News & Politics » Media

Surprise! Guess Who's On the List/Read All About It--in the New York Times/News Bites



Surprise! Guess Who's on the List

Does a straight beat a flush? I can never remember. And now that I've studied the spectacular "Fawell's Secret List of Clout" layout in last Friday's Sun-Times, I'm wondering how to rank the faces there in terms of who got more. Does former mayor Eugene Sawyer's "1 job 1 contract" top "Sun-Times pundit" Thomas Roeser's "2 promotions"?

And do Roeser's promotions (his son worked for Ryan) beat Bill Wirtz's "1 raise, 1 license plate"? I think so. Scoring a vanity license plate is about as special as tabling a pair of nines.

The "faces of clout" stared out from three pages of the Sun-Times--the mug shot of the upright Roeser on one page, of deceased mob boss Tony "Big Tuna" Accardo on another. (Needless to say, in the small print the Sun-Times assured us that "just because a person is on the list doesn't mean they've done something wrong.") The full list ran to 555 pages, the thousand names Scott Fawell had collected on a secret Zip disk because he held, or at least thought he held, chits from them. As George Ryan's political honcho when Ryan was secretary of state, Fawell--now on trial on corruption charges in federal court--obsessively kept track of everything.

Dutifully, perhaps maliciously, the Sun-Times broke out a media list from Fawell's cast of characters. Sure enough, vanity plates were the penny-ante favor next to the names of most of these luminaries. While a heavy hitter like McPier board member Larry Warner went in Fawell's book for "37 jobs, 28 contracts and 73 license plates," all Fawell had on former WLS TV boss Joe Ahern was plate JA7. Steve Deschler scored BAMZOOM, Jim Rose CRJR and VETTEJR, Chet Coppock CCWLUP and CCLOOP, and Joel Weisman MW11 and MTW1. Rose told the Sun-Times he'd waited in line like everyone else, refused an opportunity to cut in front, and didn't get the plates he really wanted. Weisman told the Tribune--whose coverage of the Fawell revelations was vastly more subdued--that he'd been waiting in line like everyone else when a secretary of state employee beckoned.

Here's further mitigation. Dave Druker, spokesman for Jesse White, the current secretary of state, says the license office still likes to rush through "celebrities" because they're "disruptive of the line."

Two names on the media list jumped out: political writers Steve Neal of the Sun-Times and Rick Pearson of the Tribune. Jobs, not license plates, were the issue here.

After checking with Neal, Ryan hired a woman who'd used Neal as a reference. "He didn't seek a job or favor for anybody," editor in chief Michael Cooke told the Tribune, which went a little heavier on Neal's appearance in Fawell's file than the Sun-Times did. "He simply provided a reference for someone. Steve would do it again." And Pearson insisted he didn't lift a finger on behalf of his wife when she was hired in 1996 by the Illinois State Library, which was under Ryan's jurisdiction.

I first heard grumping about where Margaret Pearson worked in 1997. When I asked Pearson about it back then he said his wife got the job entirely on her own, and her main responsibility was organizing the annual Illinois Authors Book Fair--"the least politically intrusive thing that's done in state government." A year later Ryan ran for governor against Glenn Poshard, and Rick Pearson was now the Tribune's chief political writer. The Tribune, of course, endorsed Ryan, and the Poshard camp, unhappy with its coverage, carped about Margaret Pearson's job--which she no longer held--as a token of favoritism.

Patrick Quinn, who just became Illinois' lieutenant governor, called in 1998 and reminisced. There'd been legislative hearings on an "inspector misconduct bill" that Quinn backed, and in '93 the Better Government Association and Channel Five had done a joint report on shakedowns in the secretary of state's office. Quinn recalled the Tribune ignoring both these stories and not giving his campaign a fair shake when he ran against Ryan for secretary of state in 1994. "Was Pearson's wife working for Ryan at the library at the time?" he wondered.

She wasn't. Regardless, Quinn held to his larger point, which he repeated in a second conversation the other day. "I'm a lawyer," he said. "If you have a personal interest in a matter before the court you have a duty to disclose it to the judge. The judge decides if there's a conflict, but you must disclose it. You don't say [to yourself], 'I've checked this out. I'm OK.'"

