By Ben Joravsky
After ten years of covering state politics, maverick muckraker Victor Crown thought the people who reacted most hostilely to critical articles had to be Mayor Daley's organization. Then he took on multimillionaire banker Peter Fitzgerald. "Let me tell you, Daley's got nothing on these guys," says Crown, who edits the monthly newsletter Illinois Politics. "Since I've started these stories I've been threatened with lawsuits, smeared with unsubstantiated accusations, and literally knocked in the head. These guys play rough."
Would-be senator Fitzgerald and his backers say they're too busy running against incumbent Carol Moseley-Braun to worry about Crown, whom they dismiss as a kook with a vendetta. But Crown says they're angry at him because he's exposed an embarrassing conflict of interest in Fitzgerald's record as a state senator. "Fitzgerald's run about $10 million worth of commercials knocking his opponents' ethics, but what about his own?" says Crown. "As a state senator, Fitzgerald said he'd never vote on banking issues that would affect his banking business, and I discovered he has. He doesn't want the public to know, but that's not my problem." Or at least it wasn't until Crown's pursuit of the story led to a nasty bruising at the Columbus Day Parade.
Despite vastly different backgrounds, Crown and Fitzgerald once were friendly. At age 38, Fitzgerald is a scion of an influential banking family and one of the state's wealthiest politicians (his personal wealth is estimated at $40 million). He grew up in suburban Inverness, attended private schools, graduated from Dartmouth, earned a law degree, went to work for his family's banking concerns, was elected to the state senate, and staked out a position on the GOP's right, vehemently opposing abortion (even in the case of rape), gun control, and taxes (he favors a flat tax).
Crown, 39, the son of a bank clerk, makes barely enough money to pay the mortgage on the northwest-side house he inherited from his parents and has no known political ideology beyond a passionate antipathy for Chicago's regular Democratic organization (he was a consultant to the black activists who challenged the Daley ward map). In 1990 he and lawyer Karen Nagel founded Illinois Politics, and over the years they've run exposes of everyone from Governor Edgar to Mayor Daley to Senator Moseley-Braun (nailing her for paying her female staffers far less than the males, an inequity she's since corrected).
Most mainstream journalists don't know what to make of Crown, a sloppy dresser who shows up at press conferences to bark accusations at politicians he's made no attempt to schmooze. But he's thorough, piecing together stories by combing through voting records, legislative journals, legal documents, and budgets. Their efforts have won Nagel and Crown the grudging admiration of many politicos, including some of Fitzgerald's most passionate supporters.
"Ruthlessly analytical, [Illinois Politics] has skewered more than one poseur to 'conservative' or 'liberal' ideals by pointing out that in the Illinois General Assembly he/she have been phonies to their pretensions," conservative strategist Thomas Roeser wrote in the magazine's fifth-anniversary issue. Their "instinct to unmask a phony is legendary."
In the summer of 1997 Crown decided to unmask yet another "phony"--Peter Fitzgerald. As Crown saw it, something was fishy about a lifelong politician positioning himself as an outsider and waging war against "political insiders" and "power brokers" who--to continue quoting from his candidacy announcement of a year ago--"through their clout, connections, and consulting contracts manipulate our political system for personal gain [and] look to government to get rich."
He saw Fitzgerald running slick TV commercials attacking the integrity of Loleta Didrickson, his opponent in the GOP primary, and then Moseley-Braun--ads that Bob Kemper and Rick Pearson of the Tribune reported Fitzgerald had helped bankroll with an $8 million line of credit fortified by "200,000 shares of Bank of Montreal stock, valued at $10 million."
"Here we have a rich politician using his enormous banking fortune to position himself as Mr. Clean, and I wanted to see how clean he really was," says Crown. "There's a lot of bank bills in the state senate and I was wondering--does Fitzgerald vote on them? I remember bumping into Mike Cys, Fitzgerald's campaign manager. I said, 'Mike, we're gonna look into Peter's votes on banking legislation.' Mike said, 'Go ahead, he's really anal about it, he doesn't vote on banking legislation.' He said, 'We'll be happy to talk to you about this.'"
Digging through files, Crown uncovered letters Fitzgerald wrote in 1993 and 1995 advising the secretary of the senate of a "potential conflict of interest with respect to certain legislation." According to Fitzgerald's letters, he and his family were "the largest noninstitutional shareholder of the Bank of Montreal," which was "one of the ten largest banks in North America." Because of this bank holding and many others, Fitzgerald proclaimed that it "is my intention to abstain from voting on banking legislation. However, if I choose to vote on banking legislation, I will do so only if my vote will, in my judgement, serve the public interest."
