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Sam Zell's financial adviser at Tribune Co. was middleman sought by Blagojevich

As Tribune Co. acknowledged Thursday that it received a federal subpoena as part of criminal charges against Gov. Rod Blagojevich, sources confirmed that a close associate of company chief executive and chairman Sam Zell has been interviewed by the FBI.

The Tribune also has learned that the associate, Nils Larsen, is the unidentified financial adviser who allegedly was asked to help get Chicago Tribune editorial writers fired.

Larsen, a Tribune Co. executive vice president, is a 38-year-old financial whiz who was instrumental in Zell's takeover of Tribune Co.

Neither Larsen nor Zell responded to requests for comment.

In their subpoena to the Tribune, federal authorities are seeking memos about potential staff cuts or changes to the Chicago Tribune editorial board, a source said.

A company spokesman has said that neither Tribune Co. executives nor their advisers did anything inappropriate.

No Chicago Tribune editorial writers were fired.

On Tuesday, Blagojevich and John Harris, the governor's chief of staff, were arrested at their homes and each charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and solicitation of bribery.

Blagojevich, upset with editorials that were critical of his actions, allegedly hatched a plan to get editorial writers fired. In November, Blagojevich and Harris reached out to Larsen, identified in court records as "Tribune Financial Adviser."

According to the criminal complaint, Blagojevich instructed Harris to tell Larsen changes needed to be made to the editorial board or the governor would block money for Wrigley Field renovations.

Larsen is Zell's point man on efforts to sell the Chicago Cubs. Tribune Co. owns the Cubs and the newspaper.

Court documents portray Blagojevich as eager to exploit Tribune Co.'s financial problems.

Tribune Co. has been in discussions with the state over the sale of Wrigley Field, which could mean as much as $100 million for the company. Zell has sought to sell the Cubs and use the proceeds to pay down debt associated with his takeover of Tribune Co., which filed for bankruptcy protection this week.

Blagojevich suggested his aides take the issue head-on and that someone might want to talk directly to Zell.

Whether Larsen ever attempted to apply pressure to Tribune officials remained unclear.

At the news conference announcing the arrests, U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald declined to say how far the effort went, "other than the person who was identified as a person to be fired was not fired and still works there today."

According to the complaint, Blagojevich in early November intensified his efforts to cleanse the Chicago Tribune's editorial board of his critics. In a Nov. 5 phone conversation, the governor instructed Harris to warn Larsen that editorials critical of his administration were jeopardizing the sale of Wrigley Field.

Blagojevich urged Harris to tell Larsen "everything is lined up, but before we go to the next level we need to have a discussion about what you guys are going to do about that newspaper."

When Harris said he "won't be so direct," Blagojevich said, "yeah, you know what you got to say."

The next day, Harris reported to Blagojevich that he had spoken with Larsen. Blagojevich asked, "He gets the message, doesn't he?"

Harris replied, "Oh, yeah, he got it loud and clear."

Tribune reporters Jeff Coen and David Heinzmann contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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