James Polk: He Won a Pulitzer Prize for His Watergate Reporting

From a Washington Post obit by Matt Schudel headlined “James Polk, Pulitzer winner for Watergate reporting, dies at 83”:

James R. Polk, a journalist who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974 for his reporting on the Watergate scandal for the old Washington Star, and who later worked with NBC News and CNN, died at his home in Marietta, Ga….

Mr. Polk spent only two years with the Star, then called the Washington Star-News, but in that time he uncovered financial irregularities concerning the reelection campaign of President Richard M. Nixon, including a secret contribution from a shady financier, delivered in a briefcase.

After the break-in at the Watergate office complex in June 1972, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein led an investigation that led to a Pulitzer Prize in 1973. But reporters from other news organizations, including Mr. Polk, also pursued the story about White House corruption, centered on Nixon’s reelection committee.

Early in 1973, Mr. Polk revealed that Robert L. Vesco, who was under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission for stealing $224 million in assets from an offshore investment fund he controlled, had made an unreported $200,000 contribution to Nixon’s 1972 campaign.

Mr. Polk’s findings, which were printed in newspapers across the country, showed that Nixon’s onetime Attorney General John N. Mitchell and Commerce Secretary Maurice H. Stans were part of an effort to funnel the money to the reelection effort and to defendants in the Watergate break-in. Mr. Polk uncovered details of the transaction that seemed to be drawn from a movie about organized crime.

“A Vesco business aide, Laurence B. Richardson, who carried the $200,000 in a briefcase to Nixon fundraiser Maurice H. Stans,” Mr. Polk wrote, delivered the cash by saying, “I have a message from Mr. Vesco.”

Richardson then added, according to later testimony from Vesco’s lawyer, “Sure hope that we might get some proper help somewhere along the line, if possible.”

Mr. Polk also showed that Edward Nixon, the president’s brother, “played a role in arranging for the cash transaction” and that Vesco had asked for a meeting with William J. Casey, then-chairman of the SEC.

In June 1973, Mr. Polk reported that a former Philippine ambassador to the United States had delivered $30,000 to Stans soon after the Watergate break-in.

“The $30,000 given to Stans 12 days after the Watergate arrests” on June 17, 1972, Mr. Polk wrote, “became part of the $75,000 in cash passed on that same day to Nixon’s lawyer, Herbert W. Kalmbach, for payments to the Watergate suspects and their attorneys.”

Mr. Polk added: “Stans testified he gave the money to Kalmbach, who said he needed it for ‘a White House project.’ ”

In May 1974, Mr. Polk shared the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting with the Providence Journal’s Jack White, who had disclosed that Nixon had avoided hundreds of thousands of dollars in income taxes in the early 1970s. Nixon resigned in August 1974.

James Ray Polk was born Sept. 12, 1937, in Oaktown, Ind….He began contributing sports stories to his hometown newspaper when he was 8. He completed his final year of high school in Mason City, Iowa, then served three years in the Navy, mostly as a journalist. He received a bachelor’s degree in government from Indiana University in 1964.

He worked early in his career with the Bloomington Herald-Telephone in Indiana, then at the Associated Press in Madison, Wis. He came to Washington as an AP investigative reporter. According to his brother, David Polk, Mr. Polk abruptly quit his job when an editor refused to run a story critical of Mitchell, Nixon’s former attorney general.

Mr. Polk joined the Star-News in 1972, then left in 1974 to become a Washington-based investigative reporter for NBC News. Appearing regularly on NBC’s “Nightly News” and “Today” show, he covered political corruption, serial killers, terrorism and the proliferation of guns in the United States and around the world.

In 1992, he moved to Atlanta to join CNN as a senior documentary producer. He won an Emmy Award in 1996 for leading the cable network’s coverage of the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City in which 168 people were killed. He retired in his late 70s….

In the 1970s, Mr. Polk was one of the founders and an early president of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE)….He received an IRE Founders Award in 2018.

Mr. Polk wrote in the IRE Journal in 2015 that “the core of what we do in journalism” had not changed from his early days as a reporter:

“It’s the same formula: 1. Ask questions. 2. Find answers. 3. Tell the public. Yes, our delivery systems for telling the news have evolved. But our methods in pursuit of truth are simple and eternal.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004. He previously worked for publications in Washington, New York, North Carolina and Florida.

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