Illinois deserves better than the Chicago Tribune

By DOUG IBENDAHL • October 13, 2014


The Chicago Tribune endorsed Bruce Rauner in the GOP Primary and it’s now endorsed him for the General Election too. This comes as a surprise to no one.


No doubt the editorial board already had its love letter written and ready to go even as the Tribune had one diligent reporter in Tampa three weeks ago covering the first days of an ongoing trial in U.S. Bankruptcy Court. Plaintiffs there seek to prove that private equity firm GTCR participated in a massive, fraudulent scheme to unlawfully hide assets and thus prevent nursing home victims’ families from recovering for the suffering and death of loved ones. Bruce Rauner isn’t individually named as a defendant in the case, but GTCR is and Rauner was at the helm of GTCR as its chairman when all of the alleged wrongdoing took place.


That diligent Tribune reporter, David Heinzmann, provided some excellent coverage from the first week of trial, but there has been nothing since. Perhaps inconvenient facts like testimony that ownership of the toxic parts of GTCR’s once high-flying nursing home chain were somehow unloaded on a visibly confused elderly graphic artist who thought he was only getting some computer equipment was causing too much cognitive dissonance for the Tribune bosses back home in Chicago. I have no idea.


So how does the Chicago Tribune deal with the nursing home abuse which occurred during Rauner’s watch, the alleged fraud to avoid responsibility, the proven massive accounting fraud at one GTCR owned company, the numerous executives criminally convicted at others, the $13 million dollar settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice for Medicare/Medicaid fraud in Georgia, the settlement of a civil RICO lawsuit in Ohio, and Rauner’s alleged threat against a female executive and her family?


And further, how does the Tribune deal with the fact Rauner was a fierce opponent of the pension reform bill which passed in December? Rauner not only opposed the bill, he did his best to derail it. The Tribune preached in favor of the bill for months. Shortly before that December vote, the editorial board told lawmakers it would be “a vote that would define them.” But the Tribune didn’t stop there, it warned lawmakers that not supporting the bill would be to “declare that you’re the problem.”


So how does the Tribune deal with all of this? How does the Tribune endorse a guy who by its own definition is the problem? Simple. The Tribune just ignores it all. “In crafting this endorsement, we won’t be sucked into each candidate’s autopsies of what the other guy did in the past,” declares the Tribune.


How convenient.


But I get it. Any focus on Rauner’s actual record instead of hazy future plans (which the Tribune doesn’t even attempt to specify) would likely reveal the endorsement as something beyond the simply ludicrous.


However, the Chicago Tribune wasn’t always so willing to ignore the past.


Back in 2004 when Republican Jack Ryan was running against Barack Obama for U.S. Senate, the Tribune was so obsessed over details of how Ryan may or may not have propositioned his own wife, the newspaper’s lawyers actually went to court in California seeking to unseal more divorce records.


In what many observers believed was a very rare if not an unprecedented ruling, the court did order the release of some files, even though the judge acknowledged that the publicity could be expected to have “a deleterious effect” on the Ryans’ young son.


Jack Ryan always denied the unsubstantiated claims made by his now ex-wife in a contested divorce, and in fact the claims were never proven. In any case the allegations were a bunch of nothing – no abuse and no infidelity whatsoever. In fact the court awarded joint custody of the child to the parents so obviously there was no question in the court’s mind about Jack Ryan’s fitness. And anyone who knows the man can attest to Jack Ryan’s decency and character.


But the Chicago Tribune didn’t let the facts get in the way. The newspaper stoked the titillation at every opportunity – even though it was truly a “sex scandal” which had no sex.


While the allegations against Jack Ryan were confined exclusively to his private life with his own wife, the Tribune’s editorial board had no trouble declaring this from atop its high horse shortly before Ryan dropped out of the race that summer of 2004: “The questions raised this week go much deeper than a novice candidate’s mistakes. They go to his credibility, the value of his word.”


