By Michael Miner

The Fox and the Hound

One press conference I’m sorry I missed was Peter Fitzgerald’s last October at the Hilton. Fitzgerald didn’t get to Chicago much when he ran for the Senate. But he’d rounded up some distinguished Nigerians to help him condemn Carol Moseley-Braun for consorting with strongman Sani Abacha, and he wanted to show them off in the big city.

Victor Crown, assistant editor of Illinois Politics, says that he was sitting in the front row when Fitzgerald strolled in and that Fitzgerald turned white when he saw him. Here is Crown’s transcript of his tape of what ensued:

Crown: “What is your relationship with Grupo Financiero Bancomer?”

Fitzgerald: No answer.

Crown: “Is Bancomer corrupt?”

Fitzgerald: No answer.

Crown: “Will you seek a seat on the Senate Banking Committee?”

Fitzgerald: No answer.

Crown: “You can’t answer can you, Mr. Fitzgerald? Do you know why? It’s because you are, in fact, a corrupt banker.”

Understandably, Fitzgerald didn’t reply. But a presumably baffled Nigerian spoke up. “So what? He is in international banking. It doesn’t make any difference to me. His banking interest has nothing to do with human rights.”

Did the other journalists present report this exchange? I asked Crown. Not one of them, he said. The media have never put Fitzgerald’s feet to the fire.

A reporter who was at the Hilton that day tells me Crown was lucky he wasn’t arrested.

Three months ago Crown submitted to Fitzgerald for comment a list of accusations that began: “1. The massive VIOLATION of the ILLINOIS GOVERNMENTAL ETHICS ACT which occurred in the Illinois State Senate with your ‘yes’ votes on SB 935, SB 232, SB 1397…”

And continued: “2. The contravention of your 1993 ethics letter in which you pledged to ‘generally abstain’ from voting on banking bills…”

Followed by: “3. The lie that occurs in your 1995 ethics letter…”

Fitzgerald didn’t respond. A month later Crown tried again. His updated list began: “Questions for Senator Fitzgerald. Re: Upcoming story ‘Fitzgerald Linked to Drug Cartels.'” It concluded: “Has Senator Fitzgerald lost the moral authority to remain as the Senator from Illinois due to his financial tie to banks that have been pleaded guilty to money laundering?”

Again, the senator declined to answer. “We’ve gotten nothing,” said Crown. Is getting nothing so inconvenient? I wondered. “It clarifies our reporting,” he acknowledged.

To Crown’s regret, his published reporting on Fitzgerald’s banking interests is pretty much the only reporting. The case he and editor Karen Nagel have been making for months in Illinois Politics is twofold. The first charge involves conflict of interest. They report that while a state senator, Fitzgerald voted on eight banking bills despite being a bank director with a family fortune invested largely in bank stocks. Those votes, Crown and Nagel wrote, “provided a personal financial benefit to himself and members of his family” and also contradicted his 1997 declaration to the state senate that “generally, it is my intention to abstain from voting on banking legislation.”

Illinois Politics asserted before last November’s general election that Fitzgerald’s voting record “has left him vulnerable to criticism on the issue of ethics, and may give U.S. Senator Carol Moseley-Braun a heavy advantage in the closing stage of the campaign.” It didn’t. Either there wasn’t a ton of votes to be won with the materials Crown had dug up, or Moseley-Braun missed a golden opportunity. At any rate, she made little use of Crown’s data and she lost.

Illinois Politics also predicted that if elected, Fitzgerald would be forced by the U.S. Senate’s more stringent guidelines to abstain from voting on federal banking bills. This has happened, Crown told me. At last count Fitzgerald had skipped seven votes, “more than any other senator in Illinois in the last 50 years, over their entire careers.” Fitzgerald wasn’t doing his job.

Hold on, I said. You hammered him for voting in Springfield, and now you hammer him for not voting in Washington. If he didn’t abstain in the U.S. Senate wouldn’t he be asking for trouble?

Of course, Crown replied. “If he goes ahead and votes I’m not going to be the one who’s going to be causing him trouble. There’s Common Cause, the BGA, and the Congressional Accountability Project–they’ll be at the door of the Senate ethics committee the next day. But I reject this notion that we have been unfair to Senator Fitzgerald. He claims it’s unfair that we criticized him for violating the ethics law for voting and now we criticize him for not voting. No, I reject this! Senator Fitzgerald created this problem for himself. We think it’s very important when we have an Illinois senator who can’t vote.”

It was no secret to the voters who put Fitzgerald in office last November that he’d made his money in banking, so the fact that now he’s not voting on banking bills strikes Crown as more a betrayal of his office than it might strike you or me. Fitzgerald has told other reporters that Crown had confused unrelated state financial bills with banking bills. Furthermore, he’s accused Crown of running sort of a racket by using damning stories on candidates to sell bundles of Illinois Politics to their opponents. Crown and Nagel flatly deny this, though they acknowledge the occasional bulk sale. Back in 1994, they say, Fitzgerald, who was challenging Phil Crane for renomination, bought 200 copies of an issue that examined Crane’s voting record in Congress.

