We know this much. John McCormick of the Tribune editorial board wasn’t laid off last week.
According to the federal complaint filed by the U.S. attorney Tuesday against Governor Blagojevich and his chief of staff, John Harris, the two of them had assurances from a “financial advisor” to the “Tribune owner” — that has to be CEO Sam Zell — “that the Tribune would be downsizing or making personnel changes affecting the editorial board.” Thus assured, the governor “had a series of conversations with representatives of the Chicago Cubs regarding efforts to provide state financing for Wrigley Field.”
Blagojevich was in a position to offer something he figured Zell wanted. Zell needed “the proceeds from the sale of the Cubs to pay down debt associated with the Tribune Company acquisition” — that’s the $13 billion in total debt that prompted the Tribune Company Monday to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. And the Illinois Finance Authority (IFA) could possibly help the sale along by offering financial assistance “relating to the financing or sale of Wrigley Field.” (Everything I’m quoting here, as well as the narrative itself, comes from the complaint.)
Which allegedly suggested a quid pro quo. “During the course of this investigation, agents have intercepted a series of communications regarding the efforts of [Blagojevich and Harris] to corruptly use the power and influence of the Office of the Governor to cause the firing of Chicago Tribune editorial board members as a condition of State of Illinois financial assistance in connection with Wrigley Field.”
In short, “Financial assistance . . . would not be forthcoming unless members of the . . . editorial board were fired.” Their offense? Editorials supporting Blagojevich’s impeachment. In an “intercepted call” between the governor and Harris on November 4, they allegedly discussed sending a message to that financial adviser: “ROD BLAGOJEVICH stated that ‘our recommendation is fire all those fucking people, get ’em the fuck out of there and get us some editorial support.'”
According to the complaint, the financial adviser got the message. What the adviser and Zell did about it isn’t clear. Were they tempted? Did they play along? Did they drop a dime on the governor? The complaint doesn’t say. But Tribune editor Gerould Kern said Tuesday he never experienced any pressure, from inside or outside the paper, related to the editorials.
According to the complaint, on November 6 Blagojevich and Harris were overheard discussing what IFA support would mean to the Tribune Company. The governor “said that he thought ‘it was worth like $500 million to ’em.'” Harris said more like $100 million. Blagojevich said, “$100 million is nothing to sneeze at. That’s still worth something, isn’t it?”
On November 11, Harris told Blagojevich he’d met with Zell’s financial adviser the day before, and “Tribune Financial Advisor talked to Tribune Owner and Tribune Owner ‘got the message and is very sensitive to the issue.’ HARRIS stated that according to Tribune Financial Advisor, there will be ‘certain corporate reorganizations and budget cuts coming and, reading between the lines, he’s going after that section.’ ROD BLAGOJEVICH responded, ‘oh, that’s fantastic.'” Harris said he’d been told there’d be “some reorganization or cuts” by the end of November, and the governor replied, “Wow. OK, keep our fingers crossed. You’re the man. Good job, John.”
Later, according to the complaint, the two of them began talking about McCormick specifically. Harris told the governor that in talks with the financial adviser he’d “singled out McCormick as somebody who was the most biased and unfair. Blagojevich called McCormick a “bad guy” and asked Harris if the financial advisor “is on top of this, right?”
From the complaint: “BLAGOJEVICH confirmed that HARRIS made the point with Tribune Financial Advisor that the Tribune is advocating that ROD BLAGOJEVICH be impeached for going around the legislature and that ‘is precisely what we’re doing on Wrigley Field.’ HARRIS said he explained that information to Tribune Financial Advisor. . . . HARRIS suggested to ROD BLAGOJEVICH that HARRIS explained to Tribune Financial Advisor that the Tribune’s editorials discussing impeachment ‘could jeopardize our efforts to do good things for people as well as the other thing (helping the Cubs sale at the IFA).’ ROD BLAGOJEVICH responded, ‘there ya go. He got the message?’ HARRIS replied, ‘yeah.’ ROD BLAGOJEVICH stated ‘good.'”
On December 4, the Tribune laid off 11 employees. But McCormick wasn’t one of them, nor was anyone else on the editorial board. The next day, according to the complaint, Blagojevich and Harris talked it over. Blagojevich: “What’s the deal? So, do [sic] McCormick stays at the Tribune, huh?” Harris: “We haven’t heard that he’s gone, so.” Blagojevich: “I mean, those layoffs were minor.” Harris: “Well, I know they got a lot to do.” Blagojevich: “There’s still more coming?” Harris: “Yeah, they got a lot of cuts to make.”
Hope springs eternal.