And Tribune columnist John Kass (R – Dibs), while sparing readers another invented cutesy nickname for Jack Ryan, would not be outdone on moral indignation about a candidate’s past. Kass declared: “As a possible U.S. senator, [Jack Ryan] had a profound responsibility, to the voters, to his state, to his nation.”


The Tribune’s obsession with a candidate’s past and private life had earlier been displayed that same year in the case of Blair Hull who was a leading challenger to Obama in the Democratic Primary for that U.S. Senate seat. (I’m not going to get into the Tribune’s obsession with the intra-marital relations of some candidates while completely ignoring the apparent extra-marital activities of Rauner. But if you’re interested in that topic you can read what Chicago Magazine had to say here, and NBC 5 Chicago here.)


But it’s not only the past which the Tribune now selectively ignores – it’s also the honesty issue.


Recall the Tribune’s other supposed rap against Jack Ryan was that he wasn’t honest when he said there was “nothing embarrassing” in his divorce file. First of all, that sounds like a true statement to me, and it’s now ten years later and no one has ever proven otherwise.


But if the Tribune truly cares about a candidate’s honesty, what about Rauner?


First, even the Tribune acknowledges that Rauner wasn’t honest when he originally said he sat on the nursing home chain’s company board for only one year. The company was Trans Healthcare and we now know Rauner remained on its board for at least four years.


We also know Rauner wasn’t honest when he first spoke to the Tribune about the influence he used to clout his daughter into the prestigious Walter Payton Prep in Chicago over a truly deserving student.


But perhaps Rauner’s biggest whopper of all is when he recently declared “nobody in my firm was ever accused of wrongdoing.” Right, all we have to do is ignore things like the civil RICO case his firm settled in Ohio, the large settlement he paid to a female executive in a case involving disturbing threats Rauner allegedly made against the executive and her family, and the massive fraud trial still going on in federal court in Tampa.


The Tribune’s endorsement is astonishing for another reason.


Sam Zell acquired control of the Tribune media empire in 2007. Less than a year later the company filed for bankruptcy protection.


Zell wanted to shake-up the Tribune’s staid corporate culture and he hand-picked radio executive Randy Michaels for the job. Michaels was installed as the Tribune’s new CEO.


That decision was a disaster. The New York Times detailed Michaels’s unbelievable exploits here back in 2010. Here is just a small excerpt: “Based on interviews with more than 20 employees and former employees of the Tribune, Mr. Michaels’ and his executives’ use of sexual innuendo, poisonous workplace banter and profane invective shocked and offended people throughout the company. Tribune Tower, the architectural symbol of the staid company, came to resemble a frat house, complete with poker parties, juke boxes and pervasive sex talk.”


Michaels lasted only two years at the Tribune. One has to assume his departure was enthusiastically welcomed by every decent employee who hadn’t already fled the company.


Given all of Michaels’s documented piggish behavior, he was obviously done in the industry right? Wrong. Rauner and his partners hired him! Michaels was tapped in 2011 to run the GTCR-owned Merlin Media, L.L.C.


I have no idea what the Chicago Tribune is thinking. Its people say they want a change leader, but provides not a scintilla of support for its claim that Rauner would be that guy.


All I personally see in Rauner is a continuation of a thuggish culture in the Illinois Republican Party which is keeping the GOP here from making inroads. Rauner’s quickly bonded with other aging GOP losers who think it’s okay to bar a black former Miss America from speaking at events, and miscreants who think it’s okay to employ openly armed men in a failed attempt to keep competitors off the ballot.


In Rauner I see a man who thinks it’s okay to threaten one of his own executives and her family. I see a guy who is fine with siphoning what he can from lousy nursing homes, and then when people start dying, lawyers-up and hides behind a complicated shell-game in hopes of blocking the victims’ families from ever seeing a penny.


Illinois has given the Chicago Tribune over a century and a half. Given that length of time and this level of failure, surely all Illinoisans can agree it’s time for real change at the Chicago Tribune.


Doug Ibendahl is a Chicago Attorney and a former General Counsel of the Illinois Republican Party.


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