Last Last month [Oct. 2014], The Virginian-Pilot announced it was laying off 32 employees, knocking its newsroom back by about a quarter. The cuts would be the deepest the paper has suffered since 2008 and will leave the newsroom “at less than half of its size in 2007,” when it had almost 250 staffers.

So it’s been a bittersweet time at the 140-year-old paper in Norfolk, VA, as its newsroom celebrates the clear impact of a recent major investigation that’s rocked city hall and a big bank on Virginia Beach.

“We were having going-away parties when we were preparing this story,” investigative reporter John Holland told me about the article, which details how Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms, who is also the president of TowneBank, voted dozens of times on matters that directly benefited the bank’s borrowers. The mayor, who says he didn’t knowingly do anything wrong, is on leave as the bank and public officials conduct separate investigations in response to the story. Just yesterday, two other mayors in nearby towns stepped down from their positions on the bank’s board.

From the Nov. 7 piece that broke the news:

The Virginian-Pilot tracked every vote taken by the City Council since Sessoms’ inauguration on Jan. 5, 2009, and compared them with more than 3,000 real estate sales documents, land deed records, council agendas, lawsuits and agreements between the city and developers who funded projects through TowneBank.

In all, Sessoms voted at least 60 times on actions involving businesses, developers and individuals who received TowneBank loans. He rarely recused himself from voting and never disclosed that he was personally named as a trustee on more than $90 million worth of the loans. Trustees are appointed by banks for all loans involving a deed of trust—similar to a mortgage—and are legally responsible for protecting the bank’s interests.

That initial piece has turned into a weeklong series, as the paper has tracked the fallout. You can check out the Pilot’s slick shell page on the investigation, with a timeline linking to the paper’s reporting and 26 pages of searchable documents.

Today, a week after the first story came out, I spoke with Holland, who is also celebrating his first year on the job this week, about the paper’s commitment to accountability reporting and investigative journalism in a time of severe cutbacks. What follows are excerpts from our conversation, edited for clarity:

The last big news I read out of the Pilot was about those cutbacks. Will you keep your job? 

I’ll be fine, yeah. It’s been tough, we’ve lost a lot of good people in the past month. It’s really depressing, and that’s why when we do journalism like this everybody kind of feels they’re part of it. Really the whole newsroom felt good about this. This most recent round [of layoffs] I believe was around 32. We’ve lost other people in the meantime, just in the normal course of newspaper business. We lost our managing editor and another senior editor, both left on their own.

And you were still able to do this kind of investigative work, even with the staffing troubles?

It’s a good newspaper. When I came here they said they were serious about doing real investigations , and it’s a credit to the paper. There are a half dozen other reporters at this paper that could have done the same job. I’m not just saying it, it’s a good newspaper that puts a priority on investigations and I’m kind of proud of them [that was then what about now?].

Not to dwell on this, but the story took a while to research and report. There was support within the newsroom for that? 

It’s very strange, it’s like the old-time newspapers in that way. We cover for each other. There really is a very collegial atmosphere, and it made it easy. I didn’t have a story in the paper for almost a month or a month and a half. Nobody complained, nobody whined. They knew I was working on something.

This was the newspaper that did this. My byline was there, but they gave me time, we had great editors. Bill Henry is a true editor who really shepherded this thing the whole way. It really wasn’t just me … my byline was there, but a lot of people helped on it.

OK, so how did this story come about?

I was reading the agendas and they were pushing through a lot of things without comment, without any discussion, and it seemed to involve the same people over and over again, so it got me curious. Then I got a tip that was completely wrong, it was tip to go look at the mayor’s involvement in a deal that the mayor did nothing wrong with. But as I pulled the land records and started examining it I saw his name on the deed of trust. 

On a hunch I typed his name into the property records with the city and 748 hits came up immediately. At the point we knew we were on to something. 

I understand Virginia has weak public information laws.What were some hurdles you encountered?

On this story, obviously because there’s a few different angles, this one I didn’t want to really get into FOI requests. We were fortunate with a few things: they have the land records, which is every recorded deed, and when they do a subdivision they have to do agreements and they’re all online. So what I did was I got the minutes and the actual votes from every single meeting since he became mayor. And what I would do is, I’d see the company’s name … I would [put] the name of that company into court records—I was using four screens—I’d take the name of that company first of all into the land deed records, then I’d go into court records, then I’d have my own searchable database that I’d made … if I had a hit on any then I’d open the actual agenda for that meeting and see what happened.

The mayor wouldn’t sit down with you to go over the story before publication, right?

It took a while to do the research. We got to the mayor very early on. We got to him 10 days before the story ran and he talked to us, [but] he wouldn’t meet with us. And we would hold, and he wouldn’t meet and he wouldn’t meet. Then he went to the Philippines. Then they tried to delay when we would meet him; they said he wouldn’t meet with us until three days after he came back. In our mind it became obvious he was never going to meet with us … we didn’t think he was serious about ever talking to us.

He says he didn’t intentionally do anything wrong. Do you buy that?

That’s not for me to say. What we did, though, is we showed his signature side by side on dozens of documents, and we’ll be getting more. We’re building a full database with about $212 million worth of loans that TowneBank was connected to, and we show his signature on documents related to the loans at the same time he was voting for them. It will be up to someone else to decide whether or not he just wasn’t paying attention.

And he’s being investigated as we speak. On the city level, but also elsewhere?

At the city level, and at some point it will expand beyond the local attorneys. There’s also interest in other law enforcement agencies, too. 

Virginia has long held a reputation for clean government. They call it The Virginia Way. But this year there’s been the scandal with your ex-governor, and a couple other high-profile conflict-of-interest investigations in the Senate. Now this. What’s going on? 

I think one reason Virginia has that reputation is because it has the weakest public records laws I’ve ever seen. Before I came here I did a project for the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime in Vienna, Austria, and part of the project I did was looking at public records laws. These are worse than any country I’ve ever seen. So, it’s very easy to think you have clean government if there’s no mechanism to look at the government. And that is the biggest problem here. 

I think the McDonnell story will have people clamoring to make records more accessible and to broaden the amount of records that are available. There are too many exemptions that are available under the law right now. It’s slanted in favor of secrecy as opposed to openness.

I don’t think the lack of corruption is any different than any other place. People are people. Corruption is corruption. But if you have laws that can expose it, you can at least tell people what is going on. This is more a function of weak laws than honest people. 

How has the response been in the community?

I’ve been doing this for a while and I’ve never had a response like it. We got over 250 emails, people just thanking us. I’d never seen that happen before. There is a feeling that it’s good seeing newspapers still doing this. They weren’t thanking me, they were thanking the newspaper. It’s good to see that people are still doing this type of reporting, is the general feel of it. There will be a lot more to come. There are things in this city government that need to be looked at because they’ve been happening for a while.