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Feds: Governor tried to get journalists fired

Trying to squelch criticism from the state's largest newspaper, Illinois' governor allegedly tried to strong-arm the Chicago Tribune into firing editorial writers who were discussing his possible impeachment.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Trying to squelch criticism from the state's largest newspaper, Illinois' governor allegedly tried to strong-arm the Chicago Tribune into firing editorial writers who were discussing his possible impeachment.

The Tribune charges were overshadowed Tuesday by Gov. Rod Blagojevich's arrest on allegations that he tried to sell President-elect Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder.

But federal prosecutors said he also sought to pressure the newspaper to dismiss some writers who had suggested the governor should be removed after a three-year investigation of alleged hiring fraud.

At one point, Blagojevich allegedly ordered his staff to tell the Tribune owner to "fire all those (expletive) people, get them the (expletive) out of there and get us some editorial support."

Investigators who secretly taped the governor's phone calls said the recordings made clear that Blagojevich was demanding the firings as a condition of any state financial help with attempts by the newspaper's parent company to sell Wrigley Field.

On Nov. 3, according to the charges, Blagojevich told a deputy governor on a call that he was concerned about being impeached in the spring and that the Chicago Tribune would be driving the process.

Wife spoke to paper's owner
The governor's wife, Patricia, got on the phone and said an unnamed Tribune owner, presumably CEO Sam Zell, could "just fire" the editorial writers because he owned the newspaper, according to court papers.

Then Blagojevich came back on the line and suggested that Chief of Staff John Harris go to Zell and say "Get rid of those people." Harris was also arrested Tuesday on accusations that he took part in the schemes to enrich the governor.

Referring to the effort to obtain financial assistance, he later told the deputy governor that someone should go to Zell and tell him "Maybe we can't do this now. Fire those (expletives)."

During an intercepted call on Nov. 11, Harris told Blagojevich he had met with a financial adviser to the Tribune CEO who said Zell "got the message and is very sensitive to the issue." Harris said he sensed the Tribune might be going after the editorial writers in upcoming cuts, and Blagojevich responded enthusiastically.

Tribune Co. issued a statement Tuesday saying no one at the company did anything wrong during the period when Blagojevich was allegedly pressuring the newspaper.

"No one working for the company or on its behalf has ever attempted to influence staffing decisions at the Chicago Tribune or any aspect of the newspaper's editorial coverage as a result of conversations with officials in the governor's administration," the statement said.

The only writer named in the phone conversation excerpts was Deputy Editorial Page Editor John McCormack, whom Blagojevich allegedly called a "bad guy" in a Nov. 21 conversation with Harris.

McCormack said Thursday he was not aware of the alleged pressure and had not been contacted directly by the governor or any of his staff about the editorials.

Editor unaware of pressure
"If someone was trying to exert pressure, I was not aware of that," he said. "I'm grateful to my editors and my bosses for printing the editorials. Not everybody would have."

The federal authorities also said the Tribune held off publishing a major story on the Blagojevich investigation to give them time to make their case against the governor.

About eight weeks ago, the Tribune approached federal prosecutors for comment on the story. But prosecutors urged the paper to hold it because the wiretap on the governor's phone was not yet in place.

"That is a very rare thing for us to do, and it's an even rarer thing for a newspaper to grant," U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald told a news conference. "We thought that the public interest required that the story not run."

The newspaper ultimately ran the story last Friday.

In a separate incident involving Blagojevich's media dealings, the complaint also said the governor twice had staff members leak items to the Chicago Sun-Times last month suggesting he was considering different candidates not favored by Obama to fill his vacant Senate seat — both to "send a message" to the president-elect's people.