Damon Chappie, 40, an investigative reporter who unearthed ethical lapses and corruption in Congress even after losing his eyesight, died Nov. 5 of congestive heart failure and other health problems at Washington Home, a District hospice. He lived in Arlington.
Since 1995, he had worked at Roll Call, a small but influential paper that examines the inner workings of Capitol Hill. Mr. Chappie's investigations, based on documents uncovered through the Freedom of Information Act, a thick Rolodex and sometimes direct confrontation, examined ethical conflicts surrounding former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), former representative Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), former representative James A. Traficant Jr. (D-Ohio) and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.).
Roll Call reporter Damon Chappie was named an "unsung hero" of Washington journalism.
One of Mr. Chappie's most frequent targets was Rep. Bud Shuster, who chaired the House transportation committee and often traveled across the country raising money in the company of a female lobbyist. This is how Mr. Chappie began a 1996 Roll Call article when civic leaders of Frederick wanted to get Shuster's ear:
"Desperate to link two interstate highways together and relieve traffic through their historic business district, town leaders here did the only thing they believed would get the attention of House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bud Shuster (R-Pa).
"They held a fundraiser for his re-election."
After being investigated by the House ethics committee, Shuster resigned his congressional seat in January 2001.
Mr. Chappie also conducted early investigations into a pattern of bribery and corruption linked to Traficant, who was expelled from Congress in 2002 and later sentenced to eight years in prison.
For his hard-hitting stories serving the public interest, Mr. Chappie was named an "unsung hero" of Washington journalism two years ago by American Journalism Review. Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project and an expert in public corruption, described him as, "in my opinion, the best investigative reporter covering Congress."
Larger news organizations routinely covered journalistic territory first tilled by Mr. Chappie.
"Damon's dedication to thorough, fair and well-researched reporting," said Tim Curran, editor of Roll Call, in an e-mail, "helped raise the standards for everyone he worked with at Roll Call. He was both a source of inspiration and a mentor to the many young journalists who were lucky enough to have the opportunity to work with him over the years."
Mr. Chappie, who was born in Reading, Pa., gained notice as a journalist in college at Pennsylvania State University by investigating Clair George, a Penn State alumnus who was one of the CIA's central figures in the Iran-contra scandal of the 1980s.
After graduating from Penn State in 1987, Mr. Chappie came to Washington and became chief congressional reporter for the Bureau of National Affairs, a small news agency. In 1995, he joined Roll Call.
Early in 1997, after he contracted a fungal infection in Mexico, Mr. Chappie was placed on a ventilator and spent three weeks in intensive care. He developed glaucoma and other problems, and in spite of surgery, he lost his sight by December.
Most of the people he worked with did not know his health was further compromised by hemophilia and by a blood transfusion tainted with HIV that he received in the 1980s. He contended with HIV and hepatitis the rest of life.
In spite of his blindness and other ailments, he went back to work, armed with special software that scanned documents into his computer and read them back at an auctioneer's speed. He continued to work at Roll Call until September. Characteristically, his final pieces exposed a triple murder and robbery at a savings bank owned by Rep. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.). The family of the victims sued Taylor for wrongful death for not providing enough security at the bank, which was in a trailer.
"Damon's ability to persevere and succeed in the profession he loved after losing his sight was amazing to witness," Curran said.
Survivors include his longtime companion, Melissa Cohen of Washington; and his parents Donald and Janice M. Chappie of Douglassville, Pa.
"He had this tremendous willpower to expose corruption in Congress," said Ruskin, "and he wasn't going to let anything stand in his way."