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A Sun-Times Reporter Resigns After a Run-In With the Rauner Campaign

The paper’s Springfield bureau chief, with almost 20 years on the job, steps down after a story on the candidate’s business dealings creates a complex tempest.

The big news in Illinois politics today comes not from a politician but a journalist: Dave McKinney, a 19-year veteran of the Sun-Times and the newspaper’s Springfield bureau chief, not only resigned but published an open letter of resignation.

How big is the news? It crashed Capitol Fax. It’s big news.

But it’s news that built slowly. It began with coverage that McKinney and NBC5’s Carol Marin and Don Moseley collaborated on about a lawsuit filed against Bruce Rauner, GTCR, and partners at the company.

The piece was notable for a couple reasons. The businesses spun out of GTCR have been the subjects of some tough coverage, but because of the nature of private equity—Rauner and his firm assemble businesses, but the degree of the firm’s involvement differs—the reporting hasn’t always placed him close to the troubles of the companies themselves. In this case, the lawsuit led to Rauner and the plaintiffs going on the record in depositions, “an unusual window in to Rauner’s actions,” as they put it.

And those depositions harbor vivid accusations of “hardball tactics"—that Rauner threatened the then-CEO of the GTCR-backed startup LeapSource, as quoted in the piece. But most of it was thrown out, including, as McKinney, Marin, and Moseley write, “the counts containing the allegations involving the threats. The judge, though, did not make a determination on the credibility of those allegations.” It was later settled for the not-terribly-grand sum of $511,000. The Rauner camp, of course, denied the allegations and pointed to the dismissal of the counts in question.

But then, according to McKinney in his letter of resignation, and to Jim Kirk in an editorial under his name in the Sun-Times, the Rauner campaign struck back with… hardball tactics.

What happened next, however, is unusual. Just hours before publication of the story, the campaign attempted to get the paper to stop publication by raising an alleged conflict involving a reporter on the story, Springfield Bureau Chief Dave McKinney, and his wife, Ann Liston, a partner in a firm that does consulting work for political clients.

As I told other media outlets over the weekend, the allegations leveled by the campaign were inaccurate and defamatory. We ran the story and continue to back it. And out of an abundance of caution, we did review the matter once again and are convinced Liston receives no financial benefit from any Illinois political campaign specifically because of the extraordinary steps she and McKinney have taken to establish business safeguards.

Liston is indeed a veteran of Democratic campaigns, going back to a gig as a precinct captain in the 43rd Ward. But beyond the safeguards mentioned by Kirk and detailed by McKinney in his letter, the allegations that McKinney would be in the tank for Rauner’s opponent were undermined by the stories bookending the LeapSource story, both about the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative story that’s been dogging Quinn throughout election season.

And a story that McKinney has been dogging Quinn on specifically. In September, the Sun-Times tried to FOIA federal and state subpoenas relating to the NRI, and the administration, in McKinney’s words, “dragged its feet.” So McKinney called an attorney, quoted in the piece:

“We’re talking about two pieces of paper. It’s not a complicated subject. They know the rules about release of federal subpoenas, and they’re playing games with you,” Springfield attorney Donald Craven said.

“Then, they further play games when they pick and choose who they release records to. For Mr. Openness and Transparency,” Craven said in a barb at the governor himself, “it stinks.”

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that, from the perspective of a reader, nothing about McKinney’s recent reporting would suggest a particular angle against Rauner.

None of this, however, precluded McKinney from being put on leave, and he brought in local legal titan and former federal prosecutor Patrick Collins, as Crain’s Lynn Marek reported at the time, and which McKinney goes into some detail about in his resignation letter. (Marek just reported Sun-Times editor Jim Kirk’s response to McKinney’s resignation letter.)

Nor did it prevent this, as McKinney writes:

Days later, the newspaper reversed its three-year, no-endorsement policy and unequivocally embraced the very campaign that had unleashed what Sun-Times management had declared a defamatory attack on me.

My former colleague Michael Miner has more on the choice to endorse Rauner.

This complex, confusing story about the tensions of covering an aggressively organized campaign reminded me of another recent instance when McKinney appears in the news not as an author, but as a source. It’s a prescient piece by Rui Kaneya, a correspondent for Columbia Journalism Review and an acquaintance from his time as investigations editor at the Chicago Reporter.

Kaneya chose as his subject the women and men reporting on the Rauner campaign, which has developed a reputation for being closed off to the press, including to Chicago’s Carol Felsenthal, who didn’t get access for her recent profile. And Carol’s there, telling Kaneya that “the Rauner campaign is far and away the most closed organization I’ve encountered…. I’ve been writing since the late ’70s and covered a lot of politics—and I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Dave McKinney also weighed in: “That business record of [Rauner]—it’s revealing. If nothing else, you can see how he made his money and how he treated people who worked for him.” And now, the people who report on him.

As Rich Miller put it today over at Capitol Fax, while all campaigns stage-manage their candidates (our mayor was a master of the form), the Rauner team is “more fierce than the usual campaign."  And it’s led to some frustration from reporters, who will bite back, as McKinney did with the Quinn administration over FOIAs.

Rauner, for instance, hasn’t completely avoided specifics on his budget, even endorsing additions to the state’s sales tax base to partially fill the hole he’d create by rolling back the recent income-tax increase. It’s a non-trivial policy coming from a Republican running on his business bona fides, but it wouldn’t come close to closing the budget gap, especially as Rauner is running on fully funding education and infrastructure.

The press has been waiting for Rauner’s budget blueprint to fill in. In the first gubernatorial debate, Amanda Vinicky straight up laid it out at the 49-minute mark: “Outside of your campaign, nobody seems to be able to make your budget blueprint add up…. Let’s try, again. Make that add up. Please.”

Rauner took a page from his venture-capital playbook: “We’ve got to set our goals and priorities and manage to them.”

In the black-box world of venture capital this may work; in the public arena, it makes it difficult to evaluate what Illinois would look like under Rauner. It’s arguably not a fatal flaw in terms of the electorate; certainly it wasn’t for the Crain’s board, which endorsed Rauner while expressing concern about the lack of budgetary ideas from his campaign and openly doubting if Rauner can roll back the income-tax hike in the four years he promises. They find other things to like about Rauner:

We’re troubled, too, that Mr. Rauner keeps putting off exactly how he would balance the budget while, on one hand, rolling back income taxes and freezing property taxes and, on the other, boosting spending on education and infrastructure. Business needs a leader in Springfield. He has not always acted like one on the campaign.

There is much here, in fact, that must be taken on faith. But we are confident that Mr. Rauner has the vision and values to do the job.

Illinois is badly in need of a fresh spirit of confidence that we can tackle the problems that lie ahead. A natural salesman in the best sense of the word, Mr. Rauner will convey a renewed sense of optimism about the future, replacing the funk in which Illinois finds itself.

The numbers aren’t there, but he’s a good clubhouse guy; good chemistry; grit. People do make decisions based on that sort of thing. Rauner has been immensely successful as a businessman, and he has a reputation, as Carol Felsenthal has reported, for hard work and considerable intelligence.

It’s been a tension in the endorsements that have been flowing to Rauner. Taking him on faith is a necessity if one is to vote for him, and it’s something that people will do, for sometimes defensible reasons. For journalists it’s a greater problem, particularly for the subjective Voltron of opinion that is an editorial board. Endorsing a candidate who’s closed off to the media—either on questions of biography or policy—on the predictively opaque basis of personality risks encouraging future candidates to move further along that spectrum. When the curtain comes down and reveals the stage directions, it becomes an even more difficult question.

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