Attorney Joseph Power represented the Reverend Duane and Janet Willis, whose six children died in 1994 on a Wisconsin highway when a bracket fell off a tractor trailer and hit the family's minivan, setting it aflame. The truck driver, who spoke no English, had been licensed in Illinois. When Glenn Poshard ran against Ryan for governor in 1998, it was Power--a big financial contributor to Democratic candidates--who provided the photo of the charred minivan that ran in an ad accusing Ryan of complicity in the children's deaths. The Tribune thundered that to blame Ryan for the deaths was "about as cruel as politics can get," and the issue didn't take hold. At one point the Tribune carried a front-page story--cowritten by Pearson--wondering if there was a "partisan agenda" behind Power's "relentless legal pursuit" of Ryan.

"Power, who keeps score, remembers that story," I wrote in 2000, when a lot more facts were known and the Willises' suit against the truck driver, his company, and other defendants had been settled for $100 million. "He even remembers that the wife of one of the Tribune reporters on the story, Rick Pearson, used to work under Ryan's jurisdiction in Springfield."

In the last few weeks I've heard more than once from an angry guy demanding to know why the press was sitting on the Rick Pearson-Paul Lis story. Lis was an adviser so valued by Ryan that after firing him during the '98 campaign because of a DUI arrest he brought him back as a consultant. (WBEZ reported in July 1999 that Ryan had already paid him $36,000 for the year.) Fifteen months ago Pearson testified as a character witness when Lis stood trial for drunk driving.

The Sun-Times made a big deal about Rick and Margaret Pearson last week, running a separate article on them. It noted Pearson's service to Lis in court and had Ryan recalling that back in '96 Lis mentioned to him that Margaret Pearson was looking for work. But Lis told the Sun-Times he hadn't lobbied Ryan on the Pearsons' behalf, and Rick told the Tribune (he and his wife didn't speak to the Sun-Times) that he did nothing to help Margaret get her job.

"We have talked to all the principals involved," deputy managing editor George de Lama said in the Tribune, "and cannot find any evidence to support the notion that Rick Pearson did anything to help his wife get a state job....Ever since he joined the Tribune, Rick has been straightforward in disclosing to his editors the jobs held by his wife, before she started them."

We're dealing with some delicate sensibilities here. Obviously Fawell's antennae quivered at the slightest hint of an advantage. Another journalist on Fawell's disk--though not eminent enough to make the Sun-Times's media list--is Rich Miller, who publishes the newsletter "Capitol Fax." Miller came clean over the weekend in a Daily Southtown column. He'd been jawing with Fawell on the phone back around 1993 and complained that his wife had a crummy job.

Miller recalled, "Fawell said she should apply for a state job, where she would get better pay and real benefits. I remember the words coming out of my mouth before I could stop them: 'Do you guys have any openings?' Fawell said he didn't know, but he would check. That was a mistake on my part, of course."

Worse, Miller's wife turned in an application. She didn't get a job, Miller insisted. She didn't even interview for a job, and she really didn't want to work for the state. But the damage had been done. He called Fawell a "goofball."

A single unethical pea buried under a million mattresses is normally enough to vex the Tribune. A staff photographer crosses the line it draws simply by wearing a Chicago Fire Department T-shirt at Ground Zero. So it's odd that Margaret Pearson's employment history doesn't.

"I'm not in the least concerned," says public editor Don Wycliff, "because from everything I've been able to learn, Rick never asked for a favor, and he has always kept his superiors informed about any difficulty that might arise. I suppose that in the best of all possible worlds we'd prefer it otherwise. We live in a world where there are two-career couples and where we can't always have our druthers. We erect whatever safeguards we can and live with it. Springfield is a small town. It doesn't have the range of jobs that one has in Chicago."

But the Pearsons don't live in Springfield any longer, and she's back on the secretary of state's payroll. The most curious piece of news in the Sun-Times article on the Pearsons is that Margaret's now being paid $40 an hour (up to $19,000) under a six-month contract with the secretary of state's organ-donation program. Dave Druker, the secretary of state's spokesman, says she'll be visiting schools and community groups.

Since the Pearsons wouldn't talk to me, the only other thing I can tell you about her new job is that others have done it before her. To quote from "Fawell's Secret List of Clout": "Ernie Kumerow: 12 plates including one for his father-in-law, Tony Accardo, his wife and himself; 8 jobs, a raise for a relative, Kirk Kumerow; and 1 organ donor contract for himself."

