Why Name Names?

Circuit judge Paul Biebel acted with his head and his heart last week. Biebel, who’d commissioned the investigation into torture by Chicago police in the first place, obviously wants the public to see the full report of that investigation. He ruled that it should.

Special prosecutors Edward Egan and Robert Boyle spent four years and $7 million of taxpayer money trying to get to the bottom of former commander Jon Burge’s alleged reign of terror back in the 80s. Among other things, Egan and Boyle want to release a full list of the names of police officers and assistant state’s attorneys who were subpoenaed to appear before the special grand jury. In various civil cases based on the same torture claims, 35 officers have invoked their Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, according to a count kept by Flint Taylor, an attorney for some of the alleged torture victims. Egan and Boyle think the public should know which officers did the same thing in their criminal investigation. A lot of officers don’t agree.

The “veil of secrecy is not absolute,” Biebel observed in his 19-page ruling. Even so, grand jury proceedings are normally confidential, and attorneys for subpoenaed officers and state’s attorneys asked the judge to treat these that way.

Former prisoners who maintain they were tortured into making false confessions want every subpoenaed officer named. The city of Chicago and its police department have asked for that too. So it was up to Biebel–as he wrote–to “carefully balance” the right of the police officers “to be shielded from negative publicity with the right of the public to be informed of the results of the Special Prosecutor’s investigation.”

The attorneys raised “legitimate issues on behalf of those brought before the Grand Jury, and their individual rights to privacy,” Biebel conceded.

But he chose full disclosure. “The public’s right to be informed of the results of this exhaustive investigation outweighs the privacy rights of the individual officers,” he wrote. Biebel could have weighed his alternatives differently and told Egan and Boyle that everything else that’s gone into their report is OK but the grand jury is off-limits. Such a ruling would have blunted the report. It would have perpetuated the institutional incuriosity that for decades infected top police commanders, the state’s attorney’s office, the mayor’s office, the circuit court, and even, in the early years, much of the media aside from the Reader’s John Conroy. In 1993 Burge was thrown off the back of the wagon by the police board, fired for the “physical abuse” of Andrew Wilson back in 1982. Pension intact, he retired to Florida.

Biebel’s ruling can be appealed, and the release of Egan and Boyle’s report might still be a ways off. When it comes, Taylor wants the special prosecutors to return indictments. Thanks to the statute of limitations that’s unlikely, so I asked Taylor what else would justify the time and money? What will he rifle through the report hoping to find?

“Findings of criminal activity,” he said. The statute of limitations “doesn’t mean they can’t find a pattern of activity at Two and Three”–Burge’s commands in the 80s.

Second, “a condemnation of the continuing obstruction of justice. My sense is they’ll condemn the cops who took the Fifth and screwed them around.”

Third, a condemnation of “Mayor Daley’s role in this whole thing,” something Taylor isn’t counting on. Daley was state’s attorney in the 80s and mayor by 1990, when the Goldston report commissioned by the Office of Professional Standards called abuse at Area Two under Burge “systematic.” Police superintendent LeRoy Martin, who’d once been Burge’s supervisor there, kept the report under wraps for more than a year, and when it was finally released at the order of a federal judge, Mayor Daley was dismissive. “These are only allegations,” he said.

Taylor doubts that Daley was even summoned by the grand jury, and his “gut sense” is that the report isn’t going to aim any higher than Richard Brzeczek, police superintendent in 1982 when cop killer Andrew Wilson was arrested and abused. It was the Wilson case that eventually got Burge fired. Brzeczek had written Daley for guidance when a doctor who examined Wilson reported evidence of electroshock; Daley didn’t reply.

Taylor wants Egan and Boyle to report a “continuing obstruction and conspiracy at the highest levels of city government.” He wants them to recommend further investigation by U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who can invoke federal laws that might get him past the Fifth Amendment and statute of limitations barriers. If the report does all that, Taylor will be satisfied.

