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Victor Crown's Hard Target/Willy and Ethel Finally Split



Because journalists are an especially noisy bunch when they're tucking into their meals, hardly anyone paid attention when the Ethics in Journalism Award was announced at the recent Lisagor Awards dinner. But what a strange moment it was. Victor Crown of Illinois Politics magazine was being honored for his careful handling of a story that not a single journalist gathered in the Chicago Athletic Association dining room wanted to touch with a ten-foot pole.

The ethics award, to borrow the language of the Chicago Headline Club's Web site, is for "excellent journalism produced under circumstances that test the ethics and professionalism of reporters, editors and news organizations. Often it involves personal risks, and taking a stand; refusing to be stampeded by what other media do. It's for those who struggle to do the right thing, possibly against intense pressure."

It's hard to read these words without hooting. If Crown and Karen Nagel, his partner in publishing Illinois Politics, had been struggling against anything it was the intense apathy, bordering on derision, of the rest of the media. Perhaps it was the "other media" that deserved the award for refusing to be stampeded by Illinois Politics.

Despite the grandiosity of the award's description, Crown won it for making a phone call. The call was to the brand-new Ethics AdviceLine launched by the Headline Club and Loyola University's Center for Ethics. Crown asked for direction. "A key question was one that often faces political reporters: how information harmful to one political candidate might favor an opposing candidate," says his citation. "Crown wanted to get it right."

What Crown wants is to bring down Peter Fitzgerald, and he's devoted roughly the last three years of his life to doing this. He's convinced that his information on Fitzgerald is plenty harmfulor would be if someone in town besides his own shoestring operation paid any attention to it.

Despite what the ethics award citation says, Fitzgerald isn't a candidatethough that's what he was three years ago when Illinois Politics began digging into his banking interests. Today he's a U.S. senator, and thanks to the tradition of senatorial privilege, he just got to choose the next U.S. attorney for northern Illinois. Crown screamed for months that Fitzgerald was unfit to make that decision, and no one listened.

Crown says he called the AdviceLine to ask how to protect himself from the charge that he was carrying water for other politicians who might fear an independent new prosecutor. He says the "fantastic" advice he got was to put everything out thereon Fitzgerald and everyone else. Go to the Illinois Politics Web site, and for a fee you'll be able to download about 100 pages on the "Fitzgerald Banking Scandal." You'll also be invited to peruse "Ryan Corruption" and "Daley Cronyism." Crown says he intends to fill those pages with hard-hitting material that shows his lack of fear or favor, though as this week began they remained blank.

The Fitzgerald family fortune consists for the most part of stock in the Bank of Montreal, which bought out the family banking business for $246 million in 1994. Illinois Politics has assailed Fitzgerald for voting on banking bills as an Illinois state senator and for not voting on banking bills after being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1998. Crown's keeping count, and he says Fitzgerald is already up to 47 recusals. "The Congressional Record and Congressional Quarterly say the senator's missed more votes than anyone in the history of the U.S. Senate," he says.

But isn't he doing what's honorable? I ask him.

"The honorable thing would be to stand up and divest his holdings and get his family to divest their holdings," he replies. "The honorable thing would be to submit himself to the Senate Ethics Committee. The honorable thing would be to ask the majority leader to have the ethics committee review any and every bill that comes up to see if there's a banking interest."

Until a few weeks ago the Bank of Montreal owned 16 percent of Grupo Financiero Bancomer, which is one of three Mexican banks charged in 1998 with laundering drug money. The charges resulted from Operation Casablanca, a three-year undercover investigation by the U.S. Customs Service. Bancomer pleaded guilty, was fined $500,000, and forfeited $9.4 million in seized funds. Crown connects the dots and argues that he's revealed Fitzgerald's real game, which is not to bring in a prosecutor who'll uncover the rot in Springfield and City Hall, but to appoint a "crony" who'll keep anything resembling an Operation Casablanca out of Chicago.

"We're going to take all the votes where he deprives us of representation and draw the inferences we can draw," Crown promises. "You know, 'Senator Fitzgerald has missed a vote on money laundering at the same time his Mexican bank is pleading guilty to money laundering.'

"I don't think reporters in this town have any conception of what's involved in this story. They don't have the vaguest clue. I see the Tribune running a beautiful story on the Italian prime minister and his conflicts of interest, and where's their story on the U.S. senator from Illinois who's about to pick the next U.S. attorney?

"I'm frustrated and I'm a little tired and I'm a little peeved at you and everyone else in the media for trying to marginalize everything we've done. There's some real bitter irony. Here's Chuck Gowdie getting a condom wrapperand I'm dealing with a complex banking-improprieties scandal, and I can't get Channel Seven to do a story. But a teacher who's 28 and his student who's 11 and his condomif it was his condomthat gets the coverage."