And they point to Fitzgerald’s 1998 campaign literature. One mailer, “What the Press Says,” quoted a 1993 Illinois Politics study that had called him “the most productive freshman” senator in Springfield.

At any rate, Crown isn’t thinking only of banking bills. He argues that an array of legislation, ranging from law enforcement to foreign relations to Mexico decertification, could present Fitzgerald with a conflict of interest, because he’s neither relinquished his bank holdings nor placed them in a blind trust. He sees the big entanglement being Grupo Financiero Bancomer and has been hounding Fitzgerald to make a statement about it.

In May of 1998 Operation Casablanca, a three-year undercover operation by the U.S. Customs Service, culminated in three Mexican banks being charged with laundering profits for Mexican and Colombian drug cartels. One of the banks, Mexico’s second largest, was Grupo Financiero Bancomer. This March Bancomer pleaded guilty to the laundering, was fined $500,000, and forfeited $9.4 million in seized funds. Crown connected his dots and reported that the Bank of Montreal owns 16 percent of the stock of Bancomer and that Fitzgerald and other family members are the Bank of Montreal’s biggest noninstitutional investors. (Late last year the Tribune estimated that Fitzgerald was worth $51 million, most of it in Bank of Montreal stock. That bank had bought out the family business, Suburban Bancorp Inc., for $246 million in 1994.)

“Yesterday,” says Crown, “I pulled all the press coverage of Carol in Nigeria. The problem is, if we’re to report on Carol Moseley-Braun’s [1996] trip to Nigeria, which affected no votes in the Senate, should we not also provide coverage when Bancomer is indicted and also now when it’s pleading guilty? If we’re to have a standard–U.S. senator has foreign entanglement–shouldn’t we report it equally?”

You might think reporters would raise the issue, but they haven’t. Last week Tribune financial writer Greg Burns interviewed Fitzgerald on financial legislation, and Bancomer was never mentioned. (Burns tells me he doesn’t normally cover banking and he’d never heard of Bancomer.) Crown has no evidence that before Bancomer was indicted Fitzgerald had any idea it was laundering money. But the mass media, he insists, have a duty to confront the senator on the subject.

Moseley-Braun was out of the Senate by the time Bancomer pleaded guilty, but the indictment was handed down five and a half months before the November election. Braun never touched it. “That’s not ringing a bell,” says Mike Kreloff, who ran her campaign.

“I specifically remember telling Kreloff there was a big problem with Bancomer,” says Crown. “I said drugs. I said Operation Casablanca, drugs, money laundering. I specifically said that.”

Though the quality of the reporting in Illinois Politics is frequently praised by journalists who read it, Crown and Nagel nonetheless have a credibility problem. It has to do with the marginality of their nine-year-old magazine, where every day’s a struggle to survive–Crown takes day-labor jobs and is refinancing his house, and for a while this spring his phone wasn’t connected. It also has to do with their eccentricity. Crown’s belligerence and obsessiveness and Nagel’s suspiciousness give reporters an excuse to back off. I backed off myself a month ago.

Over the Memorial Day weekend, which is when I’d intended to finish this column, photographer Nathan Mandell drove out to Crown’s home and office on the northwest side to take pictures. Mandell says he met Nagel on the front steps. “I don’t know if we can take this today,” she told him. “Victor just kicked me out of his house and called the police.” Mandell wondered why. She said it was because she’d read Crown the riot act. She’d looked around and said, “Victor, there’s a photographer coming. I can’t believe this place is such a mess. It smells like urine in here.” And his pants didn’t match his tie.

Mandell went into the house and found Crown on the phone with Nagel’s mother. Why don’t we shoot until the cops come, said Mandell. He squeezed off half a roll before four cops rolled up in three squad cars. After lecturing Nagel on how men are, they took matters in hand. The problem was the way the house looked, so a couple of cops moved a bench to a more picturesque location. Another cop shifted a flowerpot. Mandell said the light wasn’t right there, so the same cop walked over to a nearby park and checked it out. “I found a great spot,” he reported back. “There’s a hill, and they just mowed the grass. There’s park all around. But there’s a streetlight, and it sort of has a city feel.” Everyone headed for the park.

The next day Crown called me. He wanted me to come out to his office to look at some documents and meet Nagel. He hung up, and she called. What’s your angle? she said. Who are you working for? We’ve been burned before. Can you promise you won’t make us look bad?

It’s getting harder by the second, I thought. Victor wants me to do the story, I said. Victor’s naive, she said. I suggested she and Crown talk and decide together what they wanted. A few minutes later she called back.

