Wednesday, April 1, 2009

CHICAGO (AP) — Tribune Co. was secretly negotiating with then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich on a deal in which the state would buy Wrigley Field even as federal investigators were closing in on him in a corruption probe, state records show.

E-mails, phone logs and calendars released to the Chicago Tribune show ongoing talks between the Tribune Co., which owns Wrigley and the Chicago Cubs, and the now-impeached governor’s administration beginning at least last summer.

Blagojevich was arrested Dec. 9 on a criminal complaint alleging that he tried to pressure Tribune Co. to fire editorial writers at the Chicago Tribune who were critical of the governor. In exchange, the struggling company would get state assistance through the Illinois Finance Authority in connection with the possible sale of Wrigley.

Federal prosecutors claim Blagojevich hoped to use about $100 million in state money to relieve Tribune of capital gains taxes on a Wrigley deal.

Tribune Co. owner Sam Zell and Blagojevich occasionally spoke directly, and negotiations were code-named “Project Elwood,” an apparent reference to a character in the movie “The Blues Brothers,” according to the newspaper.

Tribune Co. spokesman Gary Weitman said in a statement that neither the company nor Zell had done anything wrong. Neither has been charged with wrongdoing.

Zell, who declined to talk to the newspaper for a story Tuesday, has said he was interviewed by federal authorities as a potential witness in the Blagojevich case.

The U.S. attorney’s office has until April 7 to file an indictment against Blagojevich, who was impeached and removed from office in January.

Talks between Tribune and the governor’s office resumed after an initial state deal to buy the stadium collapsed. Blagojevich said he heard Zell wanted to tear down and replace the 93-year-old ballpark and enlisted the Illinois Finance Authority to rekindle negotiations in an effort to save it.

The records do not show what Zell and Blagojevich discussed, but only log conversations in notes such as, “Sam Zell — Gov & Sam spoke.” According to the governor’s calendar, Blagojevich met with Zell on July 2.

Days later, Blagojevich and Cubs Chairman Crane Kenney exchanged phone calls, and the two were in regular contact over the next several months, according to the governor’s call logs.

William Brandt, chairman of the finance authority, told the newspaper he had conditions for the deal. He said he wanted no taxpayer money used, wanted to bar ticket-price increases to pay off bond debts and wanted Tribune to guarantee the bonds and promise that the Cubs would stay at Wrigley for at least 30 years.

Nils Larsen, a Tribune Co. executive and Zell associate, 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.

Neither Kenney nor Larsen would comment when contacted by the Chicago Tribune.

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