The Chicago Tribune Walks

Newly unsealed evidence says the paper was never extorted

High above the summit of Chicago’s Tribune Tower, the clouds are clearing and the light is shining through.

A just-revealed document, laying out the federal government’s evidence against former Governor Rod Blagojevich, has given the Tribune Company a clean bill of health on their response to an alleged extortion attempt from the governor’s staff.

How so? According to the proffer, prepared by the office of United States Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, no one from Tribune Company was ever even offered the deal.

Back on December 9, 2008, Blagojevich was arrested by federal agents at his North Side home. Shortly afterwards, Fitzgerald released a criminal complaint which quoted liberally from wiretaps made just the month before, involving the governor, his wife, and John Harris, his chief of staff. Among other shady doings, most notably efforts to trade something of value for an appointment to President-elect Obama’s Senate seat, the tapes caught the governor’s inner circle conspiring to make a deal that would have greased the skids for about $100 million in state financial assistance to the then-Tribune-owned Chicago Cubs in exchange for personnel changes to the Chicago Tribune’s Blago-skeptic editorial board.

“[O]ur recommendation is fire all those fucking people, get ‘em the fuck out of there and get us some editorial support,” Blagojevich told Harris.

The wiretaps also recorded Harris, whom the governor had dispatched to lay on the knuckle, reporting back that he’d had a discussion with a financial advisor to the Tribune Company about toning down the editorials, and that the advisor had agreed to sound out Tribune’s owner—Sam Zell—about the possibility. After a later meeting between Harris and his Tribune contact, Harris reported back that Zell had “got the message and is very sensitive to the issue.” After another conversation, Harris said that in response to his queries on the matter he’d been told that the paper would be “downsizing that division or changing personnel” and implied that John McCormick, a deputy editor of the page who drew particular ire from the governor, would be among them.

At his press conference the afternoon of the arrests, Fitzgerald said that Blagojevich and Harris had “been arrested in the middle of what we can only describe as a political corruption crime spree. We acted to stop that crime spree.” Later in the conference, he said he was “not going to opine” on how the Tribune Company had responded to Harris’s entreaties.

The proffer—revealed upon the request of the Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the Associated Press—was prepared after a good deal more investigation. In it, Fitzgerald flatly concludes that “Harris never had any intention of” approaching the Tribune Company about the deal. All those phone calls? Harris was just stringing his boss along, relaying discussions that he’d never had.

According to the proffer, Harris’s double cross got fairly sophisticated. When Harris learned that the Tribune would—like so many other cash-strapped newspapers—be making layoffs, he led his boss to believe that some of those cuts would be the ones he wanted. Here’s how Fitzgerald’s proffer tells the tale:

In fact, despite Blagojevich’s directive to him, Harris did not convey to [the Tribune financial advisor] Blagojevich’s request to remove editorial board members, nor did Harris give the impression that this was a “do it or else” situation. [The Tribune financial advisor] did tell Harris that certain layoffs were imminent. As such, Harris told Blagojevich to expect results on the editorial board adjustments before the end of the month. Harris implied to Blagojevich that the Tribune people understood his time line, which made Blagojevich feel that the Tribune was being sensitive to his issues. In reality, the Tribune already had a time line in place for staff reduction that was unrelated to Blagojevich’s request to make changes on the editorial board. Because Blagojevich believed that Harris had followed through on his directive to threaten [Zell], Blagojevich was happy with Harris because he thought action would follow. Blagojevich expressed disappointment when the editorial board was later unaffected by the cutbacks.

What was Harris thinking? The indictment’s wiretap excerpts show Harris cautioning his boss that the whole idea was “delicate, very delicate,” which is, of course, true. It’s easy to see how the extortion attempt could have backfired, and in the end, Harris was wise not to make it, despite his boss’s orders.

Zell and the Tribune Company unloaded the Cubs after seventeen years of ownership shortly before the 2009 season.

John McCormick and Marie Dillon, a colleague on the Tribune editorial board, were revealed this week as finalists for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing for “unyielding editorials urging reform of a culture of corruption in Illinois state government, repeatedly sounding the alarm when lawmakers faltered.”

Rod Blagojevich was “fired” from The Celebrity Apprentice earlier this month. His trial is set to begin on June 3.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.