Statehouse reporter, Cox Media Group Ohio
Laura Bischoff is walking the outer orbit of power and politics in the city block surrounding Ohio’s Capital Square. It’s home turf for her, and apparently a lot of other shakers in the state’s capital.
We’re talking about journalism, and the impending move of her Dayton Daily News bureau office after the recent sale of the Columbus Dispatch. We don’t get far before someone stops her: A one-time Dayton Daily News statehouse bureau chief, turned marketing pro. He congratulates Bischoff on her 20-year anniversary at Cox Media.
“Fourteen years at the Statehouse,” she chimes. “I beat you, Tim,” who only worked there for 13.
Later and down the block it happens again. A lobbyist hails her, and they chat about Gov. John Kasich, who’s entered the cadre of Republican hopefuls in the 2016 presidential campaign.
“Kasich said to me, ‘Laura, I haven’t seen much of you (on the trail),’” she relates. “I said, ‘Governor, we’re trying to keep our powder dry.’”
It’s a maxim fitting for both politician and journalist, an approach that Bischoff has honed well in her years as investigative reporter: Stay prepared. Store up your resources until it’s time to fire the guns.
The 2015 Kiplinger Fellow wrote 106 front-page articles last year. Her editors call her “relentless.” She’s bullish in her pursuit of public records — she’s waited as long as 11 months for her requests to be granted — which she scrupulously sifts for signs of graft or impropriety. She’s read thousands of emails of state attorneys general, inspected line after line of campaign finance spreadsheets. Her stories have led to the criminal convictions of board members of the Ohio Police and Fire Pension Fund, changes in the way state pensions are governed and an Ohio treasurer landing in hot water for accepting questionable campaign contributions.
In 2010 Bischoff used Facebook and Twitter to draw connections between an Ohio deputy treasurer and a bank lobbyist hired days before landing a state pension contract.
“(The deputy) was saying, ‘No, I don’t know him any more than any other lobbyist.’ I was like, that doesn’t ring true because of all his other connections.”
Bischoff’s series and the investigation it kicked off led to criminal convictions of Amer Ahmed — who made a clandestine escape to Pakistan — and three of his aides.
“This is a good example of how going with a tip and writing the ‘Gee-this-is-curious’ story can lead to the discovery of a bribery scheme, conviction of four people including a high-level-official, and essentially an international incident between the U.S. and Pakistan,” she said.
It seems she was born a reporter. As a young writer for the St. Regis Bugle at her Detroit-area middle school, she weaseled her way out of class and pestered the nuns with meddlesome questions.
“Essentially, that’s what I do now. I get out of class, run around, asking a bunch of nosy questions of powerful people,” she said.
Most moms throw holiday parties or tutor students at their children’s schools. Bischoff taught her son’s class to file public records requests, asking how much gas the district’s buses use and which intersections are the most dangerous in their Columbus suburb.
“I might have also clued them into the fact that they can find out how much their teachers make,” she said. “Not actually sure if I pulled the trigger on that.”
She relishes the “good, juicy details” she ferrets from the records.
“Those details — the price of the shower curtain or the extravagant bar tab bill — really tell a story, more so than ‘He spent a lot of money,’” she said. “It really sells the story.”
And sometimes, after her articles publish, things take dramatic turns: Investigations get launched, election polls shift, convictions are overturned. After reading Bischoff’s initial story about a man who maintained his innocence years after being convicted of rape and kidnapping, former Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro took on the case.
“We worked to shine a light on the weaknesses in the case,” she said, including a Brady violation in which exculpatory evidence was suppressed.
In 2011, 21 years after Dean Gillispie was sent to prison, Petro and the Ohio Innocence Project succeeded in having his conviction tossed out.
“I like that story,” said Bischoff, who spent hours interviewing Gillispie and his family and many more reviewing the case. “That was a favorite.”
Though she’s covered many beats, from city hall to information technology business, her métier always has been reporting on government.
“I like open government. They have to talk to you. They have to show you the records. They have to open the meetings. So you have an entree into what’s going on,” she said.
She’s fully aware that jobs like hers are in peril, and can quote the statistics that prove it. A study by the Pew Research Center last year found that the number of full-time statehouse reporters in the U.S. dropped 35% between 2003 and 2014, representing a loss of 164 jobs.
“There’s not an army of statehouse reporters anymore,” Bischoff said. At the same time, the need has never been greater. “It can never be enough. The more eyes on government the better.”
So Laura Bischoff is doing her utmost to keep her eyes open and continue combing the records, unearthing little inconsistencies that lead to big revelations.
“You have to have a strong curiosity about things,” she said. “If you are fully curious, you’re gonna keep looking, keep asking, keep reading.”