The Goods on Grant
Happy the reporter who's got the goods. La Raza's Jorge Oclander is grinning with delight. The goods make a fat stack of papers on his desk.
Some of these goods he collected from informants, some by flooding the Chicago school board with Freedom of Information requests. Still others were just released by the school board's law department to exonerate the president of the board from conflict-of-interest charges.
Oclander is not the only reporter in town pursuing Sharon Grant, but he's surely the most relentless. He began hammering her early last November when he ran a piece headlined "Scandal on the Board." He accused her of renewing a no-bid contract with Blue Cross and Blue Shield despite a competing offer that might have saved the school system $28 million. Oclander wrote that she'd concealed the fact that her own company, a drug-abuse and mental-health treatment subcontractor called Concerned Health Care of America, did business with Blue Cross.
In October the muckraking teachers' journal Substance had carried an item by retired public schools engineer Jim O'Rourke about Board of Education tradesmen making repairs at 5151 W. Madison. This is a board property that was leased in 1984 to the Austin Development Center, a now-defunct company then run by Grant's mother, Illinois Daggett.
Oclander spotted the article and began digging. In early December he wrote again. Now he was itemizing "a new series of questionable, and in some cases possibly criminal practices," the 5151 repairs among them. In late January his three-part series about the property, "The Privileges of Power," began in La Raza Domingo, the Sunday supplement carried in the Latino parts of Chicago by the Sun-Times. Those parts are lucky; the English-language pages of the Sun-Times haven't been so aggressive.
In 1992, Oclander wrote, the board spent about $180,000 to repair the roof at 5151 W. Madison. Last year it spent about $150,000 more on the interior. The money was lavished on a rental building, he noted, at a time when "the public schools are in such a bad economic state that they carry a budgetary debt of $400 million, have had to close [briefly, last September], and have cut teachers, personnel, and classes."
Illinois Daggett was brutally beaten in 1990, and has remained in a coma since. If Grant succeeded her mother as overseer at 5151 W. Madison, any recent favors shown the property become even less supportable.
But she wasn't overseeing anything, according to an April 15 report on 5151 signed by the school board's acting attorney, Patricia Whitten: "President Grant's relationship to the property at 5151 West Madison and Austin Development Center is sporadic at best. . . . She was not involved in the expenditures related to the repairs . . . "
Oclander chortles in response. "I hate to be teaching English, but I didn't say it was constant. Sporadic means occasional. Whenever there was a crisis, Sharon Grant was involved." He fishes out a copy of a December 1991 letter he believes proves his point. It's to an attorney for Grant's father, and it's from Jesse Madison, Chicago's former parks chief, here writing as secretary-treasurer of Westside Floorcovering, a sublessee at 5151 W. Madison. "After Mrs. Daggett's unfortunate accident, I began dialogue with Ms. Sharon Grant," writes Madison. "I have been trying for the last twelve months to negotiate a new lease with Ms. Grant, but to no avail."
Oclander offers himself as the first reporter in town to exploit such evidence, as well as the first to locate the 5151 W. Madison lease and establish that the renter, not the board, is responsible for upkeep. Last month, when the board voted 11-0 to recover the money spent repairing the property, Grant insisted it was property she'd had nothing to do with. "I was talking to Jacquelyn Heard [the Tribune's education writer]," Oclander tells us. "I said, Jackie, I'm sitting on documents that say just the opposite. She said, can we see the documents? We'll give you credit."
Heard stopped by La Raza's nondescript offices on North Ashland, saw what Oclander had, and--he tells us--exclaimed, "This is great, Jorge, this is really great!" But her Tribune story didn't mention La Raza. He was furious. "I remember saying we may be a nothing--I remember the expression 'a spic paper'--but we know something about ethics here. She was very apologetic."
(Maury Possley, who runs the Tribune's city coverage, says acknowledging La Raza was "never an issue. . . . I am unaware of any promises she may have made. What I am aware of is that the information he gave her we already had.")
The best Oclander can say about the April 15 report is that it's rejuvenated him. "This thing was almost dead until they came out with this crap. Now I can have fun another two weeks."
He elaborates. "One, I think it's a farce. To begin with, Patricia Whitten herself signs it. She should have removed herself from the investigation. And she couldn't have underlings do the investigation because they report to her."
