In-depth reporting by a Mercer University alumna recently uncovered conflicts of interest by a Secretary of State that led to the politician’s resignation and the launch of state and federal investigations.
Sophie Peel, who graduated in 2018 with a journalism degree and played on the beach volleyball team, is the city hall reporter for Willamette Week in Portland, Oregon.
At Mercer, she started out as a business major but quickly knew it wasn’t a good fit. Unsure of her career path, she decided to try journalism. She enjoyed the classes but didn’t feel a strong connection to the field until she interned with Georgia Public Broadcasting’s WMUB in Macon in the spring of her junior year.
“That’s when I realized how much I enjoyed talking to people and learning about things,” said Peel, who continued the work during her senior year.
After graduation, she did a half-year fellowship with WMUB, where she enjoyed doing community-centered reporting. She returned to Portland, her hometown, and started interning at Willamette Week in early 2019.
“It’s sort of a little powerhouse,” Peel said. “They throw you into the fire. I was terrified the whole time. It was so intense, and it was meetings on meetings of my editors in the room with me trying to discuss something really contentious. After that, I was like, ‘No, I’m never doing that again.’”
But she did. The paper kept asking her to freelance and fill in when other reporters were gone. By summer 2021, Peel had taken her place as a full-time staff writer.
Willamette Week produces a print product weekly, in addition to publishing stories online daily. Peel writes quick-hitting pieces as well as in-depth cover stories, which can take a month or two to complete, she said.
While the majority of her stories are related to politics, she sometimes covers topics such as housing, mental illness, development and cannabis. While dipping her toes into investigations on the latter, she wrote a cover story detailing the financial and legal troubles of cannabis dispensary chain La Mota. La Mota’s owners donated funds to Oregon’s top Democrats, including Oregon Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, despite allegedly owing millions of dollars to government agencies and vendors, Peel said.
As Peel continued her investigation, she received an anonymous tip that Fagan was working for La Mota as a researcher and consultant, which Fagan confirmed but offered few details on. After Peel published a story with these new facts, Fagan finally agreed to share her contract with La Mota with Willamette Week.
“There were a couple things that were really bad about it,” Peel said. “Fagan was overseeing an audit of the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Agency. Records showed that because of this, La Mota helped to shape the scope of the audit that Fagan oversaw. It was a myriad of conflicts of interest.”
Fagan resigned from her post as Secretary of State in early May, five days after the initial story about her contract with La Mota was published. State and federal criminal investigations into Fagan’s conduct are now underway.
Peel has written more than 50 articles on Fagan and La Mota since the drama first began to unfold. She said her work on this series would not have been possible without the support of her Willamette Week mentors, including Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nigel Jaquiss.
“I’m surrounded by smart people,” she said. “My name is on these stories, but it could not have happened had I not had these people around me. I am proud, but I also think there were a lot of external factors that helped get me there.”
Peel said stories like these make her work exciting and ensure she’s never bored.
“I like to be involved in the heart of things. In some ways, I’m privy to the heart of the city and who makes the decisions and the drama,” she said. “Being in proximity to political drama is fun in a way. It keeps me on my toes. Every single day, it feels like there’s a scenario I haven’t come across before. Part of the reason I love this job is it takes me outside of my comfort zone. I need that adrenaline to keep me excited about this life.”
Peel said she is content with her career at the moment, but she’s not sure what the future will hold. Law school and policy work are always in the back of her mind, but right now, she’s finding great joy in journalism.