Actually, says Druker, the organ-donor job went to Accardo's grandson Eric, a former professional football player. He was paid $4,000 over two months in 1993 "to speak to sports people and get them involved."

Read All About It--in the New York Times

Last July the Chicago Housing Authority hired former U.S. attorney Thomas Sullivan to examine the relocation process that's supposedly moving tenants from the grim old towers now coming down into decent homes in decent neighborhoods. Last month Sullivan's report surfaced, and it reported a gulf between the CHA's rhetoric and its behavior.

As reporter Kate Grossman wrote in the Sun-Times on January 13, Sullivan "said the agency fell down on key promises and legal obligations spelled out in a relocation contract negotiated with resident leaders--shortcomings that leave the door open for a lawsuit.

"Under the contract, families were promised 'extensive counseling' by agencies hired by the CHA as they looked for apartments. Instead, Sullivan wrote, many residents were hastily shown just a few units and typically ended up in highly segregated neighborhoods that are nearly as poor as the ones they left behind."

The CHA's Service Connector program is supposed to link residents to the social services they need. Grossman reported that Sullivan found the program underfunded, understaffed, and a failure.

There's a feel-good quality to stories that have come out of the CHA in recent years, after decades when bad news was all the authority generated. Maybe the press just doesn't want to go back to the same old same old. Having obtained the Sullivan report exclusively, Grossman wrote a substantial article on it. The Tribune, rather than chase the story, let the Sullivan report go by without a mention.

The lawsuit Grossman predicted was already in the works: the National Center on Poverty Law, the Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and Business and Professional People for the Public Interest were preparing to claim the CHA's relocation practices violated federal law.

The Poverty Law Center wanted a lot of coverage of this suit, and it understood that the best way to interest TV in any story that isn't a fire or murder is to have it show up first in the newspapers. So it decided to plant stories in both dailies on Thursday, January 23, the day the suit would be filed. Communications director Daniel Ash worked the phones. Grossman was interested but tied up, so another Sun-Times reporter produced a short piece for Thursday morning. Again, the Tribune published nothing.

The major TV stations did show up for the press conference that day, and Ash says one or two of them ran something at 4:30, though the story disappeared from the six and ten o'clock news. On Friday the Tribune finally ran a short CHA story inside the Metro section.

Not for the first time, the newspaper with the best coverage of a complicated Chicago issue was the New York Times. Ash hadn't even pitched the Times. But an attorney at the Poverty Law Center is a friend of the Times bureau chief, and on Friday the paper carried John Fountain's long, stately account of the lawsuit. "They understood it," says Ash.

Curiously, Fountain overlooked the Sullivan report that was the backdrop to the lawsuit. The sketchy stories in the Chicago papers didn't mention it either. The only truly comprehensive coverage was by Catrin Einhorn of WBEZ. Her eight-minute report ran the morning the suit was filed.

News Bites

The eagerness of on-line media to interact with folks at home surpassed silliness last weekend and became grotesque. Saturday morning I visited Yahoo and came across a series of AP news photos it had just posted of the Columbia disaster. The first photo showed the contrails of the shuttle as it disintegrated over Texas. Other pictures were portraits of the dead crew members. Below each of them Yahoo asked, "Would you recommend this photo?" and asked viewers to grade it from one to five. The average rating of the contrails picture last time I looked was 3.26.

The Sun-Times and Tribune have let debate over war in Iraq rage on their op-ed pages, but when speaking for themselves they've said some curious things. "United Nations: Who needs it?" asked the Sun-Times on January 30, predicting that the UN won't stand up to Saddam Hussein and therefore the U.S. should consider getting out "and selling its prime land in New York to serve some useful purpose."

Perhaps Donald Trump, the partner in progress of the Canadians who run the Sun-Times, wants the UN real estate. His Trump World Tower already stands nearby.

On January 27 the Tribune carried an op-ed page photo of the heads of government of France and Germany, two allies President Bush hasn't been able to swing behind the war. Said the caption: "French President Jaques Chirac (second from right) and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (right) have become turncoats."


The loss of "Comiskey Park" in favor of "U.S. Cellular Field" would be harder to take if Charles Comiskey had been a sportsman worth continuing to commemorate. But the Old Roman was a nasty skinflint, and besides, the park he built in 1910 and named after himself came down in 1992. The affectionate nickname "U S-C Field" should catch on quickly if the Sox have another of their typical years.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Gus D'Angelo.

Add a comment