Upon checking records, Crown discovered that Fitzgerald had voted on 20 banking-related bills from 1993 to 1996. "When I called Fitzgerald in the fall for comment, Mike's friendly demeanor had changed," says Crown. "He said, 'If you run that story we're gonna destroy you. We're gonna sue you.' And he hung up on me."
Last December Crown and Nagel ran the story anyway, writing that "the votes occurred at the same time Senator Fitzgerald and members of [his] family maintained and expanded their interest and financial holdings in the banking industry."
Fitzgerald launched a vigorous counterattack. First of all, his camp noted, he'd violated no laws or legislative rules with his votes (the pledges in his letter were voluntary). Second, the article was misleading, since some of the cited bills had dealt with currency exchanges or savings and loans, not banks. Third, Crown was biased. The Fitzgerald camp pointed to articles written by Bernard Schoenburg, a staff writer for the State Journal-Register in Springfield. In 1996 Schoenburg cited several mistakes Crown had made in calculating voting records on tax and spending bills, quoting an aide to Senator Richard Durbin who said Crown's "agenda is not ideological, but economic, as the magazine sometimes sells thousands of extra copies to political campaigns."
Liberals and moderates alike have argued that Crown does a disservice to state politics by calling so much attention to tax and spending bills that he helps sensationalize them as an election issue. This is not a complaint made by Fitzgerald, who shares Crown's obsession with tax bills and has frequently been accused of distorting his opponents' voting records. Instead, Fitzgerald has charged that Crown attempted to "shake down" his campaign. "I think Victor shows great ignorance in lumping all financial institutions into one [category]," Fitzgerald told Schoenburg for an article last December. "I believe that it is more than just ignorance and recklessness on Mr. Crown's part. He thought that he would make a load of money off this year's Senate race, like he did in 1996."
Schoenburg reported that Fitzgerald said "an unnamed third party called him 'and asked me if I could arrange for some money to be delivered to Victor in order to underwrite the cost of publishing the study on Loleta Didrickson. We never responded to that request.'"
Cys gets even more specific: "I never threatened Victor--I don't know what he's talking about. The relationship with Victor soured last fall when he tried to sell us bulk copies of an issue featuring his article on Didrickson. That's the way he operates. He'll come up with an allegation on a political figure and contact that person's opponent to try and make a buck. We told him we refused to pay for shakedowns. A couple of weeks later we started getting phone calls from members of the media, who faxed us copies of Victor's article. Every time a journalist called we carefully explained the bills and where Victor was coming from and the matter was dropped."
It's true, says Crown, that he's sold his magazine in bulk to political campaigns, such as Salvi's in 1996. But he says he never tries to extort money from politicians and has never asked a politician to underwrite his publishing costs in return for a favorable story. "That's not how I operate," he says. "Now, have I ever made clumsy overtures to campaigns to buy bulk copies after a story comes out? Of course. If they want to buy bulk copies, great. If they don't, too bad. Either way, I'll still hammer them if they do something wrong. Listen, I hammered Al Salvi after he bought those issues. I go after them all. That's the fun of it. Look, if I wanted to make money off of this I'd be doing work for the Daley machine, or for Fitzgerald. He's the guy with the money.
"It's funny. You should have heard Peter praise me when I was in [conservative activist] Joe Morris's office in May of 1997 after the legislature voted down Edgar's income-tax plan. We'd just run an article that showed how Republican legislators lose after voting for tax hikes--it was powerful stuff to convince the swing legislators to vote against the tax hike. Fitzgerald came on Joe's speaker phone and said, 'Vic, great story. It really turned the tide.' About a month later I saw Peter on a boat cruise Morris had to honor Al Salvi. Fitzgerald told me, 'Vic, you're doing a great job. Keep it up.'"
Far from being deterred by the reaction to his first story on Fitzgerald, Crown went back to his research and wrote a second story (released this week) documenting Fitzgerald votes for SB (Senate Bill) 935, which affected bank mergers and acquisitions; for SB 232, which helped banks increase credit card interest rates; for SB 1397, which dealt with the regulation of banks; for SB 440, which among other things allowed banks to open automatic teller machines at retirement homes; for SB 1648, which eliminated the requirement for banks to publish quarterly reports; for HB (House Bill) 1882, which enabled banking institutions to "provide in their charter that bank directors are not personally liable to the institution or its shareholders for monetary breaches based on a breach of the director's fiduciary duty; and for HB 1655, which limited the liability of bank directors.
House speaker Mike Madigan, who also has banking investments, abstained or voted "present" on these bills, according to the article, which quotes Madigan: "I always tell my colleagues that if there is any doubt on the issue they should vote 'present' or abstain. It's just not worth the trouble trying to explain how a bill doesn't affect your private interests."
In addition, the article offers critical comment on Fitzgerald's votes from Republican colleagues, including gubernatorial candidate George Ryan, who says, "[Fitzgerald] can't talk about banking bills because he has a conflict of interest."
