Did Trib Timing Force Fitzy's Hand?

When your hometown becomes the focus of a national media frenzy, you quickly see just how much the national media gets its facts wrong - and just how little pundits understand what they are talking about. But a story in the Wall Street Journal about Blagogate that can't be so easily dismissed has all kinds of implications that ought to be taken seriously, and that's because the story's author is Cam Simpson, a former Sun-Times and Tribune reporter who worked the federal courthouse beat when he was here and whose sources inside the federal building are generally thought to be impeccable. So take heed when he writes something like this:

"Conventional wisdom holds that U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald ordered the FBI to arrest Rod Blagojevich before sunrise [that] Tuesday in order to stop a crime from being committed. That would have been the sale of the Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama.

"But the opposite is true: Members of Fitzgerald’s team are livid the scheme didn’t advance, at least for a little longer, according to some people close to Fitzgerald’s office. Why? Because had the plot unfolded, they might have had an opportunity most feds can only dream of: A chance to catch the sale of a Senate seat on tape, including the sellers and the buyers."

Simpson reports that the timing of Blago's arrest was the publication of a story in the Tribune revealing that an ally of the governor was cooperating with authorities - and helping them tape conversations. Prosecutors, the theory goes, feared - and had some indication - that the story would spook Blagojevich and stop their investigation in its tracks. On the other hand, the Tribune had held back its story for more than a month at Fitzgerald's request, which is a month longer than it had to.

We don't have all the facts yet to evaluate the Tribune's decision. A newspaper cannot act as an arm of law enforcement, and the upsides and downsides of publishing before a prosecutor would like are complex and difficult to evaluate ahead of time.

But it is to say that there's still more to the story about what the Tribune, prosecutors and the governor knew, and when they knew it. And if the Tribune - not the sale of Obama's Senate seat - forced Fitzgerald's hand.

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