Thursday, September 29, 2005

IN MEMORIAM: If Only Damon Were Around

I don't remember where I first heard it, but during the most recent ethics squabble in the House of Representatives, some Congressional observer said that Tom DeLay's political career would die a death of a thousand stabs. People have said the pen is mighter than the sword, and I can't help but think that if the powerful House Majority Leader -- one of the toughest political fighters on Capitol Hill -- can't regain his balance after yesterday's indictment, many of those stabs came from a modest and unassuming blind scribe.

Investigative reporter Damon Chappie died last November after a long decline of health. I didn't know Damon as well as Roll Call's more veteran reporters. (During my time at Roll Call, he sat on the other side of the newsroom, or, when he was promoted to investigations editor, he had his own office.) But I did copy edit his work and investigations is what Damon did best. And for someone who lost his sight in the middle of his professional career, I'm still wildly perplexed, amazed and awed by how Damon did what he did. After being robbed of his vision, he researched and assembled the technology he needed to read and analyze public databases, disclosure forms and treasure troves of other public documents that would normally be too daunting to analyze for the average reporter.

This investigative piece from July 2004 into the banking operation of Rep. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.) is one that I fondly remember. In one of most deadly bank robberies in recent U.S. history, a number of the Congressman's bank employees were killed. The thing was that the Greer, S.C., bank branch they worked out of was located in a trailer.
Claims may be brought asserting that the seven-term lawmaker and the other directors of his closely held bank are liable because they allegedly chose to locate the branch office in a trailer at a vulnerable location and failed to ensure that the branch office complied with government-mandated security requirements.
Taylor settled out of court, if I remember correctly.

Damon discovered amazing scoops and crafted impressive meticulously detailed investigations that either laid the foundation or helped lead to the sanctioning and eventual downfalls of a number of Congressional figures, including former Reps. Jim Traficant (D-Ohio), Bud Shuster (R-Pa.) and Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

Damon did investigate aspects of Tom DeLay's dealings when he was alive, and I can't help but wonder if his health hadn't had declined, the additional details he may have brought to light. It is often said that when a person lacks one of the five senses, one of the other four steps up to the plate and takes on superhuman characteristics. While intellect isn't a sense, perhaps it should be. Like Beethoven's mind, Damon Chappie's capacity to organize, analyze and digest the smallest of details can't be adequately described with words. (He would have made an awesome blogger.) It is unfortunate that no one in journalism can fill his shoes.

Many reporters in this city owe Damon a debt of gratitude for the tireless work he did to lay the foundation for so many larger political stories that have emerged from Capitol Hill in the past decade. I hope his contributions aren't forgotten.

-- National Public Radio on Damon's passing
-- Damon's obituary in The Washington Post.
-- Damon M. Chappie Memorial Award in Investigative Journalism, Penn State University

(On a happier side note, Damon's faithful companion, his seeing-eye dog named Debbie, was awfully cute. During an editorial board meeting with Sen. Edward Kennedy, the Massachusetts Senator's dog, Splash, didn't even notice that Debbie was in the room at first. When Splash did finally notice there was another dog in the room, about 25 minutes into the interview, he ... Splash, not Kennedy ... started barking. Debbie didn't flinch.)


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