"Strangely enough, there was no need for him to cast a vote on most of these bills since they passed by a large margin," says Crown. "In other words, Fitzgerald can't say he voted for them because of his pledge to 'serve the public interest.' They'd have passed without his vote. It's a curious lapse of ethics."
In the instance of the credit card bill, Fitzgerald's vote was crucial, says Crown. "In any senate bill 30 votes are needed for passage. In the case of the credit card bill, Fitzgerald was one of 31 'yes' votes. This was a controversial bill opposed by consumer groups because it enabled banks and other lending institutions to raise their credit card fees and interest rates without informing the customer. Take away Fitzgerald and one other senator's vote and it doesn't pass.
"I would have loved to get Fitzgerald to talk about that bill. I wanted to ask him why he voted on that bill. Didn't he think it was a conflict of interest? Remember, he criticized other Republicans for manipulating the system for personal gain. Isn't he guilty of the same thing? I thought that was a legitimate line of inquiry."
"I not only called, I wrote registered letters, and inside those letters I included my questions and a passage from William Bennett's book on virtue, which is supposed to be the conservatives' moral authority. I included the section about the oath taken by many young men of ancient Athens when they reached the age of 18, the first line of which is, 'We will never bring disgrace on this our city by any act of dishonesty or cowardice.' I tell my conservative friends that they lose the moral authority to talk about ethics when they overlook Fitzgerald's banking woes. How can he stand in judgment of Bill Clinton when he doesn't address the issue of public versus private gain?"
It was in part to gain answers to these questions that Crown set out looking for Fitzgerald, who was due to march October 12 in the Columbus Day parade. Sure enough, Crown came upon Fitzgerald as he stood with supporters near Wacker and Dearborn. "He was doing a radio interview and I interrupted him," says Crown. "I did a Mike Wallace-style ambush interview. I shouldn't have to do it, but Fitzgerald wasn't answering my questions. So in a very loud voice I said, 'Senator Fitzgerald, why do you vote on banking bills?'
"I paused to get a response. The radio reporter asked if he could finish his interview. [Fitzgerald and the reporter] turned and walked away. I said, 'You, sir, are a liar and you're corrupt. And we're printing it.'" The next thing Crown knew his face was mashed against concrete. He isn't sure how it happened but witnesses on both sides agree he wound up pinned to the ground by four or five Fitzgerald supporters.
Crown says his head hit the ground and he was knocked unconscious. "I don't know how long I was out of it, but when I came to, my arms and legs were pinned and there was a man kneeling on my back. Things are fuzzy after I came to, I don't remember much of anything." Channel Seven's Andy Shaw was nearby, and he and his camera moved in on the scene. "People tell me they saw me interviewed on TV but I don't remember being interviewed. I don't know how I got home. I don't remember much of anything--it's a lost hour of my life."
Perhaps the strangest detail to emerge is a mysterious handwritten "apology," allegedly signed by Crown. Quoted in the Sun-Times and in Andy Shaw's report that night, the document says that Crown takes full responsibility for the incident. Crown says he has no recollection of signing it. "I remember someone saying, 'You have to sign this if you want medical attention.' I don't remember signing anything. I don't know who wrote that apology, but it wasn't me," says Crown. "I don't have anything to apologize for, except to that radio reporter, especially for interrupting his interview the second time."
Two Fitzgerald supporters say Crown invited the attack by barging into pedestrians, including an "old lady and two or three children," as he tried to get closer to the candidate. "He didn't identify himself as a journalist," says one Fitzgerald witness. "The supporters probably felt they had no choice but to subdue him. He was lucky he wasn't arrested."
Fitzgerald dismissed Crown's behavior as kooky, telling Andy Shaw that "he doesn't have all the oars in the water." Some of Fitzgerald's supporters say they doubt Crown was even hurt. But Crown says he visited a doctor who told him he had suffered contusions and maybe a slight concussion.
Apparently the incident hasn't hurt Crown's standing with Republicans, many of whom called to ask how he's feeling. "Victor is an extraordinary asset to public life in Illinois," says Joe Morris, who calls himself "a good friend and strong backer" of Fitzgerald. "He's quirky in many senses but he doesn't have any partisan ties. He calls them as he sees them."
Crown says he won't be deterred. "They want to divert attention from themselves by dumping dirt on me, but it won't work. Peter thought I had my oars in the water when he was distributing Illinois Politics on the senate floor. If I had them then, how come I don't have them now? I guess I lost my oars when I started looking at Fitzgerald and the banking bills."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Victor Crown, Karen Nagel photo by Dan Machnik; Peter Fitzgerald uncredited photo; Channel Seven video of Crown on the ground at the Columbus Day parade, October 12 photo by Dan Machnik.