Some in Washington are sleeping easier tonight, but not the ones who deserve it. A great investigative reporter, John Wilke of the Wall Street Journal, died Friday. Wilke, a reporter and editor for over 25 years, had pancreatic cancer.
I only met him a handful of times. I knew him best by his reporting, which focused in recent years on political scandals. Indeed, Wilke’s clips read like a Baskin Robbins of scandal, scoop after scoop in a dazzling array of minor flaps and major fiascos.
Wilke broke news on investigations into former Reps. Rick Renzi (R-AZ) and Jim Gibbons (R-NV); former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) and Rep. Don Young (R-AK). He raked muck on Reps. Alan Mollohan (D-WV), Silvestre Reyes (D-TX), John Murtha (D-PA) and others.
Over the past few years, “No one’s broken more scandals involving members of Congress than Wilke,” one longtime corruption investigator said to me Saturday, as we discussed Wilke’s passing. “This is a loss for the country.”
He didn’t just dig up dirt on lawmakers. Wilke busted former Bush appointee Scott Bloch for apparently attempting to obstruct justice: Bloch, reported Wilke, called a private tech service – Geeks on Call – to wipe his government computer when the official was facing an FBI investigation. (The details Wilke sprinkled in his pieces were as good as the scoops he got. For instance: After Bloch called the firm, Wilke wrote, it “dispatched a technician in one of its signature PT Cruiser wagons.” Later in the story, Wilke noted the bill for the deletions came to $1,149 – “paid with an agency credit card.”)
Despite the story, the press aide for Bloch's office remained friendly with Wilke. On his Facebook page Saturday, the aide – James Mitchell – posted an affectionate remembrance. “John was uncompromising and kept on the trail until he had it right,” Mitchell wrote me later. “We also shared a fondness of fine wines, and did some wine shopping together.”
Wilke also nabbed an obscure treasure whose value, at least in bragging rights, has only increased over time: what I believe is the only on-the-record quote from Paul Magliocchetti, an infamously enigmatic Democratic lobbyist and ex-House aide who’s now at the center of a federal criminal investigation that threatens multiple lawmakers. (The quote? "No comment," Magliocchetti told Wilke. "I'm just a former staffer.")
Wilke seemed simply to love his calling. As much as his work showed a clear sense of right and wrong, it also showed an appreciation for his subjects’ quirks and creative malfeasance -- a quiet awareness that humanity, in moments of weakness and strength alike, is a rich and nuanced and historied thing.
Wilke was 54 when he died. I miss him and I will miss his work. He had plenty more good stories left to break. I would like to think that someone else will break them. That I can’t persuade myself that’s true makes me miss Wilke all the more.