Blagojevich allegedly wanted Trib editorial staff gone

Kathleen Cullinan | Newsgathering | Feature | December 9, 2008

According to an indictment laced with allegations of gross governmental overreach into a free press, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich tried to force the Tribune Co. to oust the editorial board of its flagship Chicago newspaper in exchange for state help in a financial deal.

Blagojevich, who was arrested Tuesday morning, is alleged to have sought payback for a series of Chicago Tribune editorials pushing for his impeachment. The complaint says he understood the Tribune Co. was seeking financial help from a state agency in selling the Chicago Cubs, and Blagojevich indicated his support for the deal "would not be forthcoming unless members of the Chicago Tribune's editorial board were fired."

Indeed, in one intercepted phone conversation, Blagojevich allegedly told a "Deputy Governor A" to compile the offending editorials and have an aide tell Tribune owner Sam Zell -- although he is not identified by name -- "We've got some decisions to make now . . . someone should say, 'get rid of these people.'"

According to the complaint, the governor's chief of staff, John Harris, who was arrested Tuesday on the same charges, later reported back to Blagojevich that he'd talked to a "Tribune Financial Officer" and learned that Zell "got the message and is very sensitive to these issues."

The financial adviser is said to have told Harris about an upcoming round of budget cuts at the newspaper. Harris allegedly named one person in particular -- Deputy Editorial Page Editor John McCormick, whom Harris called the "most biased and unfair" -- and suggested he be among those fired.

Tribune Editor Gerould Kern noted in an article on the paper's Web site that in fact "there were no staff reductions in the editorial board."

Blagojevich, a Democrat, reportedly spoke publicly against the Tribune editorial board just yesterday, as news broke that the company had filed for bankruptcy: "I’m confident that an astute businessman like Sam Zell is going to turn this around. And (I) offer a polite recommendation to him. One thing he might want to do is change that editorial policy and change that editorial board and put some people in there that actually care about the average ordinary working person."

Federal authorities have been investigating the Blagojevich administration for at least a year -- an inquiry the paper has followed closely.