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Pulitzer Prize goes to ’71 grad

Mary Kate Malone | Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Adding to a growing list of award-winning journalists from Notre Dame, 1971 graduate Jerry Kammer was one of two lead writers on an investigative project that won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.

Journalism’s highest award was given to the staffs of the San Diego Union-Tribune and Copley News Service (which owns the Union-Tribune). Kammer and his colleague Marcus Stern – both reporters for Copley – were noted by The Pulitzer Board for “their disclosure of bribe-taking that sent former [Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.] to prison in disgrace.”

“We were not the only two reporters involved, but we had the lead role,” Kammer said Tuesday.

Kammer and Stern’s stories examined and uncovered the dealings of Cunningham, who “traded lucrative defense contracts for millions of dollars in cash, lavish antiques and other payoffs,” according to an April 18 story in the Union-Tribune. Cunningham initially denied any wrongdoing but later resigned from his office and plead guilty to accepting $2.4 million in bribes. He was sentenced to eight years and four months in prison and the investigation into his corrupt dealings with defense contractors is ongoing.

The stories, which stirred national debate over the use of earmarks in Congress, were published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Copley’s flagship newspaper.

“They got a lot of reaction,” Kammer said. “If they weren’t reprinted, they were cited. They got a lot of attention.”

Kammer began working for Copley’s Washington D.C. bureau in 2002, and was assigned to the Cunningham story in mid-2005, according to Kammer’s biography on Pulitzer.org. Kammer said he wrote in-depth stories about the earmarking process, which Cunningham had used in his deals with defense contractors.

Copley and the Union-Tribune shared the national reporting Pulitzer with James Risen and Eric Lichtblau of the New York Times for their investigation of President George W. Bush’s post-Sept. 11 secret wiretapping program.

Kammer, an English major and former club lacrosse player at Notre Dame, began his journalism career in 1974 at the Navajo Times in Window Rock, Ariz. He earned a master’s degree in American studies at the University of New Mexico and later worked for the Arizona Republic as the paper’s northern Mexico correspondent. In 1998, he joined the paper’s investigative team in Phoenix, where he spent four years writing award-winning stories about Phoenix financier Charles Keating, who eventually became the symbol for the nationwide savings and loan scandal.

He said good journalism is about “looking beyond the immediate facts and digging deeper to find the underlying facts … All reporters should have [an] investigative mindset and set of investigative tools for digging out information through public records and source development.”

After two years as the Republic’s correspondent in Washington, D.C., Kammer joined Copley News Service, where he specialized in immigration and U.S.-Mexico relations.

Noting his 16 years of Catholic education, Kammer said the atmosphere at Notre Dame fostered his sense of duty to serve the public.

“One of the things that was pervasive in that education was a sense of that obligation to the community and to society and I think I absorbed that and that value is central to journalism in a democracy,” Kammer said. “The best thing journalists can do in a democracy is tell the people how power is being used in their name, particularly when it’s being abused in their name.”

“I definitely value tremendously my Notre Dame education and the friendships I developed there that reinforced the value system that is implicit [at Notre Dame].”

For the Cunningham project, Kammer and Stern were also awarded the 2005 George Polk Award for political reporting, and the Edgar A. Poe Award – which they will receive Saturday in Washington at the annual dinner of the White House Correspondent’s Association. Kammer said President Bush is expected to hand him the award.

“Maybe [the annual dinner] is a good tradition [but] I think we should be more interested in keeping an eye on [the politicians] than socializing with them.”