How 2 twentysomething journalists brought down a corrupt Kentucky sheriff

“60 Minutes” | Nieman Reports | YouTube
Samantha Swindler, then 27, had been managing editor of the Corbin (Ky.) Times-Tribune for about three years when she asked 20-year-old Adam Sulfridge to report on a corrupt sheriff, Lawrence Hodge, who was involved in trading guns, drugs and favors. At the time, Sulfridge was a local college sophomore “whose only experience was working on his high school newspaper.” Swindler told “60 Minutes”‘ Byron Pitts she hired Sulfridge because, “He was smart, he knew about the community, and he cared about local government.” Sulfridge also had a personal stake in the story: his aunt had overdosed. “My first question was, I wonder if she got her drugs from somebody that the sheriff was protecting.”

“Our investigation into the sheriff started with a joke — literally,” Swindler wrote about the reporting last year. “I heard our sportswriter joke about people buying guns out of the back of the sheriff’s barbershop.”

Sulfridge wasn’t the first reporter Swindler assigned to the story: “I had to go through three different reporters before I found one who could really work on this with me because it was really hard to find somebody who wanted to do all the research involved,” she said during an interview at her alma mater, Boston University, last year.

Sulfridge said he worked up to 70 hours some weeks. “Over several months, he dug through thousands of handwritten arrest citations to determine what evidence should have been in the sheriff’s custody,” Swindler wrote. “Since he was a local boy, people trusted him. As word spread about what we were doing, courthouse workers began discreetly slipping him scraps of paper listing case numbers worth investigating.”

Eventually, the sheriff agreed to an interview. “We played along, we played nice for a very long time, let him lie,” Sulfridge said. Then, the journalists involved federal law enforcement. “What do you make of that, that two twentysomethings with pens and notebooks could do what seasoned law enforcement officers couldn’t?,” Byron Pitts asked during Sunday’s segment. Law enforcement’s answer: “They caught him off guard because they’d done their research.”

Hodge was soon voted out of office and indicted. He pleaded guilty and is now serving 15 years in federal prison. Swindler, who has worked at three community newspapers, is now the publisher of a weekly in Oregon, the Tillamook Headlight Herald.

“Young reporters tend to think they need a byline from The New York Times to make a difference in the world. If they really want to have an impact, get a job with a community paper, and start asking the tough questions that no one ever asked before,” wrote Swindler. “I would tell students that just because you stayed at a 10,000-circulation paper doesn’t mean you didn’t have a really great career.”

Adam Sulfridge is now a college graduate, unemployed in Whitley County, Kentucky.

Watch the “60 Minutes” segment:

Watch the BU interview with Swindler:

Related: “One publication called it shoe-leather journalism. We worked our hinds end off and it’s nice.” (“60 Minutes”)| “I quit this job more than I ever quit any other job before.” (“60 Minutes”) | “…if you want to write when you grow up, you’ll still be able to get a job at a small town paper.” (Swindler’s Tumblr/Edited Out) | ‘60 Minutes’ gets younger and its viewers do too (The New York Times)

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  • Kathleen Ryan

     Thanks for following up. Cheers!

  • Anonymous

    Bravo! If these two don’t win a Pulitzer for this work there is no justice. And get this kid a job…!

  • Anonymous

    If these two don’t win a Pulitzer for this work there’s no justice. Bravo!

  • Poynter

    Hi, Kathleen. We use numerals in our headlines, that’s why it says “2″ instead of “two.” –Julie Moos, Director of Poynter Online

  • Kathleen Ryan

    Not a very journalistic headline. Is it because you are referring to a younger generation that you use ’2′ instead of ‘two’ as AP style would dictate?

  • Hans Laetz

    Talk about burying the lede!

    “Adam Sulfridge is now a college graduate, unemployed…”

  • Anonymous

    “Adam Sulfridge is now a college graduate, unemployed…”

    So many things wrong with that statement.

  • Anonymous

    Pry open the wallets at Poynter and hire that boy’s hardworking, savvy, common sense, gutsy backside.

    And do it NOW!

    I see Sulfridge and Swindler and the likes of Luke Russert, Erin Burnett, Ross Don’t Do That, and Chelsea Clinton make me want to vomit.

  • Poynter

    We are working on an answer to that. Hope to have it soon. –Julie Moos, Director of Poynter Online

  • Fenit Nirappil

    How on earth is Sulfridge unemployed??