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- The Webb report says the Chicago Tribune didn’t pick up some police files.
Buried in the recent report by special prosecutor Dan Webb, “The Death of David Koschman,” is this tantalizing suggestion: that the Sun-Times campaign to fix responsibility for Koschman’s death in 2004 and find out why Chicago police were so unwilling to might have been a Tribune campaign instead.
Page 69 of the 162-page report says this:
“On May 22, 2004, Hal Dardick of the Chicago Tribune submitted a FOIA request seeking ‘all police reports relating to the April 24 [sic] incident that led to the death of David Koschman . . . ‘ CPD denied the request on several grounds, including that disclosure would have ‘interfere[d] with pending or actually and reasonably contemplated law enforcement proceedings . . . ‘”
But then there’s a footnote: “CPD FOIA Unit Officer Matthew Sandoval stated that he pulled reports for Dardick, but those reports may have never been picked up.”
Koschman had been knocked unconscious when he was punched by R.J. Vanecko—nephew of then-mayor Richard M. Daley—early the morning of April 25, 2004, outside a Rush Street bar. Eleven days later he died of his injuries. According to the Webb report, on May 26, 2004, the Sun-Times carried a story in which then-police superintendent Phil Cline said there was “no basis” for criminal charges. “It appears,” says the Webb report, “the media did not publish another article regarding the Koschman case until 2011.”
That’s when the Sun-Times‘s Tim Novak decided Koschman’s death deserved a close second look. He filed his own FOIA request for the police file, and the CPD turned him down with the same excuse they’d given the Tribune seven years earlier: there was an “ongoing police investigation.” But that didn’t stop Novak and fellow reporter Chris Fusco and columnist Carol Marin from working the story until Vanecko pleaded guilty to manslaughter in January. They’re working it still.
But what about those files Sandoval left for Dardick? If he’d picked them up, would the Tribune have been off and running on the same story seven years earlier?
There’s a reason Sandoval’s recollection is relegated to a footnote—it’s a red herring. We don’t know what, if anything, Sandoval put together for the Tribune; we don’t know if it would have been of any news value whatsoever. Today Dardick covers City Hall for the Trib, but back then he’d worked only about a year as a resident—a temp. He’s not someone an editor would have assigned to launch a major investigation. But sitting around with nothing more urgent to do, he could have asked to fill out a FOIA request. It might not have occurred to him to follow up.
The police have a way of turning down reporters’ FOIAs without leaving them completely empty-handed. A good example of this practice shows up on page 127 of the Webb report. When CPD turned down Novak’s FOIA in 2011, the no wasn’t categorical. Footnote 742 says Novak was told he could see the redacted General Offense Case Report. “The response would omit ‘crime scene details, witness and suspect names and statements [that] would interfere with the Department’s ongoing criminal investigation . . . [and] [t]he names, home addresses and telephone numbers, and other identifying information that is unique to the witnesses and any suspect involved in the incident . . .'”
In other words, Novak would get nothing of value. The Sun-Times appealed, and ultimately CPD was overruled by the Illinois attorney general’s office.
If what Sandoval left for Dardick was no more than that, it’s conceivable someone from the Trib came by for Sandoval’s files, looked them over, and just left them there.
But I’m conjecturing. Unfortunately, the Tribune has been no more forthcoming about the inconsistency on page 69 of the Webb report than the police were in 2004 and 2011 about their Koschman investigation. I’d hoped Sandoval could clear up the mystery, but he’s on medical leave and I couldn’t reach him. When I asked CPD’s News Affairs office to pass a message to him they said no. They replied, “The Inspector General’s Office has been involved in the investigation from the outset and, at their request, we await the results of their review.” Inspector General Joe Ferguson had asked CPD not to take any sort of internal action (such as disciplinary) in response to the Webb report until Ferguson’s office finished its review. Construing that request as a prohibition that keeps them from letting Sandoval know I have a question for him echoes CPD’s no to the dailies’ FOIAs on grounds that the police investigation was ongoing.