With All Due Respect

Is the Internet ruled by a law that reaction drives out reflection? That might explain why Stephen Colbert’s speech at the White House correspondents dinner was pretty much ignored by the print media: bloggers said so much so quickly that newspaper pundits asked themselves, what’s the point? Charles Madigan has a weekly column in the Tribune and intended to say his piece on May 16. But by then Colbert was ancient history, and Madigan spiked what he’d written.

What he didn’t get to say was that in the 80s he’d worked in the Tribune’s Washington bureau and once a year rented a tux and attended the correspondents dinner. He’d despised it. “Washington was the only place I have ever worked where people wanted to know first what your job title was,” he observed in his abandoned draft. “Even in Moscow, people wanted to know about family, about how you were feeling, about life, love, whatever.”

And that was back in the Reagan era. “Now it seems as though [Washington journalism] has become the most self-important business in the world, with lots of people eager to get face time, advance their interests, become famous, rake in more money than a TV anchor, do some memoirs.” All of which, Madigan continued, explains why Colbert laid an egg.

“Satire is dangerous because it assumes an audience is smart enough to know it’s satire, first, and not so egocentric that everything said is taken seriously,” Madigan wrote. “It’s not about getting a laugh so much as it is about getting a thought that leads to a laugh. That’s hard. There was no way Colbert could play that room, particularly when he turned his wit on journalism, basically describing it as a compliant scrivener eager to bow to power. Self-importance has a hard time being satirized.”

But Madigan wasn’t the only old Tribune hand to reflect privately on the cool reaction of the assembled journalists to Colbert’s speech. When bloggers condemned them as truculent toadies Richard Longworth, a former senior writer who specialized in foreign affairs, thought it might not be that simple. In an e-mail to me he recalled that when Dan Rather talked back to President Nixon during a Watergate-era news conference, “everybody came down on Rather for the crime of lese-majeste. The point was that the president is the president, even if he is a crook, and is due deference, at least to his face.”

Longworth would like to think that’s still true. “I feel that our institutions are the most important thing we have–not only the presidency, but Congress, the courts, the apolitical bureaucracy and military, the press, because they stand between us and tyranny. It is vital to keep them both strong and independent. Possibly Bush’s worst sin (which is saying a lot) is his assault on these institutions. He has weakened them to the point that they have been unable to withstand his anti-democratic policies. Bush clearly thinks that he leads a government of men, not laws. That way lies tyranny. For this reason, it’s all the more important for the rest of us to insist on the majesty of these institutions. This may require some old-fashioned deference, a certain tugging at the forelock in the presence of the person who occupies the presidency. Bush himself has done serious damage to the office he must someday pass on to another, better president. The rest of us mustn’t add to that damage.”

News Bites

Classical music writer Wynne Delacoma retires in mid-June, and to replace her the Sun-Times will hire–nobody. “I would imagine we’re going to go with a handful of freelancers,” says editor in chief John Barron. Covering the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with a stringer is as unthinkable as covering the Cubs with one, but it’s unthinkable to a lot fewer people, which is why strapped newspapers like the Sun-Times are willing to do it. You can’t be happy about this, I said to Barron. “It is what it is,” he said. “You offer buyouts, and unfortunately, sometimes people take them.”

Delacoma, along with several other staffers, took hers about a month ago, agreeing to stay on through the CSO’s June 17 concert, Daniel Barenboim’s last as music director. “The classical-music journalism field is a difficult one,” she says. “Newspapers are deciding to hire people, or not.” She points out that the Boston Globe’s critic took a buyout recently and the Globe hired a replacement. “So that’s encouraging.”

“Did you call the cable repair guy?”

“I think so.”

“Then where is he?”

These are the conversations that break up families all over America. That’s why, in the name of traditional values, it’s such good news that the National Security Agency has collected records of every phone call anybody makes. What a repository.

“I know you called that hussy the minute I left the house.”

“I swear I didn’t.”

Imagine, with records this complete we can even prove who we didn’t call. “From FOIAs to euphoria,” says my friend Peter McLennon.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/St. Petersburg Times.