mark Reiter, and Dale Emch called in 2004 and attempted to confirm the Noe investigation by her office and they were turned away.

    She also pointed out her office s investigation had nothing to do with Coingate.

    We were looking at money laundering. We were not looking at the coins, Ms. Bates said, adding she knew nothing about Mr. Noe s rare-coin investment for the Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation.

    In addition to the three federal felony charges, Mr. Noe also faces 53 state felony counts of laundering and stealing millions from the $50 million state coin funds he no longer controls.

    In contact with E&P about Coingate

    What began in 2005 as an effort by Mr. Tanber to bring national exposure to what he thought were ethical problems at The Blade, by March, 2006, had turned into a plan to challenge The Blade s Coingate Pulitzer entry.

    A review of e-mails from Mr. Tanber s Blade computer found that in the month before he sent the letter he was determined to do just that.

    He was in touch with Mr. Strupp of E&P and Toledo freelance writer Bill Frogameni, who had written about The Blade and Mr. Wenzel for Salon.com. In communicating via e-mail with Mr. Frogameni, Mr. Tanber spelled his last name Tanbur.

    Mr. Frogameni refused to comment about his work with Mr. Tanber.

    On March 10 at 12:03 p.m., Mr. Tanber wrote to Mr. Strupp: Joe: You ready to cover the train wreck that s about to ensue? G

    Mr. Tanber also talked with Miami Herald investigative editor Mr. Sallah, the former Blade reporter and editor.

    Sallah called yesterday + late in the conversation I told him it might be showing up in NY. He didn t say don t do it, a March 14 e-mail from Mr. Tanber to Mr. Frogameni stated. Sending it to the dean of the graduate school, who sits on the P board + a copy to the board chair, as backup ...

    My D-Day is Tuesday, Mr. Tanber wrote to Mr. Frogameni on March 24.

    And the confirmation e-mail again between Mr. Tanber and Mr. Frogameni on March 28, the date of the anonymous letter: Two packages mailed today. Comprehensive, Lethal.

    Mr. Sallah said last week that when he talked to Mr. Tanber in March he knew Mr. Tanber was planning on sending something to the Pulitzer Board, but he said he had no idea Mr. Tanber would send a letter to the Pulitzer Board.

    I m thinking in my mind he s going to maybe send articles. But an 8-page letter? That puts it in a whole other realm, he said. That s like instead of using a slingshot, I m going to use a .38 and put it in the back of somebody s head.

    Mr. Sallah said he tried to warn Blade staff members about what Mr. Tanber was planning to do. He said he called David Cantor, a Blade photo editor, and he told his longtime friend, Blade reporter Larry Vellequette, to stop Mr. Tanber.

    I said, Larry, I think he s going to go off the deep end. I said, Don t do it, it s so bad, the karma that you will experience from this is so bad.

    Mr. Vellequette said he did not perceive it as a realistic threat. I didn t think that George would do anything.

    Mr. Cantor also acknowledged receiving Mr. Sallah s contact.

    But Mr. Sallah acknowledges he did not inform Blade management about Mr. Tanber s plan.

    George was already on the hot seat. He was dead man walking there for the longest time. It would have been a death knell.

    Contact Dave Murray at: dmurray@theblade.com or 419-724-6069.



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