Probe of IL governor touches Tribune reporting, editorials
Blagojevich tried to axe pro-impeachment editors, paper held some reports on probeChicago's largest newspaper has become a peripheral piece of the scandal enveloping Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
The FBI alleges that the Democratic governor wanted to get some Chicago Tribune editors fired after they argued for his impeachment, and the paper acknowledged that it had withheld some damaging stories about Blagojevich's shady dealings at the request of federal prosecutors.
US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald thanked the Tribune for its discretion during a press conference Tuesday. The prosecutor said his office had asked the Tribune to hold off on reporting some aspects of the case about two months ago, arguing their disclosure would have jeopardized the investigation.
Tribune editor Gerould Kern acknowledged the paper's involvement, in a statement released following the press conference.
"On occasion, prosecutors asked us to delay publication of stories, asserting that disclosure would jeopardize the criminal investigation. In isolated instances, we granted the requests, but other requests were refused," Kern said. "The Chicago Tribune's interest in reporting the news flows from its larger obligation of citizenship in a democracy. In each case, we strive to make the right decision as reporters and as citizens. That's what we did in this case."
The feds have been investigating Blagojevich for more than five years, alleging the governor defrauded the public by using the perks of his office to ensure his own enrichment. The biggest revelation in the FBI's 76-page affidavit (.pdf) involved Blagojevich's efforts to sell President-elect Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder.
Blagojevich also is accused of trying to convince the Tribune's corporate parent of sacking some unfriendly editorial writers who were agitating for the Illinois legislature to impeach him.
Tribune Co. was state assistance related to its attempt to sell the Chicago Cubs and Wrigley Field. The FBI recorded conversations between Blagojevich and his chief of staff John Harris, who also has been charged in the corruption probe, discussing their need to hold out on delivering the assistance until the editorial board members were let go.
Harris allegedly told an unnamed Tribune financial adviser that the state assistance "could move ahead fine but, you know, there is a risk that all of this is going to get derailed by your own editorial page," according to an intercepted Nov. 6 phone call between Harris and Blagojevich.
A few days earlier Blagojevich complained to a deputy that he worried he would be impeached in the Spring and he blamed the Tribune had been "driving" the impeachment discussion. On Sept. 29, the paper editorialized that the state legislature should investigate whether impeachement was warranted, an idea it reiterated a month later.
Fitzgerald said Blagojevich's efforts had been unsuccessful and that the editors he hoped to oust remained employed at the paper.