Tribune chief's adviser part of FBI's probe

December 12, 2008|By Chicago Tribune

As Tribune Co. acknowledged yesterday that it received a federal subpoena as part of criminal charges against Gov. Rod Blagojevich, sources confirmed that a close associate of company chief executive and chairman Sam Zell has been interviewed by the FBI.

The Tribune also has learned that the associate, Nils Larsen, is the unidentified financial adviser who allegedly was asked to help get Chicago Tribune editorial writers fired.

Larsen, a Tribune Co. executive vice president, is a 38-year-old financial whiz who was instrumental in Zell's takeover of Tribune Co.

Neither Larsen nor Zell responded to requests for comment.

In their subpoena to the Tribune, federal authorities are seeking memos about potential staff cuts or changes to the Chicago Tribune editorial board, a source said.

A company spokesman has said that neither Tribune Co. executives nor their advisers did anything inappropriate.

Blagojevich, upset with editorials that were sharply critical of his actions, allegedly hatched a plan to get editorial writers fired. In November, Blagojevich and his chief of staff, John Harris, reached out to Larsen. According to the criminal complaint, Blagojevich instructed Harris to tell Larsen changes needed to be made to the editorial board or the governor would block money for Wrigley Field renovations.

Larsen is Zell's point man in efforts to sell the Chicago Cubs. Tribune Co. owns the Cubs and newspapers, including The Baltimore Sun.

Court documents portray Blagojevich as eager to exploit Tribune Co.'s financial problems for his own benefit.

Tribune Co. has been in discussions with the state over the sale of Wrigley Field, which could mean as much as $100 million for the company. Zell has sought to sell the Cubs and use the proceeds to pay down debt associated with his takeover of Tribune Co., which filed for bankruptcy protection this week.

Blagojevich suggested his aides tackle the issue head-on and that someone might want to talk directly to Zell.

Whether Larsen ever attempted to apply pressure to Tribune officials remained unclear.

At the news conference announcing the arrests, U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald declined to say how far the effort went, "other than the person who was identified as a person to be fired was not fired and still works there today."

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