At some point in every conversation I have with Crown he asks why the local media aren't picking up the ball. One reason is that reporters who've looked at his data don't follow his logic. He hasn't persuaded them that someone with a large investment in a bank that owns a piece of another bank is necessarily implicated in the crimes of the second bank. Beyond that, I tell him that reporters always welcome an excuse not to touch a story broken by someone else, and in his case they've happily let themselves be dissuaded by their image of Crown as a loose cannon. Some recall a press conference Fitzgerald held during the 1998 campaign in order to lambaste his opponent, Carol Moseley-Braun, for consorting with Nigeria's strongman. To Crown, this was guilt by association and terribly hypocritical. Crown, sitting in the front row, bounced up and shouted, "Is Bancomer corrupt?" and then, "Will you seek a seat on the Senate Banking Committee?" When Fitzgerald failed to acknowledge him he continued, "You can't answer, can you, Mr. Fitzgerald? Do you know why? It's because you are, in fact, a corrupt banker."

Last weekend Senator Fitzgerald announced that Patrick Fitzgerald, an assistant U.S. attorney in Manhattan, was his pick to become U.S. attorney in Chicago. The dailies hailed the choice. By picking an "outsider," said the Tribune, the senator "kept his word" and sent a message: "The heat on all the pols and pals who perpetuate the Illinois culture of sleaze is likely to increase."

John Kass began his next column this way: "Here's what terrifies Chicago's political class, those hefty boys who feed out of City Hall and their equally hungry cousins in Springfield. What frightens them finally arrived Sunday. And here is what he told me: 'I have no relatives in Chicago. No close friends. None. Zero.'"

Kass went on to say that the Fitzgeralds aren't related but do have something in common. "To put it politely, Sen. Fitzgerald is despised by the bi-partisan combine that runs this state. And if he approaches his job properly, Patrick Fitzgerald will be the loneliest guy in Chicago."

Crown doesn't get it. "Why does the media buy the myth Senator Fitzgerald is some sort of lone wolf? He's the establishment here," he tells me. "Peter's constructed this whole thing that he's the fighter of all these powerful people. He's not fighting anyone powerful. He's not even taking on his own banking industry. If Peter were this principled man he'd say, 'Hey, I'm against bankers laundering drug money. Let me work on legislation to get tough on them.' Is he doing that? No."

So Crown has no intention of jumping on the Patrick Fitzgerald bandwagon. "If this guy has cut one plea-bargain deal, I'm going to have it up on the Web site," he tells me. "I'm for locking up the bankers and putting them in a place where they'll never get out. The prosecutors sold out the country in Operation Casablanca. They plea-bargained, and plea bargaining is not in the public interest. What was in the public interest was to indict and then go up the food chain."

You don't need to be told who's at the top of Crown's food chain. "Whoever Peter is picking," he says, "is being picked to protect the Fitzgerald banking interests."

Claiming that his Web site is getting 1,200 hits a day, Crown will at one moment insist the Chicago media's silence doesn't bother him and in the next admit he's anguished by it. "We're treated like lepers in the Chicago journalistic community because we're asking questions," he complains. "He's hobnobbing with Mexican bankersand they don't care."

To demonstrate he has powerful allies who do care, Crown may have confused casual encouragement with ardent support. This week he posted on his Web site a list of public figures who supposedly want Fitzgerald to recuse himself a 48th and 49th timewhen the Senate votes on the nominations for U.S. attorney for northern Illinois and for central Illinois. He identified as their "spokesmen" former senator Paul Simon and former congressman and federal judge Abner Mikva. "Both Democrats are now willing to speak publicly on the US Attorney battle and the 'conflict of interest' affecting Senator Fitzgerald," his Web site asserted. "Mr. Simon and Mr. Mikva have urged us to disclose the conflict of interes regardless of the political and personal consequences."

When I read this language to Mikva he was dumbfounded. "I never urged him to do anything," Mikva told me. "I can barely remember that I even talked to himif I did. I don't know enough about the facts, and I certainly don't know enough about the [selection] process Fitzgerald's going through to comment on it. Boy, this really is annoying the hell out of me."

Crown recalls speaking to Mikva in early March. "I laid out the facts for Mr. Mikva and said, 'Should he be picking a U.S. attorney?' He said, 'If the facts are as you state them, I don't think he should.'" But if today Mikva says something different, that's OK with Crown. "I'll take his name off the Web site," he says. "I'll take everyone's name off. I'll run right over and do it."

