A stunning resignation came out of the Chicago journalism world yesterday. Chicago Sun-Times reporter Dave McKinney penned a pointed letter to management in response to a dispute over his duties covering the gubernatorial campaign. “We reporters have a healthy suspicion of both parties and candidates,” wrote the 50-year-old McKinney.  “It’s our job. It’s regrettable that this issue has emerged in the homestretch of an important election in Illinois, but respectfully, this isn’t about either candidate or the election. It’s about readers and their trust in us. So my decision could not wait. I hate to leave, but I must.”

What possibly could have prompted this very public resignation by a fellow who put in 19 years as Springfield bureau chief of the Sun-Times? The details of this one will reside in journalism-school PowerPoint decks for years to come.

McKinney’s move has its roots in an enterprise story in the closing weeks of the race pitting incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn (D) against Republican challenger Bruce Rauner. On Oct. 6, McKinney was part of a three-person team that broke a hard-edged story on one chapter in Rauner’s history with GTCR, a Chicago investment firm that builds “market-leading companies through transformational acquisitions and organic growth.” The story reported on a lawsuit against Rauner filed by the female CEO of outsourcing company LeapSource, a business owned by GTCR and on whose board Rauner sat. The lawsuit, according to the report, claimed that Rauner told the woman, “‘If you go legal on us, we’ll hurt you and your family.’ ” As the story notes, a federal judge tossed most of the lawsuit but didn’t rule on the “credibility” of allegations that Rauner had used threatening language toward the CEO.

The run-up to that story’s publication was stormy — no surprise considering that the race has narrowed to a dead heat. Rauner aides threatened to go over McKinney’s head at the Sun-Times in an effort to kill the piece, McKinney alleges: “We are accustomed to such tactics,” he wrote in his resignation letter. However, the campaign took its tactics to a level that McKinney couldn’t abide: “[W]hat does not come with the territory is a campaign sending to my boss an opposition-research hit piece -– rife with errors -– about my wife, Ann Liston.”

Some background: McKinney married Ann Liston this year. She is a partner at the Chicago-headquartered media and strategic communications firm Adelstein/Liston, which boasts of helping to elect “2 Presidents of the United States, 10 U.S. Senators, 26 Members of Congress, 12 statewide office holders, and over 100 state and local elected officials,” primarily Democrats. As part of her work with that firm, the Rauner campaign tied her to the Illinois Freedom Political Action Committee, which is working to defeat Rauner. Rauner staffers requested that the Sun-Times print a disclaimer in the story, noting the alleged ties among McKinney, Liston and the Illinois Freedom PAC. In his letter, McKinney charges that the disclaimer envisioned by the Rauner campaign “would have been untrue.”

As the Washington Free Beacon’s Adam Kredo notes, the Illinois Freedom PAC has paid more than $600,000 to an outfit called Jemma Productions LLC, whose owner is listed as Liston’s partner, Eric Adelstein. The Free Beacon also writes, “A nameplate outside the [Adelstein/Liston] firm’s office has a piece of paper below it stating that the production outfit shares the space.”

Adelstein acknowledges that piece of paper. “They can sneak around in our hallways and take pictures of our name plates but there’s no secret,” he says. Adelstein, in fact, deployed a lawyer to create Jemma Productions as a way to remedy the conflict-of-interest concerns raised by McKinney upon his engagement to Liston in January. Jemma is separate from Liston and assists Illinois Freedom PAC. “We built a firewall and firewalled her off from the Illinois gubernatorial race. We disclosed that to the paper — that she would not only not be involved strategically or substantively but wouldn’t make any money on it,” says Adelstein. “We’re not doing it because of the optics. We did it because that’s what we’re living by.”

Asked whether Jemma Productions must vie with the projects of Adelstein/Liston for resources, Adelstein insists it didn’t. Furthermore, argues Adelstein, Adelstein/Liston is working in 21 states and has 65 people working on accounts this fall, so there’s plenty of work for Liston to handle without having any involvement in Illinois Freedom PAC. “Since they got engaged and that got disclosed, she’s had zero involvement, so that’s a fact,” he says.

By all accounts, the Sun-Times was impressed enough with the Adelstein/Liston firewall to bless McKinney’s work on the Quinn-Rauner race. Jim Kirk, publisher and editor in chief of the Sun-Times, wrote on the newspaper’s website that the newspaper was “convinced Liston receives no financial benefit from any Illinois political campaign specifically because of the extraordinary steps she and McKinney have taken to establish business safeguards.” The allegations leveled by the campaign against McKinney, said Kirk, were “inaccurate and defamatory.”

