The precise timing of Tuesday’s dramatic, pre-dawn arrest was not dictated by Fitzgerald, nor was it dictated by the pace of Blagojevich’s alleged “crime spree.” It was dictated by the Chicago Tribune, according to people close to the investigation and a careful reading of the FBI’s affidavit in the case.
At Fitzgerald’s request, the paper had been holding back a story since October detailing how a confidante of Blagojevich was cooperating with his office.
Gerould Kern, the Tribune’s editor, said in a statement last week that these requests are granted in what he called isolated instances. “In each case, we strive to make the right decision as reporters and as citizens,” he said.
But editors decided to publish the story on Friday, Dec. 5, ending the Tribune’s own cooperation deal with the prosecutor...
The next morning, on Friday, Dec. 5, it all came crashing down for the FBI agents underneath the headphones.
The Tribune’s front page screamed: “Feds taped Blagojevich; TRIBUNE EXCLUSIVE: Adviser cooperated with corruption probe, sources say.”
Blagojevich read the same headline. “Undo” that “thing,” the governor allegedly told his brother, according to the FBI. And just like that, the meeting was off, only one day after it had been put back into play.
There appear to have been fears in Fitzgerald’s office that those caught on tape might now seek to “undo” other “things.” Hours were logged over the weekend. Paperwork was pounded out. And before sunrise Tuesday, Blagojevich and his chief of staff were arrested simultaneously. At that same moment, FBI agents also knocked on the doors of witnesses. These were just a few of the people agents wanted to interview before cellphones started ringing across the city and others who had been caught on tape had a chance to get their stories straight.
Had it not been for the Tribune’s Dec. 5 story, the meeting Blagojevich’s brother was arranging might have proceeded. Mr. Blagojevich is quoted as citing the story, in the affidavit, then calling off the meeting. At a minimum, the FBI’s recorders would have been rolling when he reported back. The feds also probably would have tried to bug the session live, or at least to tail the participants and secretly film or photograph them. That’s what feds do. Jurors love video.
You have to wonder what made the Trib decide it needed to run the story. Were there rumors of other media outlets on the case? Were rumors swirling through the newsroom and the top brass didn't think they could hold the story any longer? Or, more politically, were they afraid of the fallout the story was going to have on Democrats locally and nationally?
We probably aren't going to hear the real story. What we will get is an explanation about how the Tribune isn't responsible for cooperating with law enforcement and that they should be cheered for holding the story a month. But their desire to get the scoop means the Feds lost half their case. Self-interest trumps all in the MSM.