John Wilke, 54; Investigative Reporter Explored Business-Government Ties

At the Wall Street Journal, John Wilke helped report on a corporate spying scandal.
At the Wall Street Journal, John Wilke helped report on a corporate spying scandal. (Family Photo)
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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 4, 2009

John Wilke, 54, a dogged investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal who, in the words of friend and former Washington Post reporter Allan Lengel, "loved journalism more than anyone I knew," died May 1 of pancreatic cancer at his home in Bethesda.

Mr. Wilke specialized in exploring the connections among business, government and federal regulatory bodies. His stories included an extraordinary interview in 2000 with U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson, who at the time was presiding over the landmark Microsoft antitrust trial; a 2005 exposé of the mutual-fund trader Mario Gabelli, who settled civil fraud claims with the government for approximately $100 million six months after the story appeared; and a 2006 investigation into the alleged misuse of congressional earmarks by Reps. Alan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.) and Charles H. Taylor (R-N.C.). For the congressional stories, he received the Everett McKinley Dirksen Award from the National Press Foundation.

In 2006, he was a member of the Journal team that reported on a corporate spying scandal involving Hewlett-Packard. The computer giant acknowledged in the fall of that year that its investigators probing internal leaks to the media had impersonated HP board members to gain access to their personal phone records and had conducted physical and electronic surveillance of board members and reporters. Because of the scandal, President George W. Bush signed a bill making such activities a federal crime.

Typical of his investigative work was an October 2007 story about how Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) used his clout as chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee to create thousands of jobs and steer billions of dollars in government contracts to his home town.

"A review by The Wall Street Journal of dozens of such contracts funded by Mr. Murtha's committee shows that many weren't sought by the military or federal agencies they were intended to benefit," Mr. Wilke wrote. "Some were inefficient or mismanaged, according to interviews, public records and previously unpublished Pentagon audits."

John Robert Wilke was born in Elgin, Ill., and grew up in White Plains, N.Y. He received his undergraduate degree in psychology and biology in 1981 from New College of Florida and his master's degree in journalism from Columbia University in 1983.

He began his journalism career at BusinessWeek in 1984 and two years later joined the Boston Globe, where he covered technology and business. He left the Globe in 1989 to cover the same beat for the Wall Street Journal and moved to the paper's Washington bureau in 1995.

Colleagues recalled that he was fun-loving and gregarious. His wife of 21 years, Nancy Nadler Wilke, said he also was a devoted father and husband. He loved planning family activities, including hiking in Maine's Acadia National Park, relaxing at the family's summer house in Maine and attending Boston Red Sox games. He also loved to cook.

In addition to his wife, of Bethesda, survivors include two children, Robin Wilke of Burlington, Vt., and Jackson Wilke of Bethesda; his mother, Margaret "Peg" Wilke of Claremont, Calif.; and four brothers.

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