By Ben Joravsky
As soon as the Sun-Times's recent expose on Clemente High School hit the streets, the talk of the northwest side was not whether the paper got it right--a point of view that varies with one's ideology--but who fed it the story.
There was no shortage of candidates, since the article managed to mention Congressman Luis Gutierrez, a man with a multitude of enemies, in an unfavorable light.
For a while the leading candidates were Gloria Chevere, a West Town lawyer who feels Gutierrez sabotaged her promising political career, and Rafael Marrero, a disaffected former propagandist for the radical fringe of the Puerto Rican independence movement.
But the man who claimed the spotlight was Larry Ligas, a relatively unknown businessman and political strategist who was so excited to be involved in the story's preparation that he prepared a press release championing the expose before it was published.
"Yeah, I got it going--it was me, 100 percent," says Ligas, who says he got a lot of his information from Marrero. "I don't want to take anything away from [Sun-Times reporter] Michelle Campbell, who did a great job. She spent a month or so verifying all the stuff I gave her, and came up with some new stuff that I didn't have. But I put three and one-half years of my heart and soul into that thing."
As exposes go, this one was pretty juicy, and the Sun-Times played it big. Beneath a bold front-page headline, "School funds used to push terrorists' release," the story alleged that state antipoverty money supported anti-American radicals who indoctrinated students with flaming revolutionary rhetoric. It quoted an internal school board report that says the "political climate and divisiveness thwart academic progress at a level so significant that the education of the students is being ignored." It named members of the National Liberation Movement (MLN) and the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN), including Jose Lopez, first secretary of the MLN, without making it clear what they have to do with Clemente's finances. And, finally, it mentioned Gutierrez, identifying him as a supporter of "the Puerto Rican independence movement and the release of the convicted FALN terrorists" and as someone who "studied under Lopez at Northeastern Illinois University."
Clearly, the article's broader purpose was to spur outrage at the public promotion of violent ideologies. But the mention of Gutierrez, who has no formal connection to Clemente, to its local school council, or to how the school spends its money, suggests another motive. As a student at Northeastern over 20 years ago, Gutierrez led a radical Puerto Rican student organization, and his political opponents have been unsuccessfully trying to paint him as some sort of red ever since. With or without knowing it, Campbell and her cowriter (columnist Michael Sneed) wandered into a curious coalition of northwest-side politicos who hate Gutierrez and will do virtually anything to have him defeated.
Ligas was relatively slow to enter this world. He's not Puerto Rican, he did not attend Clemente (or its predecessor, Tuley High), he only vaguely knows Gutierrez (as opposed to many of the congressman's other political enemies, who claim he personally betrayed them), and he disavows any connection to the virulently anti-Gutierrez zine El Pito. Instead, he's a Gordon Tech graduate born and raised in the Patch, a predominantly Italian neighborhood on the near west side, who's a bit of a freelance when it comes to Chicago politics. He calls himself a conservative Democrat, yet he's campaigned for two of the city's leading liberals, Alderman Helen Shiller and Senator Carol Moseley-Braun (whom he considers a close friend). He owns a furniture manufacturing business, operates a real estate consulting firm, was once recognized by the city for helping to carry children from a burning Uptown building, helped found a community group called the Logan Square Concerned Citizens, and was most recently the campaign manager for 33rd Ward alderman Vilma Colom, another conservative Democrat.
He was moved, he says, to investigate the murky machinations of Clemente's LSC after several students told him horrifying tales of terrorist influence. The more he studied the matter the more convinced he became that Clemente was only "the tip of the iceberg"--that the mainstream Democratic Party had been infiltrated by radicals, like Gutierrez, loyal to Lopez. If he didn't do something fast a new generation of Puerto Rican youngsters would be brainwashed with terrorist propaganda.
"I couldn't believe what I found--there was disrespect for the flag, disrespect for the country," says Ligas. "I am loyal to the flag of the United States of America. And this was taxpayers' dollars they were using."
Starting with "inside" information provided by Marrero, Ligas says he and his unnamed "associates" were able to piece together the backbone of the story that the Sun-Times eventually ran. "I'm not the kind of guy who takes these things without a fight," says Ligas. "I am dauntless, I am relentless, I wasn't going to give up. I could have been an investigative reporter. I had sources--teachers and staff and parents at the school. I took the information they gave me over the last three years and went to the media. We interviewed various media types and determined that none had the time or energy to put into this as the Sun-Times. That's why we gave them the story."
Ligas says he was in constant contact with Campbell as she and Sneed went about verifying his allegations. Indeed, he prepared a press release citing the Sun-Times story and warning reporters that "the situation that has occurred at Clemente high school emphasizes the need for parents to become involved in their children's education." The press release was dated January 28 but Ligas held it back until the Sun-Times story ran on February 4. "For some reason they delayed their story," he explains. "But I was set to go."
Along with his press release, Ligas sent reporters a copy of the Sun-Times story and a flowchart in which many of the city's most prominent Puerto Rican politicians are depicted as Lopez's underlings. A second chart makes many of the same accusations of fiscal impropriety and nepotism at Clemente as the Sun-Times did.
As Gutierrez sees it, Ligas is a political hack who managed to manipulate Campbell and Sneed into writing a biased story. He says that he's not a member of the FALN or MLN, and that although he knows many prominent Puerto Rican independence activists (including some in prison), it's to be expected. The community's small. They were all young together. If you're going to hold people accountable for their old student connections, some of Ligas's closest Puerto Rican political allies would be embarrassed--though Gutierrez won't name names.
"So now Larry Ligas is a great leader because he has some letterhead about a community organization in Logan Square--I guess in the age of the Macintosh and IBM-compatible anyone can be anything he wants," says Gutierrez. "As soon as I saw the story I figured it must have come from one of my enemies, because the Sun-Times felt compelled to give their sources a gratuitous whack at me. Of course, if you read it you'll find that no one even accuses me of knowing how these funds were spent, but they mention me anyway. It's kind of like they said, 'Let's throw Luis in for good measure.' They have me denying what I was never even accused of doing. And then they make Jose Lopez out to be my Rasputin. They say I studied under him. That implies that he was my tutor or my mentor, you know, like you might 'study' under Lenin and Marx. You see the implication? And you know what? In my whole life I took one course from the man."
Michelle Campbell would not comment about Ligas or his contributions to her investigation, other than to issue a statement prepared with the help of her editors: "Our story was based on official school documents and numerous sources both within and outside of Clemente."
Ligas says he didn't expect the Sun-Times to thank him for his help (or even quote him in the story). This was not, he adds, the first time he helped the paper (he says he was an important source on a story about gangs), and it won't be the last.
"I think the Sun-Times is a credible publication which did an invaluable service for the community," says Ligas. "Make sure you mention that Michelle Campbell carefully scrutinized every piece of documentation I gave her, as did her editors and their legal department. I wasn't doing this to get my name in the paper. I did this to protect the working-class people of my community in the fight against terrorists." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Larry Ligas photo by Cythia Howe.