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Ink and Stain
Zell and Blagojevich Make Their Mark

By Kathleen Parker
Wednesday, December 10, 2008

In the bailout spirit of cutting costs and protecting resources, what say we just arrest the state of Illinois and sort out the details later?

I say this as one whose father hails from the Land of Lincoln and who still counts a fair number of relatives scattered among the state's pubs and confessionals.

Oh, and while we're at it, let's do make the first stop at the Michigan Avenue Tribune Tower for CEO Sam Zell. I say this as a former, but not disgruntled, Tribune employee who declined the customary parting "hush" agreement.

With the news that Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his chief of staff, John Harris, were arrested on federal corruption charges -- and that Tribune Co. was filing for bankruptcy protection -- one is reminded of the state's rich history of street fighting between public officials and the gumshoe reporters who covered them.

Latest score: The bums are winning. And the corrupt politicians are, too.

Thanks to mismanagement and debt, Tribune's eviscerated newspapers are riddled with more holes than Al Capone's enemies, while Illinois holds the nation's highest gubernatorial incarceration rate. Three of the past eight governors have spent time in jail or prison. Blagojevich would bring the number to four.

If ever the Chicago Tribune's renowned staff of swashbuckling reporters, cartoonists, editors and columnists (Mike Royko and Jeff MacNelly, RIP) were needed -- or were sorely missed -- it is now. Not that those still standing don't do a heroic job, but they know what I mean. Staff cuts and shrinking news holes make it hard to keep pace when the enemy is communing with one's own generals, as seems to be the case here.

Among his other activities, Blagojevich -- whose Dickensian name rings nearly eponymous -- allegedly has been busy trying to get certain members of the Tribune's editorial board fired by threatening to withhold state assistance for the financing or sale of Wrigley Field (Tribune also owns the Chicago Cubs).

Apparently, the caveat that one should never do battle with someone who buys ink by the barrel has been rendered meaningless by "financial advisers" in the Tribune Tower, where Zell's yearlong reign of error is leading one of the nation's greatest newspaper companies to ruin.

You have to admit: The guv has baseball-size fortitude, if all of the above is true. Fire the editorial board and we'll maybe give you some money? But then, according to the FBI affidavit, a "Tribune Financial Advisor" was reassuring.

Or how about this: Barack Obama's Senate seat is for sale? Yes, they allegedly suggested that as well.

Sweetening this made-for-Chicago script is U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald, a.k.a. Eliot Ness, who is behind the investigation, along with Robert D. Grant, special agent in charge of the FBI's Chicago office. The good Catholic lad pursues the sleazy mob boys.

Using court-authorized wiretaps in the past month, investigators captured Blagojevich allegedly conspiring to sell or trade Obama's vacated seat in exchange for "financial and other personal benefits for himself and his wife."

Included in those proposed benefits were a substantial salary for Blagojevich at a nonprofit foundation or a labor union organization; placing his wife on paid corporate boards; promises of campaign funds and a Cabinet post or ambassadorship.

Blagojevich, who has sole authority to appoint a successor to Obama's Senate seat, also allegedly discussed appointing himself -- as a path toward the presidency in 2016 and for making corporate contacts that would be valuable to him after he left office.

In one alleged conversation, Blagojevich told "Fundraiser A" to tell "Individual D" that if "Senate Candidate 5" is going to be chosen, then "some of this stuff's gotta start happening now . . . right now . . . and we gotta see it." That stuff presumably would be money.

Then, presciently, if deaf to his own words, the governor said: "You gotta be careful how you express that and assume everybody's listening, the whole world is listening. You hear me?"

Yes, Mr. Governor, we hear you.

In a news release, Fitzgerald reminded the public that a complaint contains only charges and that all defendants are presumed innocent until a fair trial finds them otherwise.

Not so for certain newspaper suits. That verdict is already in. Book 'em, Daninsky.

kparker@kparker.com

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