Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki smiled and chatted with senators in the well of the Senate hall in the minutes before the Feb. 15 session began. His demeanor was unchanged from other days, but the attitude of the senators, lobbyists and staffers toward him had shifted subtly.

Krolicki has always been well liked and respected, and many of those in politics expect that one day they will deal with him as governor. On this morning, however, it was on their minds that the day might be nearer than anyone expected. The morning’s Wall Street Journal carried front-page disclosure that the FBI corruption probe that sent former U.S. Rep. Randy Cunningham to prison had turned its attention to former U.S. Rep. James Gibbons, now Nevada’s governor.

Krolicki was circumspect, declining comment on the subject. That made him one of the few people in the Nevada legislative building not talking about it.

The Journal article was devastating to Gibbons. Reporter John Wilke had obtained an e-mail message sent to Gibbons suggesting a cash payment had been made to him by Reno business owner Warren Trepp. One message, reportedly sent by Trepp’s wife on March 22, 2005—shortly before the Trepps and the Gibbons’ took a Caribbean cruise together—read, “Please don’t forget to bring the money you promised Jim and Dawn.” While that message could be explained a number of ways, Warren Trepp’s reaction in an answering e-mail made explanation more difficult: “Don’t you ever send this kind of message to me! Erase this message from your computer right now!”

This report came three months after another Journal story by the same author that reported Gibbons had helped Trepp get no-bid federal contracts behind the cover of the national security “black budget”—a section of federal spending that is not subject to public view or public scrutiny. “Congressman Gibbons certainly came through for eTrippid!” read an e-mail message by a Trepp lobbyist, referring to Trepp’s software company.

Last week’s revelation spread very fast. Las Vegas political columnist Jon Ralston sent out a message to his subscribers at 8:07 in the morning. Copies of the Wall Street Journal were at a premium in the capital. Carson City’s only newsstand store, the Smoke Shop, sold out early.

The capital is very much like a company town, and the company is state government. Instability at the top communicates itself fast down through the food chain. Not only did attention focus on Krolicki, but state workers in many agencies as well as governor’s appointees also pondered the development for its meaning to them.

Gibbons said, “I am confident that my actions were ethical. However, if there is ever found to be an inaccuracy or mistake, I will rectify it.”

He also questioned whether there really was an investigation of him because he has not been contacted. That raised doubt about the Journal report. But other news entities, including the Washington Post and Nevada Associated Press capitol bureau chief Brendan Riley separately verified from their own sources that the probe was underway.

Some raised questions why information in the Journal story, such as the e-mail messages, was not reported by local reporters before the November election, since their independent verification of the second Journal story showed they had such sources.

“If they [journalists] hadn’t been so focused on the cocktail waitress story,” said one state agency chief, “they might have been able to get this out then.”

Three major controversies hit Gibbons shortly before the Nov. 7 election. One involved accusations that he manhandled cocktail waitress Christy Mazzeo in a parking garage in Las Vegas on Oct. 13. On Oct. 25, he was accused of employing an illegal alien. On Nov. 1 came the first Wall Street Journal story.

Of the three, the Mazzeo story was the most difficult to nail down. It was basically a he-said/she-said story. The other two were better documented. But reporters largely ignored them, devoting nearly all their enterprise and digging to the Mazzeo story. At one point, a search on the Google news page showed 661 stories on the Mazzeo dispute, 70 on the Trepp issue, and 17 on the illegal alien matter.

Could journalists have broken more of the Trepp story sooner?

“Several other people were involved in the immigrant and influence stories who could have been interviewed,” said UNR journalism professor Jake Highton, noting that there were rumors circulating around town that could have been investigated by reporters. “That happens time and time again. Something that has sensationalism or sex appeal to it overshadows everything else, and that’s one of the problems with the media. They give a great deal of attention to things that are entertaining.”One journalist who looked prescient in the wake of the new Journal report was Steve Sebelius at Las Vegas City Life. Last month he predicted that Gibbons, as part of the new governor’s effort to erase the influence of predecessor Kenny Guinn, would bring back “scandal to the integrity-plagued governor’s office.”

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...