Investigative Reporting on Campus

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Kent State reporter draws national attention with unraveling of  university’s controversial relationship with would-be donor

By Dan Reimold
University of Tampa

Doug Brown, an enterprise reporter for the Daily Kent Stater at Ohio’s Kent State University, is the most famous student journalist so far in 2012.

Doug Brown

Early last month, Brown reported on the past legal troubles of Jason Cope, an alumnus who was preparing to donate $1 million to the Kent State athletics program and have the school’s basketball court named after him.  He dove into the story after the paper’s web editor received an email from a stranger with a one-sentence tip: “Google Jason Cope v SEC.”

What Brown discovered: A bit more than a decade ago, as branch manager of a financial firm, Cope had been part of a Ponzi scheme that defrauded investors out of close to $9 million.  He was found guilty of breaking federal securities laws that “involved fraud and deceit” and ordered with his co-defendants “to pay a total of more than $19 million in penalties.”

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Brown’s investigation into this criminal activity prompted Cope to suddenly renege on the million-dollar gift.  His subsequent story led to questions about Kent State’s decision to accept a donation and align itself publicly with someone best known for bilking others of their investments.

As a Kent Stater editorial earlier contended, “We’re wondering why Kent State would knowingly accept money from someone with a disconcerting financial background.  At first glance, it makes us question the athletic department’s ethical standards.  Sure, the university can accept the money, but should it?  It doesn’t quite seem right.”

Since his original piece’s publication, Brown has continued digging, determined to pinpoint who at Kent State knew about Cope’s past, how long it had been known, and if anyone concealed his criminal history while seeking approval for the donation and court naming.

His follow-up story published Sunday, Feb. 13, on kentwired, the online hub for independent Kent State student media, reveals university trustees were not told by an athletics representative of Cope’s past and details how Kent State officials huddled together in crisis management mode after the Kent Stater began asking its questions.

In piecing the ongoing story together, Brown has relied heavily on public records by analyzing school officials’ email messages, recordings of meetings, and documents available through the SEC and FINRA.

“One of the main things that has come out of [his ongoing investigation] is that the athletic director and the university’s fundraising person who presented the [donation] resolution to the Board of Trustees knew about [Cope’s crimes] before the trustees meeting, yet they didn’t mention it to the trustees and the trustees had no idea about the guy’s past before approving it,” said Brown, 23, a final-year journalism master’s student.  “They basically misled the Board of Trustees into approving it without their full knowledge of the real situation.” Brown said the athletics director and fundraiser have not responded to multiple calls and emails requesting comment about their interaction with the trustees.

Brown has earned recognition from numerous outlets and organizations for his dogged reporting and unraveling of the real situation, including, Rolling Stone, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and the Student Press Law Center.

In a podcast interview timed to appear with his latest account, Brown discusses his ongoing reporting efforts, the attention and impact of his initial scoop, and the power of documents and recordings to provide needed information– especially when sources are refusing to speak.

“I really love getting public records,” he said.  “Because the more you have, the less you can be pushed around.”

Dan Reimold

Dan Reimold, Ph.D, is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Tampa, where he also advises The Minaret student newspaper.  He writes and presents frequently on the campus press and maintains the student journalism industry blog College Media Matters, affiliated with the Associated Collegiate Press.  His first book, Sex and the University: Celebrity, Controversy, and a Student Journalism Revolution, was published in fall 2010 by Rutgers University Press.