Early on a Sunday evening in December, e-mails went out among state officials who had just learned that financially strapped Tribune Co. was about to file for bankruptcy protection.
"This could measurably complicate Project Elwood," wrote William Brandt, chairman of the Illinois Finance Authority.
Project Elwood—an apparent reference to a "Blues Brothers" character—was code for secret negotiations between former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's administration and Tribune Co. for the state to buy Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs.
Two days later, the plan grew far more complicated when Blagojevich was arrested on federal corruption charges. Among the charges were allegations that he was trying to extort Tribune Co.—the owner of Wrigley, the Cubs and the Chicago Tribune—over the state purchase.
According to federal authorities, Blagojevich wanted to pressure Tribune Co. Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Sam Zell to fire members of the newspaper's editorial board who had angered the governor with their critical editorials. A Blagojevich indictment is expected as early as Thursday.
The arrest of the governor ultimately led to his ouster, thrust Tribune Co. into the spotlight and exposed secret talks between the state and the company that had been quietly revived following the death of an earlier stadium proposal.
State records recently released to the Chicago Tribune offer a deeper look at those private talks, outlining an ongoing series of contacts between Tribune Co. representatives and the scandal-plagued Blagojevich even as federal investigators closed their noose around him.
The records—including e-mails, telephone logs and calendars obtained under the state's Freedom of Information Act—provide new details about the urgency of Tribune Co. efforts to get a financial bailout from the state and the Cubs-crazy governor's personal contacts with the company and Cubs officials.
The documents leave much unsaid, and most of the people who could fill in the blanks would not comment.
Zell, who has said that he was interviewed by federal authorities as a potential witness in the Blagojevich case, declined to be interviewed. A Tribune Co. spokesman issued a short statement reiterating that neither the company nor Zell did anything inappropriate but declined to answer almost all the newspaper's questions about contacts with Blagojevich, citing the ongoing federal investigation.
"Mr. Zell never believed he was being asked to interfere with Chicago Tribune's operations, including the editorial board, as a result of Wrigley Field discussions with the state," Tribune Co. spokesman Gary Weitman said in an e-mail response. "Further, he is not aware that anyone at or representing Tribune was ever approached with a request of this kind. Regardless, Tribune would never consider interfering with editorial board staff in relation to a transaction."
The records also indicate that Zell and Blagojevich occasionally spoke directly. Tribune Co. has previously acknowledged that Blagojevich was among the hundreds of associates who attended Zell's annual birthday party and that the governor also received a gift that Zell gives to influential people at the beginning of each year.
The records do not show what the two talked about, only a notation in the call logs such as "Sam Zell—Gov & Sam spoke."
Blagojevich's telephone log shows several calls to members of the team, including manager Lou Piniella, coach Larry Rothschild and John McDonough, the team's former president who is now with the Chicago Blackhawks.
According to the records, contact between Tribune Co. and the governor's office accelerated after an earlier state effort to buy Wrigley Field fell through in June. That failed deal involved the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, the city-state agency that owns and operates the White Sox ballpark, U.S. Cellular Field.
The following month, on July 2, Blagojevich met with Zell, according to the governor's calendar.
But Blagojevich told MSNBC in an interview earlier this year that he had a meeting with Zell in which the Tribune CEO told him the ballpark should be torn down and a new one built. He said Zell wanted a park similar to Coors Field, home of the Colorado Rockies.
Blagojevich said he was horrified. He said he quickly had his administration work with the Illinois Finance Authority, one of the nation's largest government financing bodies, to work out a deal to buy Wrigley Field.
Brandt, the authority's chairman, said he did not know who came up with the Project Elwood code name but said Tribune Co. representatives used the name in e-mails and had prepared materials containing the name, along with the authority's and Cubs' logos.
Brandt said he set conditions for the proposed deal—no taxpayer money would be involved, ticket prices could not be artificially raised to repay bonds, Tribune Co. had to guarantee the bonds and the Cubs had to stay at Wrigley for at least the next 30 years.
Nils Larsen, a Tribune Co. executive and close associate to Zell, sent an e-mail Aug. 13 to John Filan, now executive director of the finance authority. "In short, we do not see any substantive reason not to explore this further," Larsen wrote.
Days after the Zell meeting, Blagojevich and Cubs Chairman Crane Kenney exchanged phone calls. Kenney was in regular contact with the governor over the next several months, according to Blagojevich's call logs. Kenney would not talk about his conversations when contacted by the newspaper.
The records also provide a further glimpse into the lobbying directed at the governor and others by Marc Ganis, a sports consultant retained by Tribune Co. to assist with the Wrigley deal.
Ganis declined to talk about Project Elwood but said he had "numerous discussions with the governor that had zero to do with the Cubs."
According to the records, Ganis socialized with Blagojevich and his wife, Patricia, going out to dinner with the couple and occasionally for drinks.
One entry on Blagojevich's call logs contains the notation: "Marc Ganis can't do Saturday, 10-18 for dinner, but is available on Friday, October 24 and Saturday October 25. Also Marc wants to know if you want to see Dallas Cowboys play the St. Louis Rams in St. Louis. ... Marc can make all the arrangements."
Around that same time, federal authorities began secretly recording Blagojevich's phone calls. They were listening Nov. 3 when Blagojevich allegedly discussed a plan to pressure Tribune Co.
In now-infamous language documented in the federal case against him, Blagojevich allegedly uttered profanities about the newspaper's editorial writers, stating that "our recommendation is fire all those [expletive] people." In another secretly recorded call, the governor's wife allegedly can be heard yelling in the background and telling her husband to "hold up that [expletive] Cubs [expletive]."
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 Chief of Staff John Harris, who was arrested the same day on related charges, to call someone at Tribune Co. and explain to them "this is a serious thing now."
Blagojevich mused about how much the finance authority deal would mean to Tribune Co. "Like $500 million?"
Harris replied that the total gain to Tribune Co. was somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million.
Harris told the governor he would talk to Tribune Co.'s Larsen. The two stayed in contact over the next month, according to federal court documents and state records.
Harris reported back to Blagojevich that Larsen talked with Zell, "who got the message and is very sensitive to the issue." He told Blagojevich that it appeared Tribune Co. was continuing to reorganize and 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 repeatedly declined to be interviewed.
On Dec. 8, Tribune Co. filed for bankruptcy protection.
That day, Blagojevich told a Chicago Tribune reporter: "I'm confident that an astute businessman like Sam Zell is going to turn this around. And [I] offer a polite recommendation to him. One thing he might want to do is change that editorial policy and change that editorial board."
None of the editorial board members lost their jobs, and top editors with the newspaper said no one from Tribune Co. tried to exert any influence over operations of the board.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun