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Power Failure



By Michael Miner

Power Failure

When times were good for John Hirschfeld, he might have been the most powerful man in Champaign County. In the early 70s he'd been a state legislator, in the 80s chairman of the county Republican Party. He was a founding partner of Meyer Capel, perhaps the county's most influential law firm. And he was the special friend of Marajen Stevick Chinigo.

It's astonishing how much difference a friendship can make. Hirschfeld had known Chinigo since he was a boy delivering her newspaper, and she doted on him. In 1975, when he was still in the legislature, she brought him into her business, and in 1987 she put him in charge. The party boss became president and CEO of Chinigo's media companies, which controlled not only the Champaign News-Gazette but the weekly Tolono County Star and radio stations WDWS AM and WHMS FM.

This sort of influence would exhilarate anyone born to be a wheeler-dealer and embarrass anyone born to be a journalist. But it wasn't enough influence for Hirschfeld. Unable to resist the temptation to acquire a personal forum, he launched a weekly radio talk show, Ricochet, where his partisan bloviating gained him a reputation as Champaign County's own Rush Limbaugh. He wrote a newspaper column, "From where I stand..." And on top of all that, he was Chinigo's personal attorney and the newspaper's.

Dannel McCollum grew up in Champaign at the same time Hirschfeld did. Times were bad for McCollum in 1945, when his mother opened the door to trick-or-treaters and was pelted with tomatoes and garbage while voices in the dark screamed "Atheist!" The family cat was lynched, his older brother, Jim, was tormented by other kids at his Champaign grade school, and their mom lost her teaching job at the University of Illinois. Tenure is all that saved his father, but 15 years would pass before the university advanced him to full professor.

There was a reason for this abuse. The McCollums had stirred up trouble in the community. In 1944, when Jim was a fourth-grader, he'd brought home a permission slip for his parents to sign. The public schools were offering weekly religious classes taught by visiting members of the Champaign Council on Religious Education, and the teacher wanted every student involved. Jim's parents were asked to choose between Protestant and Catholic instruction. If they weren't interested, their son would be sent to a study hall.

The McCollums reluctantly put Jim in the Protestant class, hoping he'd learn something about ethics and morals. They soon concluded he was being indoctrinated in fundamentalism. The next year they refused to sign the slip. Jim was followed home and taunted, though he escaped the punishment dealt out to the one Jewish boy in the school, who was beaten so badly his glasses were shattered inside their steel case. The boys' mother, Vashti McCollum, protested that the religious-education program was unconstitutional and should be stopped, and when the school system turned a deaf ear she went to court.

She lost locally and lost again on appeal before the Illinois Supreme Court. But in 1948 the U.S. Supreme Court voted eight to one in her favor, Justice Hugo Black writing the majority opinion. The case stands as a milestone in First Amendment jurisprudence. "We were not very popular in this town for quite a spell, and it remained a political liability in office," Dannel remembers. "As Henry Mencken might have said, 'It was a bizarre jest of the gods that I ever wound up mayor.'"

McCollum was raised a Unitarian, Hirschfeld an ardent Catholic who would graduate with honors from Notre Dame and Notre Dame law school and send six of his seven children there. Catholics had been as unhappy as Protestants with Vashti McCollum's suit, which halted all religious instruction in the public schools, and Dannel McCollum reflects, "Given John's religious predisposition, that sort of guaranteed we'd be adversarial."

Both went into politics, Hirschfeld sooner, McCollum later. A teacher, McCollum became so unhappy with the city manager and city council that in 1983 he offered to manage the campaigns of three different people if they'd run for the council. No one said yes, and the last of the three replied that she would manage his campaign. So he ran and won, and four years later he became mayor.

Though the election was nonpartisan, McCollum was generally understood to be a moderate Democrat, and John Hirschfeld jumped on him. A 1989 Hirschfeld column ridiculed a joint proclamation by McCollum and the mayor of adjacent Urbana creating "Lesbian and Gay Pride Day." Hirschfeld wondered at McCollum's motives. "How better to get re-elected than by satiating the public desires of a very small, but very vocal minority. Yet, this is the same mayor who has not seen his way clear to declare Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a holiday in the city of Champaign."

What would the mayors proclaim next? Hirschfeld had a few ideas: "'Pride in Desecrating the Flag Day'...'Nudity Day'...'Pedophilia Photo Day'...'Beastiality Month.'... The list could go on--and well may with these two gentlemen holding the reins of our local mayors' offices."

McCollum remembers, "I never allowed a major political insult from John to go unanswered, and generally I did it in his own newspaper. Generally John Foreman [the editor] allowed me guest space to respond, which I always did. When I would respond in the paper, Hirschfeld almost inevitably would write me a letter responding to my response, and I'd write him a letter. And this would go on until I finally quit, because John wanted to have the last word. At a party one time I introduced my wife to him, and he said, 'Tell your husband I've just written a response to his last response and tell him not to answer it.'"

Foreman, perhaps slyly, chose that July 4 to publish McCollum's response to Hirschfeld's diatribe, and he illustrated it with a drawing of the Statue of Liberty. McCollum's reply challenged the logic of Hirschfeld's theory that he'd ingratiated himself with a "very small" minority to improve his standing with the majority. He noted, "I spent 10 hours two days last week responding to persons who called to express their objection to the proclamation," and pointed out that he'd proclaimed a Martin Luther King Jr. Day every year he'd been in office, and if the day wasn't a holiday it was because a majority of the city council considered a holiday inappropriate, there being none honoring Washington, Lincoln, or any other individual. McCollum announced that he had no intention of rescinding his Pride Day proclamation and said he hoped that "those who have raised the furor re-examine their own sense of charity and tolerance in this matter."

Today, McCollum says, "I suppose in a sense John and I often found ourselves offending people. But John tended to be more personal. I never got personal. John had a habit of beating people up individually. He sure offended a lot of folks, both politically--including in his own party--and generally."

Once, when McCollum was a guest on Ricochet, Hirschfeld actually started to pay him a compliment. McCollum broke in, "John, John, you're costing me votes." Yet they did land on the same side of some issues, such as preserving an old theater downtown. As McCollum puts it--Hirschfeld isn't talking, on the advice of his lawyer, Chris Gair--he and Hirschfeld share the same deep "sentimental" interest in local history. They didn't socialize, but their civic roles often brought them together. McCollum says that "in person, John is one of the most engaging, positively charming people I have ever met." He continues, "I assure you, I took no pleasure from his downfall. Nor did I in any way work to add to his problems."

What brought him down? I ask.

"I guess it's Lord Acton's axiom," McCollum replies. "'Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.'"

But power isn't absolute that depends on another's goodwill. And Marajen Chinigo ruled. An article in the Columbia Journalism Review written by a former News-Gazette reporter in 1982, when Chinigo was 69, described her as a most autocratic piece of work. It told how she'd claimed the title "contessa" on the strength of an honorary title given her late husband for humanitarian work in Sicily, donated $1 million to Oral Roberts University (where today the graduate center bears her name), and brought Pavarotti to sing at the University of Illinois, dealing with an unfavorable review in her own paper by firing the critic.

In her own way, she kept a close eye on the operation she'd inherited from her parents. When a pro-Democratic letter led the letters page a few days before the 1980 elections (an editor had flipped a coin), she stepped in and ordered a pro-Republican letter to run first in the next edition. When an Evans and Novak column headlined "Reagan Can Lose Illinois" ran higher on the page than a George Will column praising the Republican candidate she ordered the columns switched.

She's been described to me as someone as attentive to her newspaper as an owner can be who doesn't much understand journalism and is rarely in town. She has one getaway in Rancho Mirage, California, and then there's Torre di Civita, the converted monastery hugging the Mediterranean south of Naples that she inherited when her fifth husband died. That husband was Michael Chinigo, an Italian-born journalist she'd married in 1953 and later named publisher of the News-Gazette. In 1974, a few months after she filed for divorce, Michael Chinigo snatched a gun from a friend and shot himself in the head on a street in Rome.

Another of Hirschfeld's responsibilities was to oversee Torre di Civita. Chris Gair, his lawyer, says that meant dealing with tenant farmers and the local government. Gair says that every summer Marajen Chinigo would invite a large group of friends to Italy, and Hirschfeld was expected to lead them on a tour of the Salerno countryside regaling them with tales of her adventures there.

In December 1997 she fired him. Chinigo's reasons remain obscure, but it's widely believed in Champaign that she was motivated in part by the very public collapse of his marriage. It was a bitter separation, and to Hirschfeld's despair his seven children took their mother's side. According to a deposition a lawyer representing Chinigo would later give Gair, the "last straw" was when Hirschfeld showed up in Rancho Mirage with a woman who wasn't his wife.

Since she was preparing to fire the man who'd been her personal lawyer, Chinigo had begun receiving legal advice from a new team. It was led by her friend and neighbor in Rancho Mirage, the legendary Don Reuben, the former lawyer for the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Bears, and the Chicago Catholic Archdiocese. Chinigo even named Reuben to her board of directors.

They studied the books and concluded that Hirschfeld, as CEO and corporate attorney, had been double-dipping to the tune of well over a million dollars. The suit to recover these funds was handled privately, and that might have been that. But Reuben, obeying the attorney's honor code, reported Hirschfeld to the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission of the Supreme Court of Illinois--the ARDC.

Surely, it wasn't Chinigo's idea to extract an extra pound of flesh. I assume she'd never even heard of the ARDC, I told Reuben when I tracked him down in Rancho Mirage.

"You got that right," he said. "That was not on her radar screen."

The ARDC investigates wayward lawyers and punishes them. The deposition referred to above is part of a thick file on the Hirschfeld investigation, which has led to his humiliation. According to figures that the ARDC made public, from 1993 to 1997 Chinigo had paid him a yearly salary that grew from $291,000 to $360,000, and during the same time he was also billing her for legal services--never less than $314,000 a year and nearly $410,000 in 1996. He was billing for services, she contended, that were his responsibility as CEO--such as handling corporate mail, working on budgets, and attending board meetings.

