Blagojevich, Mr. First Amendment?

"And our recommendation is fire all those [expletive] people. Get 'em the [expletive] out of there. And get us some editorial support." Rod Blagojevich (Nov. 4, 2008)


"So, did you tell [deputy governor Bob Greenlee] that, ah, [editorial writer John] McCormick's gonna get bounced at the Tribune?" Rod Blagojevich [Nov. 21, 2008]


"What's the deal? McCormick stays at the Tribune? I mean those layoffs were minor." Rod Blagojevich (Dec. 5, 2008)

Throughout his trial on federal corruption charges, Mr. First Amendment, aka Rod Blagojevich, has voiced respect and affection for the First Amendment in several contexts. As I reported previously, he argued that the entire case should be thrown out because the charges against him amount to the criminalization of speech.

When there was talk that he might be gagged from speaking to the media outside of the courtroom, Mr. First Amendment said he would fight for his right to speak. (U.S. District Judge James Zagel refused prosecutors' request that he be gagged, implying that the defendant's remarks have been benign).

The former governor has told reporters that "The First Amendment is sacrosanct in the United States," that "One of the things we're fighting for is the First Amendment," that the First Amendment is "the cornerstone of our Democracy" and that people have "laid down their lives" to protect our constitutional right to speak freely.

Evidently those rights don't extend to members of the fourth estate who speak critically of him.

Prosecutors last week played for the jury excerpts of wiretapped conversations that seriously undermine his constitutional grandstanding. The governor is charged with running the state as a racket, conspiring with aides to sell state contracts, jobs and grants for campaign cash. In most of the conversations regarding the Tribune, it was reporters' heads, not cash, that he sought.

He was talking with his then chief of staff (now a government witness) John Harris and directing him to ask executives of the Chicago Tribune to fire the paper's editorial board - specifically McCormick - if the company still wanted support from the state in structuring a sale of the Chicago Cubs and Wrigley Field.

In several conversations, Blagojevich tells Harris this is a priority and asks him to speak specifically to Nils Larsen, the Executive Vice President-Chief Investment Officer at Tribune Company, Crane Kenney, who has served as Tribune's general counsel before being named Chairman of the Chicago Cubs in April, 2008, and Tribune Co. owner Sam Zell, according to the tapes and the testimony of Harris.

And he had leverage. He told Harris to tell Tribune executives that unless they got rid of those writers who were critical of him, the governor would not be able to help the Cubs structure a deal through the Illinois Finance Authority [IFA], which is essentially a state bank that issues bonds and doles out loans. Blagojevich had sole authority to approve such a deal without getting permission from the General Assembly.

Here are some snippets of conversations the FBI recorded, from the official court transcripts, which show a desperate-seeming governor fighting for his reputation and career as the feds are closing in on him:

Nov. 11, 2008

: What about Nils and that follow-up with the Tribune and their editorial board's position on impeaching me and being negative and nasty?
Harris: I met with him yesterday.
Harris: And he says he talked to Sam and Sam got the message. He's very sensitive to...the issue. Uh, without getting too specific there are certain corporate reorganizations and budget cuts coming and, uh, reading between the lines, he's goin' after that section.
Blagojevich: Oh, that's fantastic.
Harris: Now that doesn't mean, you know, he's not promising any turnaround right away, it's just a change in personnel and, but he understands that they have not been very balanced and that he does not ever acknowledge that he interferes in that operation.
Blagojevich: I understand but...(stuttering). He's goin' after that section. Oh, that's fantastic.

In response to an editorial advocating that a committee be appointed to look into impeaching Blagojevich, Harris and Blagojevich had a conversation about the Tribune and the Chicago Cubs IFA financing deal:

Nov. 4, 2008

Harris: Well, like I said, the Tribune wants you out of the way. Yeah.
Blagojevich: I think we have to have a conversation with Nils and Crane Kenney and maybe Sam Zell. And say, you know what, uh, uh, you know, the governor takes, gets his ass kicked from your [expletive] paper, wrongfully. They've got a [expletive] extreme agenda on 'em. We never complain. We go with the flow. Okay. But now you're in a position here where they're gonna be advocating an impeachment because the governor finds ways around the Legislature to get things done like he's doing on this Cubs deal with the IFA.
Harris: Yeah, that's more of a Nils conversation not Sam Zell.
Blagojevich: Yeah. Right. And you know, and you know what, because this impeachment thing that your paper's pushing could very well be a cloud that hangs over our head and could actually be out there as I try to govern in the next session driven by your newspaper and by Madigan. We don't know if we can take a chance and do this IFA deal now.
Blagojevich: And we got all these op-eds and, and then, so therefore we got to figure this out. And our recommendation is fire all those [expletive] people. Get 'em the [expletive] out of there. And get us some editorial support.
Harris: Right, we need air cover.
Blagojevich: Yeah. Get us some editorial support. So I want you to think through this. This is important. You follow me?
Harris: Got it.

Harris, who pleaded guilty to a corruption charge in exchange for his cooperation, testified that he did talk with Nils Larsen at Tribune and the two talked about the Cubs IFA deal. Then, Harris said, he turned the discussion to the editorial board and told Larsen that McCormick was particularly unfair to the governor. Harris said he asked Larsen to try to "tone down" the editorial board; that it could affect the IFA deal.

Harris did not ask Larsen to fire anyone, but he told Blagojevich that he had. Harris testified that he misled the governor in order to keep him from calling Sam Zell directly, which Harris said would be a "terrible idea."

Nov. 21, 2008

Blagojevich: Good. So did you tell [Deputy Governor] Bob Greenlee that, ah, McCormick's gonna get bounced at the Tribune?

Harris had testified that Greenlee spoke with McCormick and found him to be very rude.

Harris: No. I told him that McCormick's in a bad mood. I says, I'm gonna check with Nils to see, maybe to see whether or not it's part of that message about the cuts on the ed board and maybe McC-, I, I had singled out McCormick as somebody who is uh, the most biased and unfair.
Blagojevich: You, to Nils you did? Yeah, that'd be great. That guy's a bad guy, man.
Blagojevich: Nils is on top of this, right?
Harris: Well, like I said, they, that, they, that's all he said was they're lookin' to making some changes...
Blagojevich: Your point was, this guy's advocating I get impeached 'cause I do things around the legislature, you made that point to him, right?
Blagojevich: And that's precisely what we're doing on Wrigley Field?

Finally, just four days before Blagojevich was arrested, the Tribune reported that a close adviser had been surreptitiously recording conversations with the governor.

Dec. 6, 2008

Blagojevich: What's the deal? So McCormick stays at the Tribune, huh?
Harris: Uh, well, we haven't heard that he's gone, so.
Blagojevich: I mean those layoffs were minor.
Harris:Well, I know they got a lot to do.
Blagojevich: Okay, at some point we should talk to Nils again, right?. . .I mean I might have a lawsuit on this if this isn't true. What d'ya think?
Harris: So what if you're on a recording. You could be ordering a cheese and mushroom pizza.
Blagojevich: Yeah, you're right. But that's not true though. And they're creating this image like I'm a big crook.

The trial is now in its fourth week and prosecutors are still presenting evidence. Ultimately, jurors will decide whether Mr. First Amendment was crooked or whether he was all talk. To view more transcripts of the recorded conversations, visit the DOJ website.