“Victor has just resigned on me,” she said.

He doesn’t mean it, I said, having no idea.

“No, I hope he does mean it,” she said.

As it turned out, he didn’t. When I edged back toward the story a few weeks later Crown was on the case. I asked him and Nagel separately about the photo shoot.

“I’m sure he made it sound a million times different than what it was,” said Nagel, speaking of Mandell. I told her that Mandell thought the situation was peculiar. “I’m sure he did,” she snapped. “We thought he was peculiar.” How? “Like a latent hippie! There are things that are not any of your damn business! Or Nathan Mandell’s.”

Crown told me, “Oh, we’re having arguments all the time. We’ve had a battle over whether to keep running the Fitzgerald story. She thinks the Fitzgerald stuff was taking over and becoming Illinois Fitzgerald, and she was probably right. What we agreed to do is we’ll do a special report, and then we’ll let everyone else do it.”

Except it’s not a question of everyone, but anyone. Lately, Crown and Nagel have been feeling a little more optimistic on that score. They have good reason to believe that at least one big Chicago news shop is looking seriously at their material. Whether it’ll decide there’s anything in it remains to be seen.

“I think Victor’s tactics and temperament make it very hard to simply use his material,” says Channel Seven’s Andy Shaw, one of several reporters Crown pitched his Fitzgerald file to last autumn. “I don’t have a lot of people helping me at Seven. I don’t have time to stop in the campaign and check out the veracity of one of Victor’s stories. Newspapers have more time to research this stuff. Peter was adamant in saying, ‘Hey, he’s dead wrong. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.'” Shaw says he told Crown, “Give it to the campaigns. If the campaigns think it’s worthwhile they’ll use it, and I’ll cover it.”

“We’re not going to be marginalized by the media,” Crown vows. “Maybe I am a little bit goofy and stuff, but they can’t attack anything we write. The mainstream media want to maintain a relationship [with Fitzgerald]. We go do the story. We’ve reached the point where we don’t care if they don’t return our phone calls.”

Mike Cys, the senator’s press secretary, faxed me a statement this week that did not admit and did not deny. “We do not believe Mr. Crown is a legitimate journalist,” it said. “We will not engage individuals who ‘requested’ that the campaign purchase thousands of dollars’ worth of their ‘journalistic publications.’ We believe Mr. Crown’s peddling of such purchases during the campaign was both inappropriate and unseemly, and he has lost his credibility.”

Not with everyone. “The guy is an indefatigable researcher,” says Alton Miller, once Harold Washington’s press secretary. “You cannot wear him out when it comes to research. Because what he does is so well-grounded he’s a real threat to people who would like to create a fuzzy, impressionistic sense of what’s going on without allowing you to look at the details. Victor doesn’t make shit up. I was blessed to grow up in Washington, D.C., at a time when Izzy Stone was doing his Weekly. When I look at Victor I think of Izzy Stone.”

And Jack Doppelt, a professor at Medill, where Crown got his master’s, told me, “Whether Victor Crown did anything right or wrong, the stories he did on Fitzgerald still have to be answered. Crown is laying out the foundation that will become a part of the political landscape the next time Fitzgerald runs for office.”

Stay tuned, I think.

Locked Out of Jail

The Reader filed suit this week in federal court against Cook County sheriff Michael Sheahan. The suit alleges that Sheahan, apparently displeased by an article staff writer Tori Marlan published in the Reader, retaliated by denying her the access to the jail that other journalists routinely enjoy.

In March 1998 the Reader published Marlan’s “Strip Search,” which examined allegations that guards at the jail followed a policy of strip-searching women inmates before releasing them, and that these strip searches continued despite a preliminary injunction from a federal judge ordering them stopped. The article was subsequently honored with a Herman Kogan Award from the Chicago Bar Association and a Lisagor Award from the Chicago Headline Club. Last September, after the judge made a final ruling that the strip searches violated the inmates’ constitutional rights, Marlan published a brief follow-up, “Outstripped.”

Named in the suit in addition to Sheahan–who as sheriff has ultimate authority over the jail–are jail director Ernesto Velasco, jail spokesman Joan Stockmal, and sheriff’s press officer Bill Cunningham. The suit alleges that Marlan discovered she’d been barred from the jail when she asked Stockmal for access to research a new article on another subject. Marlan’s reporting “hadn’t gone over well in the sheriff’s office,” Stockmal allegedly replied, and therefore that office would have to clear the request. According to the suit, Cunningham later called Marlan and told her the article had been unfair and she couldn’t return.

The Reader and Marlan are being represented by Locke Bowman, legal director of the MacArthur Justice Center of the University of Chicago Law School. “Whatever authority the defendants have to control the access of journalists,” Bowman says, “they don’t have the authority to engage in retaliatory exclusion of journalists. Clearly, that’s unconstitutional.”

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