I read the Web site language to Simon too. "That would be inaccurate," he said. "In fact, I think Peter Fitzgerald picked a good person. I'm certainly not a spokesmanthat's just not accurate. Victor called me and talked to me, and obviously he'd done a lot of research. I commended him for doing the research. That's about it."

Is 47 a high number of recusals? I asked Simon.

He said, "I can't remember any other senator doing that."

Willy and Ethel Finally Split

Abby's a therapist. Len runs a courier service. They have two kids, Colin and Carly. Home is as much a state of mind as a place. It's Edge City, the name of the new Sun-Times comic strip they appear in.

"It's not set in any specific suburb, no," says Patty LaBan, who does the strip with her husband, Terry. They live in West Rogers Park but both grew up outside big cities. "The notion is that they're in this kind of postmodern suburb where people are comfortable in the city but have chosen not to be in the city.

"The way the idea came about is that we realized the lifestyle we were living turns out to be very much the same lifestyle of our friends in northern Michigan and our friends downtown. Running around in minivans. Drinking a lot of coffee. Having way too many responsibilities. It seems we're living the same life in certain ways, though the geographical locations are quite different."

It stands to reason that a comic strip describing a way of life lived by millions of Americans would appeal to the newspapers they read. Edge City was launched in January, and the LaBans tell me they're now in more than 40 dailies, including some of the biggest. In early March the Sun-Times picked them up.

"It's much more a strip about a demographic than it is about a place," says Terry. "It's kind of like Generation X grows up."

What do you think of Joe Martin's Willy 'n Ethel? I ask him.

It's an awkward question. "I was a lot more familiar with Mr. Boffo," he responds. "I like Joe Martin. When the Tribune tried to drop Mr. Boffo five years ago I wrote in."

Ethel irons. Willy drinks beer. There's a nameless kid around who's just sort of a slug. Demographically incorrect, Willy 'n Ethel made me laugh out loud. The Sun-Times dropped it to make room for Edge City, which for all its virtues hasn't.

"It's a cutthroat business," says Terry LaBan.

When Willy 'n Ethel disappeared, a fan wrote in complaining. Sun-Times features editor John Barron replied with this: "We felt that Willy and Ethel had run its course. It is essentially a one-joke strip that is similar to others we already carry."

Barron was wrong. It is, by Martin's count, a three-joke strip: the beer joke, the humongous sister joke, and the can't-hold-a-job joke. Then there's the running joke of Willy, who has lived a useless life, believing there's a book in it. Besides, Martin simply draws funny. Willy 'n Ethel turned 20 the day it disappeared from the Sun-Times, and you can't keep striking variations that long on a couple of jokes without being some kind of genius.

Martin proudly refers me to his citation in Guinness as the world's "most prolific cartoonist." He comes up with 1,300 gags a year. He also writes songs and back in the 80s wrote a book, sadly now out of print, How to Hang a Spoon. In addition to Willy 'n Ethel (six daily gags and four more on Sunday), he draws Mr. Boffo (six daily gags and two on Sunday), which the Tribune carries, and his new strip Cats With Hands, which he says the Sun-Times also bought but didn't publishmuch as museums keep nine-tenths of their art in the basement where nobody sees it but nobody else can have it. When the Sun-Times canceled Willy 'n Ethel it also canceled Cats With Hands.

The good news is that it's possible to stay abreast of Willy 'n Ethel at the Web site. The Willy 'n Ethel and Mr. Boffo archives also can be found there, as well as about 4,000 old Porterfield panels. Porterfield was Martin's tribute to America's lords of commerce, which he let die in the mid-90s because "I didn't think there was any future whatsoever in a straight business comic. It seemed like an hour after I stopped doing Porterfield, Dilbert was on the cover of Time magazine."

He confides a secret of the trade. Though fame and honors flow to the strips carried by a thousand-plus newspapers, payment is pegged to circulation, and cartoonists make 90 percent of their money from 400 dailies. Unfortunately, Martin's grasp of this principle is largely academic. Mr. Boffo runs in about 150 papers, and Cats With Hands and Willy 'n Ethel, the flagship strip, in about 40 each. These paltry numbers are as absurd as his sense of humor, though they appeal to the twisted intellect that laughs all the harder knowing the masses aren't laughing at all.

"I'd really be in bad shape if I just depended on Willy," says Martin, a Chicago product who moved from Oak Park to Lake Geneva in 1988. "You know what Charles Schulz said I should do with Willy 'n Ethel years ago? I should add more characters. But you know what that meansmore characters means more jokes. I'm not going to fall into that trap."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Machnik.

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