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Tribune Co. chairman questioned in Blagojevich case

Sam Zell was interviewed in January by federal prosecutors as a 'potential witness' in the criminal investigation involving the disgraced ex-governor of Illinois, the company acknowledges.

March 12, 2009|Todd Lighty and Robert Becker

CHICAGO — Tribune Co. Chairman Sam Zell hired well-known defense lawyer Anton Valukas and was interviewed in January by federal prosecutors as a "potential witness" in the criminal investigation of former Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, the company acknowledged Wednesday.

Zell could not be reached for comment; company officials did not respond to questions about details of his interview with the U.S. attorney's office.

Valukas is a former U.S. attorney who specializes in white-collar criminal investigations and major civil cases at Jenner & Block in Chicago. He declined to comment.

Donald Liebentritt, Tribune Co. executive vice president and general counsel, provided a statement that said the firm has represented the company for many years in a number of matters.

"Mr. Valukas was recommended to work on the matter because it involved a subpoena issued by the U.S. attorney's office," according to the statement from Liebentritt, which came in response to questions from the Chicago Tribune.

Authorities arrested Blagojevich and his chief of staff, John Harris, on federal corruption charges Dec. 9. The criminal complaint included allegations that Blagojevich threatened to withhold state financial support for a deal to sell Wrigley Field if Tribune Co. didn't fire members of the Chicago Tribune's editorial board.

Tribune Co. owns the Cubs, Wrigley Field, the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, among other properties.

In their subpoena to Tribune Co., federal authorities sought information about potential staff cuts or changes to the newspaper's editorial board. The company has said Tribune Co. executives did nothing inappropriate.

Tribune Co. also acknowledged state records, recently obtained by the Chicago Tribune, that show Zell making a phone call and giving a gift to Blagojevich.

According to records of Blagojevich's telephone logs, Zell placed a call to the governor Dec. 8, the day before the arrest. Zell placed "courtesy calls" to several elected officials, including Mayor Richard M. Daley, that day to notify them that the company had just filed for bankruptcy protection, according to the statement from Liebentritt. "Mr. Zell's call to Mr. Blagojevich was not returned," the statement said.

Records also show that Zell gave Blagojevich a gift during 2008. The Liebentritt statement described the gift as a music box "or other specially created work of art."

The statement noted that for more than 30 years Zell has given such gifts to "local, national and world leaders . . . designed to share Mr. Zell's vision for the coming year for the investment climate and the economy."

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tlighty@tribune.com

rxbecker@tribune.com

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