Angered by Tribune editorials, Gov. Rod Blagojevich tried to get members of the paper's editorial board fired, promising in exchange to support lucrative state financial assistance in the sale of Wrigley Field -- part of the cash-strapped parent company's efforts to sell the Chicago Cubs, authorities charged Tuesday.
From a series of secretly recorded telephone calls, federal prosecutors alleged that Blagojevich conspired to interfere in the operations of the Chicago Tribune by threatening to withhold state money for the Cubs and Wrigley Field. Tribune Co. owns the newspaper as well as the Cubs and the ballpark.In one recorded conversation, Blagojevich uttered a series of profanities about the newspaper's editorial writers, stating that "our recommendation is fire all those [expletive] people, get 'em the [expletive] out of there and get us some editorial support."
According to the complaint, Blagojevich's chief of staff, John Harris, had numerous conversations with an individual described as a "Tribune Financial Advisor," warning the adviser that Blagojevich's support for a Wrigley Field deal "could get derailed by your own editorial page."
As federal agents listened Nov. 11, Blagojevich and Harris talked about the status of editorial writers losing their jobs. Harris reported to Blagojevich that the undisclosed financial adviser had spoken with Tribune Co. owner Sam Zell, "who got the message and is very sensitive to the issue."
Harris told Blagojevich that it appeared that the company was continuing to reorganize and to lay off workers. "Reading between the lines," Harris said, there would be cuts to the newspaper's 11-member editorial board.
Whether the financial adviser attempted to apply pressure to Tribune Co. officials remains unclear.
Zell, who is also chief executive officer of the Tribune Co., could not be immediately reached for comment.
"There was never an instance where I was contacted or called where any influence at all was placed against me," said Chicago Tribune Editor Gerould Kern. "There were no instances of that."
Tribune Editorial Page Editor Bruce Dold said he never had a "whiff" of pressure from the company over his staff's editorials.
"This whole thing comes as a complete surprise to me today," said Dold. "Sam Zell said when he took over the company that he didn't want to interfere with editorial decisions. He has been absolutely good to that."
Both Kern and Dold said there had been no reductions in the editorial board staff, despite widespread cuts elsewhere at the newspaper.
According to the charges, Blagojevich was especially intent on the firing of Deputy Editorial Page Editor John McCormick.
But McCormick said Tuesday he was baffled by the personal acrimony allegedly expressed by Blagojevich in the secret recordings. He said he was not entirely sure that he wrote the editorials singled out by the governor.
Crane Kenney, Cubs chairman, said the team would cooperate "to any extent" with the investigation. "No one in the Cubs has been contacted by any investigator or law enforcement official," he said.