The Illinois Republican Party and Rauner campaign sent out manic messages to the media and supporters this weekend crowing about the Chicago Sun-Times' endorsement of the Republican gubernatorial candidate as questions swirl about the motivation behind the decision.
After sitting out of the endorsement game for the last three years, the newspaper switched gears and enthusiastically endorsed Bruce Rauner for governor, announcing their sole endorsement in the upcoming election. The endorsement states that the catalyst behind the about face is due to the race being "simply too important to the future of Illinois for us to stay silent."
"It may well be the most important election in our state's modern history," reads the endorsement, which was posted online Saturday and published in the Sunday paper.
And although that may very well be true, there is much speculation that the endorsement had little to do with the high stakes of the race and much more to do with Rauner's relationship with the media company and Michael Ferro Jr., chairman of Wrapports LLC, the parent company of Sun-Times Media. Rauner previously owned 10 percent of Wrapports, selling his share to Ferro for $5 million shortly before announcing his gubernatorial run.
The Quinn campaign highlighted the eyebrow-raising connection between Rauner and Ferro in its reaction to the endorsement news.
"It's bizarre. They said they weren't going to endorse and suddenly - as billionaire Bruce Rauner falls behind in the polls - they are changing their policy. There's a lot of concern out there that the new owners - who until recently included Bruce Rauner - are operating the paper in a way that is contrary to the independent journalistic standards of the Chicago Sun-Times," said Quinn campaign spokeswoman Brooke Anderson, according to Capitol Fax.
"Unfortunately it appears that Bruce Rauner's financial influence is still being felt. Any endorsement is clouded by the fact that Mr. Rauner was a part-owner of the paper which abruptly reversed its position when he fell behind in the polls," she added.
To add more fuel to the fire, Sun-Times Springfield Bureau Chief Dave McKinney has hired former federal prosecutor Patrick Collins to look into the recent actions of the Rauner campaign and determine if they attempted to meddle with his position at the newspaper after he published an article that put Rauner in a bad light. McKinney's article, which was co-written with Carol Marin and Don Moseley, details threats Rauner allegedly made to Christine Kirk, the former CEO of LeapSource, a company that was owned by Rauner's investment firm GTCR. Rauner reportedly threatened Kirk and her family when it was clear that she going to sue GTCR along with the venture capitalist and his associates, which Quinn made reference to in a recent debate between the candidates.
Rauner has vehemently denied making the threats and his campaign points to the fact that the allegations were thrown out of court and "sworn depositions contradict the allegations," according to Capitol Fax.
Collins has been retained by McKinney to look into the alleged retaliatory measures the Republican's campaign took against the reporter after the story was published. Collins and McKinney have not commented on exactly how Rauner's camp tried to get back at the Springfield Bureau chief.
The Rauner campaign admits to having contacted the newspaper about the report, but says they did so to point out their issues with the publishing of the alleged threats the Republican made, corrections they felt the story needed as well as the "conflict of interest" McKinney had in writing the story due to his being married to Ann Liston. McKinney's wife is a Democratic media consultant, who is not personally doing any business with Illinois campaigns even though the company she co-owns -- Adelstein Liston -- is, according to Cap Fax. Additionally, according to Collins, the couple, who married earlier this year, set parameters around their individual work in order to prevent potential issues of conflicts of interest for McKinney.
There has been speculation that McKinney was penalized by his employer as a result of the story because the bureau chief had recently been radio silent on his beat for five days. But Sun-Times management says he is still on the job.
"Dave McKinney remains on his beat as Springfield Bureau Chief and continues to be one of our best political reporters on our talented team," Chicago Sun-Times Publisher/Editor-in-Chief Jim Kirk wrote in a statement to Crain's.
Kirk also detailed the Rauner camp's communications with the Sun-Times regarding the story in question.
"Mr. Rauner's campaign spokesman Mike Schrimpf did level allegations with me that proved inaccurate and spurious," added Kirk. "Out of an abundance of caution, we did review this matter and we are convinced Dave's wife Ann Liston receives no financial benefit from any Illinois political campaign because of the extraordinary steps they've taken to establish business safeguards. Dave's body of work during this campaign, including the ground-breaking stories on the investigation involving Gov. Pat Quinn and the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, demonstrates the hard-nosed reporting he has done on both campaigns. Both Dave and Ann are conscientious, ethical and among the best at their professions."
There are also troubling allegations from political insiders who say Sun-Times editors are keeping their thumb on reporters with regards to how they cover Rauner, pressing them to temper their articles. If these claims are indeed true, this could bubble up into an even larger story about money, clout, media management and their collective impact on journalism ethics in Illinois and beyond.