Robert Page seems to have made a mess of things since he left Chicago. The Sun-Times’s former publisher is being sued by his old partners here and his new partners in California. Maybe Page’s big character flaw is his failure to ever choose the right partners.

Last month in California, Page suffered the indignity of being ousted from and sued by a company that bears his name: Page Group Publishing, Inc. Among other things, he was accused of misrepresenting his accomplishments at the Sun-Times, of “conducting himself without any regard to Page Group Publishers’ financial status,” and of hiring friends and back-dating their contracts to evade his board’s crackdown on large new contracts.

Page could not have been totally surprised at getting the heave-ho. He’d sued them first. A few days earlier he’d gone to court over certain financial documents that he alleged the Page Group’s majority investors were keeping from him. Page, after all, was president of the group; yet he told the court that his partner Elliot “Skip” Stein had swung a peculiar deal to buy a dubious property without giving Page any say-so whatsoever.

Page’s feud with Stein has provided reporters in Orange County with yards of entertaining copy. Passive investors such as Henry Kissinger and Hollywood moguls Jon Peters and Peter Guber figure in these yarns as emblems of the quarrelers’ yearning to mix with swells. Page and Stein have been construed as wide-eyed easterners who thought they could hustle the west.

The charges of cronyism and financial recklessness could not have startled anyone who knew Page at the Sun-Times. In 1986 he fronted a syndicate that swung a $145 million leveraged buy-out of the Sun-Times from Rupert Murdoch, and he became president of the company formed to run it. After a career spent working for others, Page finally tasted ownership. Two years later, a friend of his would observe that Page’s “free-spending habits make Louis XIV look like a street person.”

However much Page’s style suited his pals on the payroll and the big shots around town he schmoozed with, the Sun-Times happened to be a strapped, indebted newspaper operating on precarious margins. By mid-1988, Leonard Shaykin had stepped in and taken control. Shaykin was the New York investment banker who had put together the ’86 deal and chaired the Sun-Times Company board. He rewarded Page for going quietly by making him a man of means: the terms of departure Page agreed to would enrich him by two and a half million dollars.

In return for this fortune–guaranteed in installments payable over the next few years–Page was expected to keep his mouth shut. According to the suit the Sun-Times Company brought against him last week, Page was obliged to return the company’s records and keep its secrets–but did not.

Page was accused of hanging onto “a 20 year analysis of strategic planning, setting forth in detail [Sun-Times] revenues, sources of funds, expenses, and profits for the periods 1968-1977 and 1978-1987.” Page wanted into publishing out in California, and he allegedly kept this material in order to show potential investors that under his sound leadership the Sun-Times became a far more profitable newspaper (if only before debt servicing) than it had been when Marshall Field owned it. The suit says Page even admitted to investors (in a memo that accompanied the documents, we’re told) that he “had no right to retain this information.”

Skip Stein, Page’s other unhappy partner, is an investment adviser now based in New York. A managing partner of Commonwealth Capital Partners, Ltd., Stein had already sunk money into such sober journals as Service Station Management and National Petroleum News, both published in Des Plaines. He and Page became pals in Chicago. In 1989, after Page was ushered from the Sun Times, glamorous southern California beckoned to the two of them and they decided to build a publishing empire there.

Fueled with $16 million from Commonwealth Capital, Page Group Publishing was launched and began to buy. Stein and Page picked up the Orange Coast Daily Pilot and the Glendale News-Press, some weekly papers, and a couple of idiosyncratic magazines in west Los Angeles. These properties weren’t necessarily money-makers yet–but that’s where Bob Page, financial wizard, was supposed to come in.

“Bob Page was fucking up from the first day he started,” says Mike “the Prince” Lobkowicz. “He didn’t like my partner and he didn’t like me.”

Back in the 70s, in Rhode Island, Lobkowicz made publishing history by putting out sex magazines whose editorial matter was sent in by readers; these led to a 57-count indictment, a guilty plea to a charge of conspiracy to distribute obscene material, 18 months in prison, and enduring glory, at least in his own mind, as a First Amendment martyr.

Lobkowicz remained enamored of the idea of reader-written publications, and a few years ago he tried again in LA’s trendiest areas. His chatty monthlies, the Brentwood Bla Bla and Beverly Hills the Magazine, weren’t making him rich, but Page and Stein liked the concept and loved the neighborhoods. Lobkowicz said that for a couple million dollars the Page Group bought 80 percent of the business.

