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Kicking Back

Why would Illinois Supreme Court justice Robert R. Thomas, a rugged former placekicker for the Bears, sue a small newspaper’s scrappy columnist for defamation? Some observers believe the judge wants to clear the air before making bigger political moves.

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Bill Page, now 56, has made a reputation as a journalist not afraid of strong opinions. “You either love him or you hate him, depending on what the issue is,” said Susan Klinkhamer, the mayor of St. Charles, who hastened to add: “He’s never done anything bad to me.”

Page’s columns regularly stir up the hornets’ nest of mostly Republican-on-Republican rivalries that characterize the western suburbs, where Page worked as a columnist for the Daily Herald, based in Arlington Heights, before moving to the Kane County Chronicle. (In 2001, he wrote a freelance article for Chicago about a criminal case involving a hired hit man.) Along the way, Page has made enemies among the politicians and operatives he covers.

“He hurts people needlessly, and he does it for sport,” says the state senator Chris Lauzen, a Republican, who contends that he has been unfairly attacked in print by Page on numerous occasions. Lauzen characterizes Page’s opinions as being based less on political views than on “who his friends are.”

The Republican political consultant Jon Zahm-an enthusiast of Thomas’s-says he has also had many run-ins with Page over the years. “I consider Bill Page to be unworthy of print, an unreliable source, a biased and petty individual,” says Zahm.

But another Republican consultant, Ellen Nottke, who says she is a friend of Page’s, dismisses the criticisms as the whining of his worthy targets. “I don’t always agree with Bill Page,” Nottke explains, “but he doesn’t spread rumors, and he doesn’t tell lies.”

In 2004, the Illinois Associated Press named Page the state’s best newspaper columnist in the Chronicle’s circulation category. Among the columns cited by the AP judges as an example of Page’s excellence was his November 25, 2003, effort-one of three cited by Justice Thomas in his suit. (It is not known whether the judges-Indiana newspaper editors-were aware of the suit.)

The three columns discuss Thomas’s role in deciding the fate of the Kane County state’s attorney, Meg Gorecki. Not long before she ran for the office as a newcomer in 2000, Gorecki left a message on a friend’s answering machine implying-falsely, she later said-that the friend could win a county job if she made a contribution to the campaign fund of the Kane County Board chairman. News of the tape came out a few weeks before the primary election, and despite the ethical questions raised, Gorecki won the primary and then the general election. A complaint was filed with the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, however, and that board recommended a suspension. Eventually, the matter went before the Illinois Supreme Court.

By spring 2003, Page was at the Kane County Chronicle, and in his May 15th column he reported on Gorecki. “It doesn’t look good for our state’s attorney,” Page wrote. He went on to say, “It seems that Justice Bob Thomas is pushing hard for very severe sanctions-including disbarment. Other justices do not agree, with at least two opting for simple censure, but Thomas’s pressure could result in a ‘compromise’-a year’s suspension of Gorecki’s law license.” Page went on to imply that Thomas was urging the tough sanctions because Gorecki had “had the audacity to run against the sitting GOP state’s attorney [David Akemann] in the primary-and the popularity to beat him.”

Thomas’s complaint says that the court spokesman, Joe Tybor, called the Chronicle’s managing editor, Greg Rivara, to complain that the implication in the column was false. The next day, Page sent an e-mail to Tybor’s assistant saying, “I know your job is to put out positive PR, but you might also want to let the entire court know the nightmare of bad publicity they’ll be facing if Thomas is allowed to influence their decisions.”

On May 20th, Page published another column, elaborating on his original charge and quoting several unnamed political insiders as saying Thomas was “out to nail” Gorecki.

Fast-forward to November 20th, when the supreme court issued its opinion on the sanctioning of Gorecki-ordering a four-month suspension of her law license. Five days later, Page published a column accusing Thomas of compromising on the lesser punishment “in return for some high profile Gorecki supporters endorsing Bob Spence, a judicial candidate favored by Thomas.” The column added, “Getting her out of office, after all, is what this case has really been about from day one. It isn’t about a dumb message left on a tape, and it isn’t about some sense of moral outrage. [Kane County politicians and Justice Thomas are] hardly the crew to express that emotion. No, this had nothing to do with right and wrong, or stupid mistakes. It had everything to do with politics.”

(Ultimately, Gorecki completed her suspension and then served out her term. But she did not run for another one.)

The November 25th column prompted another call from Tybor to managing editor Greg Rivara. Steven Baron, the Chicago lawyer defending Page, Rivara, and the paper, says that Tybor demanded a retraction-"a front-page rebuke.” (Neither Page, Rivara, nor Tybor would comment for this story.)

Meanwhile, Thomas’s lawyer, Joe Power Jr. of Chicago, sent a letter to the paper asking it to have its attorney or its insurance company contact him regarding the Thomas situation. The letter went unanswered, and in January 2004 Thomas filed his suit in the Kane County Circuit Court. Thomas and Power asked for unspecified damages beyond the minimum $50,000 needed to get the case into circuit court.

In an interview, Power said he thought he could show that the columnist had no sources for his information and that it wasn’t Thomas “out to nail” Gorecki, but rather Page who was out to smear the justice. Steve Baron responds that Page “has sources.”

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