Background: In March 1988 Daggett's Austin Development Center owed more than $27,000 in back rent. The board voted to evict her.
But Daggett didn't budge. That September Grant joined the board and became head of the real estate committee, which met on December 7 and discussed whether to renew Daggett's lease. Once Grant had recused herself, only one other committee member, Maria Saldana, was present to vote. Under the circumstances, Saldana suggested tabling the matter.
Francis Davis, a board member sitting in, raised another reason not to go ahead. "Wasn't this piece of property in the Tribune?" she worried.
"It was alluded to," said Saldana.
"Well, you know they like to lambaste us anyway," Davis said. "I mean today is Wednesday. Will we be in Sunday's paper as being irresponsible? Fiscally irresponsible?"
Barbara Peck, chief financial officer: "OK, in that case can we withdraw this?"
A transcript of this admirable prudence is now an exhibit in the April 15 report. But the matter wasn't withdrawn. One week later the board passed an omnibus bill containing a new lease for Daggett. Whitten was the attorney for the board. According to Oclander's documents, she attended both meetings.
Oclander continues. "Number two, they don't refute anything, They don't address the fact an outside attorney said the 300-plus thousand dollars was illegal and the board voted 11-0 for her office to recover the money. So what's her answer to that? And who told her to do an internal investigation? The vote wasn't to do an internal investigation. The vote was to recover the money."
Fresh goods have just come in. Oclander's obtained a "privileged & confidential" version of the Whitten report that's for board members only. Given that the Austin Development Corporation is defunct, given that the roof work was no mere repair but a major structural change, it advises the board to eat the loss.
"I'll break that story Wednesday night," says Oclander. "The lead will read that Patty Whitten will have done two great favors for the board president. Number one, she's tried to clean her up. And number two, she's tried to forgive $365,000 and in the process forget how involved she was herself."
The chip on the shoulder and the joy of the hunt come as close as anything to being essentials of the investigative journalist. Oclander is 52, used to teach, has a son who graduated from West Point, writes in Spanish for an ethnic paper most Chicagoans not only don't read but can't, and doubles as its sports editor. He produces up to 35 articles a week. In one breath he moans about his workload and in the next would want to do nothing else.
"Jorge's a phenomenal investigative reporter. He's a bulldog," the Sun-Times's Maribeth Vander Weele told us. We said if he has one regret, it's that the system blows him off. Maybe it's because La Raza is too easy to ignore, but there's little response to his investigations.
"Jorge shouldn't feel bad," Vander Weele replied. "I write for half a million readers in English, and neither board members, politicians, nor law enforcement have responded to my investigations either."
"The Sun-Times needs to set up a sensitivity chief to run their articles by," Alderman Robert Shaw was saying in the Defender.
Actually, the Sun-Times now has one of those. But while Ben Johnson was in South Africa seeking the big picture, fat fell in the flames back home. There was Shaw on the black airwaves April 19 threatening to introduce a City Council resolution denouncing the Sun-Times for presenting Queen Nefertiti as a dog.
"The dog that is wearing the head gear of Queen Nefertiti indicates that this Black Bitch is a dog, and I think that is insulting and degrading," Shaw was quoted in the Defender in language that we doubt came out quite the way he meant it.
What brought this on? A syndicated panel, Bent Offerings, the paper ran that morning. The joke was a visual pun labeled "Great Art Through the Ages--Queen Nefertoto."
"The office was inundated with calls, maybe 75 to 100," one of Shaw's staffers told us. The Sun-Times put up no resistance. "We sincerely apologize to those readers who took offense," said editor Dennis Britton in a page-three statement the next morning. A spokesman for the syndicate added to the handwringing with assurances that cartoonist Don Addis meant no offense. "He'd be horrified to hurt anyone's feelings."
The Sun-Times probably was being sensible. Sometimes you bite your tongue and cut your losses.
Even so, we were sorry Johnson wasn't around to do some healing. Would he have pointed out--as the Defender conceded--that Nefertiti's a historically hazy figure, a 14th-century BC Egyptian queen of unknown parentage?
Would he have consulted L. Frank Baum's original text? No bitch, Toto. "He was a little black dog, with long, silky hair and small black eyes that twinkled merrily." And would Johnson have added that it was this spunky little mutt who tipped over a screen and exposed an overinflated windbag? In other words, would he have stood up for whimsy and his own paper?
We'll never know.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.