Lobkowicz was supposed to go on being the editor. “The second issue I published a poem by an LA poet called “Los Angeles You Bitch,” says Lobkowicz. “I received a fax from Bob Page saying ‘These words will not appear again.’ He was just furious. Then he sent a memo saying everybody in the company will wear a suit and tie, including the art director. And of course, this is California. The only people who wear suits and ties are peasants. I totally refused. The situation deteriorated.”

After three months Lobkowicz says, he called the Page Group’s attorney, Mark Eissman, “and said, this isn’t going to work out. Why don’t you buy us out? So he said, OK, fine, I think you’re correct, we’ll get back to you in a few days. The next day when we went to the office we had been locked out.”

Lobkowicz says he retaliated against Page by establishing–and faxing to Stein and to various reporters each week–a newsletter, “Fanatic Fax,” devoted to every new detail of the Page Group’s depredations. But it was not the Bla Bla and the Magazine that caused the divorce between Page and Stein. The Daily Pilot remained a chronic money loser, and Tu Mundo, a Spanish-language paper in LA that Stein already controlled in a separate arrangement and wanted to sell to the Page Group, drove the two men completely apart. Claiming Stein railroaded the deal, Page went to court on May 6. A week later he was out on his ear.

“It’s clear to us,” says Page’s attorney in this matter, Stephen Coontz, “the real reason for his discharge is to avoid having to pay the money [$200,000 a year for five years] due Mr. Page under his employment contract and to avoid having to answer the questions of improprieties Mr. Page was raising about various business transactions.”

Stein doesn’t figure as a business giant in this affair. The sale of Tu Mundo from his right hand to his left seems very strange, and his lawsuit sounds silly in places. It accuses Page of lacking “due diligence,” thus allowing persons with “undesirable criminal backgrounds” to run unnamed Page Group properties. Everyone takes this to mean Mike Lobkowicz, although Stein’s attorney won’t say so. (And Stein and Page decline to talk.) But Lobkowicz insists that Stein knew all about him from the get-go. “That’s one of the chevrons on my jacket,” says Lobkowicz, referring to his Rhode Island past. “Mr. Stein was very aware of that. He now denies it.”

And Stein’s head was in the sand if he ever believed in Page’s cost-cutting acumen. The master bean counter at the Sun-Times had been Don Piazza, the chief operating officer. It was Piazza who went to Shaykin with a list of Page’s excesses. All this was reported in Hot Type and other Chicago media, and as charming and persuasive as Page can be, Stein shouldn’t have let himself forget it. As Page himself told the Los Angeles Times, “There isn’t anything about me that these guys didn’t know. Skip and I were friends.”

When the Page Group sued, its lawyers approached the Sun-Times Company and asked if the financial documents that Page had been showing around were genuine. Yes, the company replied, and headed to court to get them back.

It might be that Page did nothing that deposed execs who need another job haven’t quietly been doing since the corporate era began. If so, he’s become an object lesson. The Page Group seeks several millions of dollars in damages. The Sun-Times Company wants to stop paying Page off and get back every penny he’s already received.

And his wife has filed for divorce.

Strangely enough, Page’s attorney in the Sun-Times suit is his codefendant in the Page Group suit. Mark Eissman. A genial, ambitious young journalist with a law degree and lots of sources, Eissman was hired away from the Tribune for big bucks when Page ran the Sun-Times, reportedly because Eissman’s pal Mike Sneed had already come over and wanted him handy. Eissman was put in charge of the newsroom’s special projects and he had his nose in everywhere. Reporters described him to us as smarter than he was useful, and they hailed his powers of insinuation. When Page’s son Doug married, Eissman stood alongside as best man.

Now the Page Group suit accuses Eissman of conspiracy to defraud. Page is alleged to have hired Eissman at $10,000 a month with a long-term contract that was back-dated to fool the board of directors. Eissman is also accused of breaching his fiduciary duty. Allegedly Eissman, with Page’s consent, persuaded a woman employee last month to file a sex discrimination suit against the new general manager of the Daily Pilot, someone brought in by Stein over Page’s objections to put the paper on its feet.

Page’s Orange County attorney, Stephen Coontz, tells us flatly that Page and Eissman “had absolutely nothing to do with it.”

These are interesting entanglements. Despite them, Eissman–who all along maintained a law office in Northfield–represented Page in federal court last Friday in the Sun-Times matter, then flew west to gather up whatever documents the company wants back. (Eissman indicated that Page wants to settle out of court.)

Eissman’s cocounsel was Anne Burke, wife of Alderman Ed Burke. Turning to a crony and a big shot, Page in extremis was ruled by familiar reflexes.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.