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Blagojevich had contact with Tribune, records show

The Illinois records, released to the Chicago Tribune, show that contact accelerated after a state effort to purchase Wrigley Field from Tribune fell through last June.

March 31, 2009|Todd Lighty and Robert Becker

CHICAGO — Illinois state records outline a series of private contacts between Tribune Co. and since-ousted Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich even as investigators prepared to arrest him on federal corruption charges late last year.

The ex-governor's e-mails, telephone logs and calendars, recently released to the Chicago Tribune under the state's Freedom of Information Act, provide new details about the urgency of Tribune Co.'s efforts to get a financial bailout by selling Wrigley Field to the state.

Tribune Co. also owns the Cubs, the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times.

The documents leave much unsaid, and most of the people who could fill in the blanks would not comment. The records indicate that Tribune Chief Executive Sam Zell and Blagojevich spoke but do not show what they discussed.

Blagojevich was arrested Dec. 9 on charges that include trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat recently vacated by President Obama and of trying to coerce the Tribune into firing editorial writers who had been critical of the governor. None of the editorial writers was fired, and newspaper executives say they were not pressured to fire them.

Blagojevich was impeached, convicted and removed from office in January. An indictment could come Thursday.

Zell, who has said he was interviewed by federal authorities as a potential witness in the case, declined to be interviewed. A Tribune Co. spokesman issued a statement reiterating that neither the company nor Zell did anything inappropriate.

According to the records, contact between Tribune Co. and the governor's office accelerated after an earlier state effort to purchase Wrigley Field fell through in June.

The following month, on July 2, Blagojevich met with Zell, according to the governor's calendar.

Blagojevich told MSNBC in an interview earlier this year that he had a meeting with Zell in which the Tribune CEO told him the historic ballpark should be torn down and a new one built. Blagojevich said he was horrified and told his administration to help the Illinois Finance Authority work out a deal to buy Wrigley Field.

Around late October, authorities began secretly recording Blagojevich's phone calls. They were listening Nov. 3 when Blagojevich allegedly discussed pressuring Tribune Co. into firing editorial writers.

At one point, Blagojevich wonders whether he should talk directly to Zell, adding that he would tell Zell the state can't help with the Wrigley deal because "your own newspaper is going to argue to impeach."

According to the criminal complaint, Blagojevich instructed his chief of staff, John Harris, to call someone at Tribune Co. and explain to them "this is a serious thing now."

Harris -- who was arrested the same day as the governor on similar charges -- told Blagojevich he would talk to Tribune Co.'s Nils Larsen, an executive vice president.

Later, Harris told Blagojevich that Larsen had talked with Zell, "who got the message and is very sensitive to the issue." Harris told Blagojevich that it appeared Tribune Co. was continuing to reorganize and to lay off workers.

"Reading between the lines," Harris said, there would be cuts to the newspaper's 10-member editorial board.

Larsen, who has been interviewed by federal authorities, has declined to be interviewed by the newspaper.

On Dec. 8, Tribune Co. filed for bankruptcy protection.

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tlighty@tribune.com

rxbecker@tribune.com

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