There was more than this to the ARDC's charges. There was, in fact, a kitchen-sink quality to them. Those tales Hirschfeld told his boss's friends at Torre di Civita? They became the sin of "disclosing client confidences without authority." But this alleged act of betrayal occurred in 1991, and Hirschfeld remained in Chinigo's employ another six years. Gair, who also deposed Chinigo, says, "She could not have cared less about anything on that tour with one exception--he had mentioned the fact she was divorced."

Hirschfeld conceded guilt on this point and several others. He and Gair cut a deal with the ARDC. It would withdraw charges of fraud and Hirschfeld would admit to various lesser improprieties, among them overbilling in the amount of $1.78 million. Under the agreement, which now awaits ratification by the supreme court, his law license will be suspended for a year and then he'll have to apply for reinstatement. Hirschfeld is 63, and his law firm has cut him loose, so no one expects him to practice law again.

"Here was a person who had a wonderful position, a wonderful place in the community, and you see a career destroyed," says Don Reuben. "I don't think that's a pleasant spectacle for any human being to observe. It was very sad and depressing."

I found Chinigo in Italy last week and asked her about Hirschfeld.

"He was terminated," she said. "He's not in our life anymore. Or his wife's. Or anybody's."

But at one time, I began, he was close to you...

"He was never close to me," she asserted. "He was close to the business. I've forgotten all about that period. Thank you for reviving it."

When Hirschfeld's life was falling apart, Dannel McCollum called and tried to cheer him up. They continue to talk occasionally. "I said, 'John, I've got good news and bad news. The good news is I'm publishing a book. The bad news is it's on our correspondence.'"

Before Hirschfeld settled with the ARDC, thus avoiding a trial, McCollum was on the list of possible witnesses. Gair says he would have asked him to testify that fees Hirschfeld billed for meetings between the paper and the city were legitimate; he also might have asked him to speak for Hirschfeld as a person. That would have been interesting testimony. "John had immense influence in political circles, not only in this town, this county, but statewide," McCollum says. "And my personal opinion is that John didn't handle it very well. He was very partisan. It was John who forged an alliance of convenience with Tim Johnson, who's our state representative now running for Congress. It's always been my impression they were never very good friends, but they combined their resources to oust the former Republican county chair. John assumed the role and later vacated it for Tim. The partisan manipulations that went on were, I felt, extremely adverse to the long-term interests of the county. Decisions were made for pure partisan advantage rather than the general good."

To give Hirschfeld his due as a lawyer, on May 1, days after his old newspaper had reported the details of his losing his license to practice, the Champaign County Bar Association honored him for doing more pro bono legal work than any other lawyer in the county. Much of this pro bono work over the years has been in the righteous area of adoption law, where he earned a national reputation.

To give him his due as a journalist, he was a pungent writer, the kind papers find a place for because they're smart and belligerent and controversial. But when I ask McCollum if Hirschfeld could be considered a journalist at all, he laughs softly. "He was a journalist only to the extent he enjoyed the confidence of Marajen Stevick Chinigo. Maybe like me he had a paper route, but I know of no other background experience that would have made him a journalist. John Foreman protected the news staff and maintained the integrity of the paper."

He continues, "John had a rather imperial style, one which made him--I'm choosing my words carefully here--he was a person who if the sledding got tough would have had difficulty looking around and finding a lot of friends, even people in his own party."

McCollum stepped down in 1999 after 12 years as mayor, the longest run of any mayor in Champaign's history. Shortly after he retired, the local alternative paper, the Octopus, announced that its readers had picked him as Champaign-Urbana's "best citizen." Said the paper, "McCollum has always said what's on his mind, no matter how controversial or unpopular it is. That honesty and willingness to be disliked have actually endeared him to the public."

"I think the sad thing is," says McCollum, with the directness the Octopus prized, "that as arrogantly as John behaved on occasion, I really had to take it as extremely poor form the way many people gloated over his problems. I just found that distasteful. I think it points up that having significant political interests and running and managing an influential newspaper is, as far as I'm concerned, an oil-and-water situation."

News Bites

In the course of a first-rate column last Sunday examining the new Ralph Nader-Teamsters relationship, the Tribune's James Warren demonstrated what a sharp writer can do when confronted with a cliche that captures the moment perfectly yet is, nonetheless, a cliche:

"Even those media cognoscenti with a firm grasp of the obvious, who might opine that 'politics makes strange bedfellows,' should have chuckled at the deeply incongruous liaison."

Use the cliche, and blame it on someone else.

On June 16 the Sun-Times offered blanket coverage and then some of William Daley's appointment to run Al Gore's campaign. Astrologer Laurie Brady read the charts for Gore the Aries and Daley the Leo and in a sidebar pronounced them "perfectly matched, at least in most respects." Which isn't all that important in an election, but maybe they should think about marriage.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/courtesy Urbana Free Library/courtesy Champaign News-Gazette.

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