And a-one count, and a two-count, and a-three count: Why the Chicago Cubs were being allegedly extorted by the governor of Illinois

Thursday, December 11, 2008 - 06:55 AM

Why would Gov. Blagojevich try to extort the Chicago Cubs?
"Our recommendation is fire all those f------ people. Get 'em the f--- out of there and get us some editorial support."

With those words, directed at his chief of staff, but overheard in early November by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who was bugging his phones, Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois landed in a world of hurt. What Blagojevich was doing, according to Fitzgerald, was telling his chief of staff, John Harris, to propose a quid pro quo to the Tribune Company: In exchange for $150 million or so in tax breaks engineered by the state of Illinois relating to the Tribune Co.'s sale of the Chicago Cubs, you're going to get rid of journalists on the Chicago Tribune who are calling for the impeachment of the governor.

Blagojevich thought the Tribune Company might go for it because of desperation on the part of its owner, Sam Zell, who owed $13 billion after taking the company private in 2007. Zell's first installment on the debt was due in December of this year and he didn't have the money. But he knew where he could get it: He could sell the Chicago Cubs. For one billion dollars. There were several suitors, but there was a catch, an odd one: Wrigley Field.

Built in 1914, and beloved to the point of insanity by Cubs fans, the park lacks most of the amenities considered necessary to a healthy revenue stream in a modern sports franchise. It has no wide-bottomed, exclusive seating areas, high-end concessions, plush luxury boxes, wide open concourses with lots of room for merchandise, spacious locker rooms, etc. There isn't even a proper bullpen: Relief pitchers have to sit next to the fans. There are also structural concerns befitting a building that's almost one hundred years old. No one buying the Cubs wanted to lay out a billion for the team and then have to come up with the $300 or $400 million more it would take to bring Wrigley into the modern world.

So Zell, Blagojevich and various other Illinois and Chicago movers and shakers came up with a plan: turn Wrigley over to the Illinois Finance Authority (a state agency that operates at the behest of the governor). The IFA would then be financially responsible for renovations, and the Tribune Co. would realize, according to Harris, $150 million in capital gains tax relief.

According to the indictment released yesterday by Fitzgerald, this is how the plan to extort the Tribune played out:

Nov. 3, Election Eve: Interrupting a discussion between and Blagojevich and his aides over the perfidious nature of the Tribune editorial board, Patricia Blagojevich, the governor's wife, weighs in: "…hold up that f------ Cubs s---. F--- them." Blagojevich asks his deputy governor if this is a good idea -- he tells the governor it has some merit -- and then Blagojevich instructs Harris to tell the Tribune that there won't be help from the IFA on the Cubs deal if the Tribune doesn't fire some members of the editorial board. Showing what turns out to be a rare bit of discretion, Blagojevich tells Harris that Harris should be the one delivering the message, not the governor.

Later on Nov. 3: Blagojevich tells a former aide, now a lobbyist, about his plan.

Nov. 4, Election Day: Blagojevich reaffirms his plan with the deputy governor and with Harris.

Nov. 5: Blagojevich tells Harris to make the call to the Tribune Co. immediately, and also mentions the plan to a press aide. Harris tells a Tribune financial advisor that it "looks like they [can move ahead on the Cubs deal] fine, but, you know, there is a risk that all of this is going to get derailed by your editorial page." The advisor replies that the matter is "delicate" and says he has to consult with Zell about it.

Nov. 10: Harris tells Blagojevich that Zell "got the message and is very sensitive to the issue." He also tells Blagojevich that the financial advisor promises budget cuts at the Tribune "and, reading between the lines, he's going after (the editorial) section."

Nov. 20: Blagojevich pushes Harris to follow up with the financial advisor.

Nov. 21 – Harris tells Blagojevich that in talks with the financial advisor, Harris singled out Tribune Deputy Editorial Page Editor John P. McCormick as the guy they'd most like fired. Blagojevich asks Harris if the Tribune understands that this is a quid pro quo deal, and Harris says yes.

Nov. 30: Blagojevich tells a consultant working with the Chicago Cubs that he's planning on leaving office in January 2009, two years before his term is over. He doesn't say why; presumably, he's thinking about naming himself as Barack Obama's replacement in the U.S. Senate. He tells the Cubs consultant that if the Cubs want state help with Wrigley Field, they'd better get it done before he leaves office.

Dec. 3: Blagojevich tells Cubs chairman Crane H. Kenney that he wants to use Illinois science and technology funds to deliver money to the Cubs for Wrigley Field and asks Kenney to come up with proposals that would make it possible.

Dec. 4: The Tribune lays off eleven employees, but not McCormick. Blagojevich tells a press aide to make sure to mention that fact to Harris.

Dec. 5: Harris assures Blagojevich that more layoffs are coming at the Tribune, and that McCormick could still end up getting fired.

Dec. 8: With the Cubs still unsold and Zell unable to make his first loan payment, the Tribune Co. files for Chapter 11.

Dec. 9: Fitzgerald arrests Blagojevich and Harris.


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