-Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich-
A day after Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and Chief of Staff John Harris on charges of corruption, alleging that, among other transgressions, they meddled with Tribune’s troubled businesses, including the auction of the Chicago Cubs.
The Chicago Tribune’s editorial page has been critical of the governor, and suspicious of his activities; if the government’s allegations turn out to be true, then they had plenty of reason to be wary. Interestingly, Blagojevich was equally suspicious of the Tribune’s editorial board, and allegedly sought to trade his influence in the auction of the Cubs and Wrigley Field in exchange for the Tribune firing its editorial board. Below is the Department of Justice’s allegations against Blagojevich that specifically involves the Tribune:
According to the affidavit, intercepted phone calls revealed that the Tribune Company, which owns the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Cubs, has explored the possibility of obtaining assistance from the Illinois Finance Authority (IFA) relating to the Tribune Company’s efforts to sell the Cubs and the financing or sale of Wrigley Field. In a November 6 phone call, Harris explained to Blagojevich that the deal the Tribune Company was trying to get through the IFA was basically a tax mitigation scheme in which the IFA would own title to Wrigley Field and the Tribune would not have to pay capital gains tax, which Harris estimated would save the company approximately $100 million. Intercepted calls allegedly show that Blagojevich directed Harris to inform Tribune Owner and an associate, identified as Tribune Financial Advisor, that state financial assistance would be withheld unless members of the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board were fired, primarily because Blagojevich viewed them as driving discussion of his possible impeachment. In a November 4 phone call, Blagojevich allegedly told Harris that he should say to Tribune Financial Advisor, Cubs Chairman and Tribune Owner, “our recommendation is fire all those [expletive] people, get ‘em the [expletive] out of there and get us some editorial support.”
On November 6, the day of a Tribune editorial critical of Blagojevich , Harris told Blagojevich that he told Tribune Financial Advisor the previous day that things “look like they could move ahead fine but, you know, there is a risk that all of this is going to get derailed by your own editorial page.” Harris also told Blagojevich that he was meeting with Tribune Financial Advisor on November 10.
In a November 11 intercepted call, Harris allegedly told Blagojevich that Tribune Financial Advisor talked to Tribune Owner and Tribune Owner “got the message and is very sensitive to the issue.” Harris told Blagojevich that according to Tribune Financial Advisor, there would be “certain corporate reorganizations and budget cuts coming and, reading between the lines, he’s going after that section.” Blagojevich allegedly responded. “Oh. That’s fantastic.” After further discussion, Blagojevich said, “Wow. Okay, keep our fingers crossed. You’re the man. Good job, John.” In a further conversation on November 21, Harris told Blagojevich that he had singled out to Tribune Financial Advisor the Tribune’s deputy editorial page editor, John McCormick, “as somebody who was the most biased and unfair.” After hearing that Tribune Financial Advisor had assured Harris that the Tribune would be making changes affecting the editorial board, Blagojevich allegedly had a series of conversations with Chicago Cubs representatives regarding efforts to provide state financing for Wrigley Field. On November 30, Blagojevich spoke with the president of a Chicago-area sports consulting firm, who indicated that he was working with the Cubs on matters involving Wrigley Field. Blagojevich and Sports Consultant discussed the importance of getting the IFA transaction approved at the agency’s December or January meeting because Blagojevich was contemplating leaving office in early January and his IFA appointees would still be in place to approve the deal, the charges allege.
The reference to “Tribune Owner” would seem to mean Sam Zell. If that’s the case, is Zell in hot water? Did he help the government? What impact if any will the Blagojevich allegations have on Tribune’s bankruptcy filing? In the end, it’s doubtful that Blagojevich’s alleged role in the Cubs auction, which may have slowed the sale, was directly material to its bankruptcy filing. The team, for instance, is not part of the filing. Nonetheless, it offers some colorful insight into the auction. – Matthew Wurtzel
Matthew Wurtzel is the editor of Dealscape.