Here’s where the story turns from complex to shadowy. After the Sun-Times published its Oct. 6 story and as it rebuked McKinney’s critics, it iced the reporter himself. “I was yanked from my beat as I reported on a legislative hearing focusing on Gov. Pat Quinn’s botched Neighborhood Recovery Initiative,” writes McKinney in his letter. “My reporting for that day was then removed inexplicably from the Sun-Times website.” Colleagues noticed; political watchers noticed. “It was pure hell,” writes McKinney of the “house arrest” that lasted nearly one week.

The reporter linked up with Patrick Collins, a top Chicago lawyer and partner at Perkins Coie. A story in Crain’s Chicago Business reported that Collins was investigating whether the Rauner campaign “tried to interfere” with McKinney’s employment at the Sun-Times.

In a chat earlier this week with the Erik Wemple Blog, Collins said, “All I can really say is that he has asked me to evaluate the situation from a number of different angles and it’s offensive in orientation and Dave didn’t do anything wrong here.” Asked to elaborate on whatever wrongs had been visited upon McKinney, Collins responded, “There’s a sequence of events that I am aware of that raise serious questions about a number of players, including the Rauner campaign, and I’ll just have to leave it at that.”

Though restrained in such public statements, Collins appears to have been more forceful in private. According to McKinney’s letter, Collins’ accession to this case “brought about an abrupt shift in the company’s tone from penalizing me to reinstating me.”  Not fully, however — McKinney notes that he was told not to put his byline on a followup to the LeapSource story (management later allowed him to have a contributing byline).

How to explain these strange twists: On the one hand, McKinney’s superiors are putting out statements standing by his reporting; on the other, they’re stifling the guy. The Sun-Times’ Kirk addressed that point in a statement following McKinney’s resignation, which reads as follows, in part:

It is with reluctance that I accept Dave McKinney’s resignation. As recently as this Monday on our Op/Ed page, I stated that Dave is among the best in our profession.  I meant it then and I mean it now. The pause we took last week was to ensure there were no conflicts of interest and was taken simply to protect Dave McKinney, the Sun Times and its readers as we were under attack in a heated political campaign. We came to the right result, found the political attacks against us to be false and we stand by our reporting, our journalists and this great newspaper.

Oh so flimsy. Surely McKinney would have felt far more protected if he’d been allowed to do his job just weeks away from the election that he’d been covering for months. McKinney declined to speak on the record with the Erik Wemple Blog.

In his letter, McKinney makes note of an extraordinary reversal in the editorial policies of the Sun-Times. In 2012, the paper disavowed candidate endorsements: “What we will not do is endorse candidates. We have come to doubt the value of candidate endorsements by this newspaper or any newspaper, especially in a day when a multitude of information sources allow even a casual voter to be better informed than ever before.” Well, that multitude of information sources must have fallen on its face in the intervening years, because just last week the paper announced it was back in the endorsement game. And then it backed Rauner.

Did the folks who ordered up the Rauner endorsement tip the scales against McKinney in the newsroom? Here’s how he puts things: “Readers of the Sun-Times need to be able to trust the paper. They need to know a wall exists between owners and the newsroom to preserve the integrity of what is published. A breach in that wall exists at the Sun-Times.” Before he became a gubernatorial candidate, Rauner held a 10 percent stake in the company that owns the Sun-Times.

In his statement, Kirk denies that version of events: “I disagree with Dave’s questioning the integrity of this newspaper and my role as editor and publisher.  I call the shots. While I’ve been here, our ownership and management have never quashed a story and they have always respected the journalistic integrity of this paper.”

A trip through McKinney’s Sun-Times archive suggests folks will have to scramble to replace him. In addition to the campaign stories, there’s coverage of the state bureaucracy, legislative action, not to mention live correspondence from the Illinois State Fair. And as others have noted, McKinney has provided tough coverage of Quinn, particularly his maligned Neighborhood Recovery Initiative.

That said, this clash should never have occurred: Either the Sun-Times should have bumped McKinney from the race early on, or it should have run disclaimers on his stories.

Consider: The concerns of McKinney and the Sun-Times over conflicts of interest stemming from the work of Adelstein/Liston were pressing enough to compel an effort to rearrange the firm’s books. That’s an overt recognition that a conflict exists. The key question then becomes whether the “extraordinary steps” were sufficient to sink that acknowledged conflict of interest. With respect and admiration for the legal-eagling of Adelstein and Liston, they were not. Sure, Liston may have no financial stake in the work of Jemma Productions LLC for the Illinois Freedom PAC. And sure, Liston may not be involved in managing the work. But the erection of an ad hoc LLC barely camouflages her significant long-term stake in this account. If the Illinois Freedom PAC comes away satisfied with the work of Jemma Productions, Liston’s firm — and by association, McKinney himself — will ultimately benefit. And vice-versa.

The Erik Wemple Blog would have liked to discuss such matters with Kirk, but in an e-mail he wrote that he was sticking to his statements.