By: Mark Glennon*
The Sun-Times’ front page article today is, “Obama pal Eric Whitaker stonewalls feds on sex question in grant fraud case.” It’s shameless muckraking and should not have been published. Neither the article nor the record contains any indication of “stonewalling” or other wrongdoing, and the article is loaded with distortions.
By way of background, a Chicago businessman named Leon Dingle and his wife are to be tried in Springfield for conspiracy, mail fraud and money-laundering. Eric Whitaker formerly ran the Illinois Department of Public Health. Dingle is accused of using his relationships with a number of people, including a woman named Quinshanta Golden, while they worked under Whitaker at the Department, to steal more than $3 million in taxpayers’ money.
Whitaker signed an agreement to tell the Feds all he knew about facts pertinent to their charges against Dingle, and proceeded to do so without any complaints from them. Whitaker has not been charged with anything.
But when they asked Whitaker if he had a sexual relationship with Golden he declined, instead promising only that, if he were asked in court, he would answer truthfully. Prosecutors want to know his answer before trial because they think that would help them establish that Dingle had a unique level access to Whitaker, since Dingle allegedly also had a close relationship with Golden.
That summary is all there is to the story of any substance that pertains to Whitaker. (The full transcript on which the Sun-Times based it’s story is linked here.)
Yet the Sun-Times inflated it into a lengthy piece stuffed with language about “stonewalling” and Whitaker perhaps being designated a “hostile witness.” It’s long on salacious information about other women allegedly in relationships with Dingle. It’s full of hot button names like Rod Blagojovich and Tony Rezko, plenty of sex, talk about misused taxpayer money and other things that make readers seethe.
None of that in fact pertains to Whitaker, but the conclusion of readers who don’t read or think critically, like most, or who trust what the paper implies, would unquestionably be that Whitaker is concealing his part in all of that. The paper’s front page on the story is on the right, which is representative of the article.
Whitaker may or may not be a crook, a bum or whatever, for other reasons. That does not matter. This is about whether a story should effectively say that he is with no basis. The Sun-Times had no basis:
– There are no allegations or facts even indicating that Whitaker slept with Golden in the first place. The Feds apparently suspect that, which is why they want to ask him, but neither they nor the Sun-Times provided any basis for that suspicion.
– Whitaker would have been right to tell the Feds to drop dead when they asked him if he had sex with Golden, a question his lawyer told him he needn’t answer. Maybe he even used that kind of language, which might explain how this got to the Sun-Times. Wrecking somebody’s personal life by leaking out scurrilous allegations is an all-to-common means by which prosecutors pound witnesses and defendants to get their way. This isn’t the first time the Sun-Times has reported on pre-trial mudslinging by prosecutors where there is cause to wonder how they found the story.
– Whitaker’s consent to answer the question honestly at trial should be enough.
– Even if Whitaker won’t answer the question about sex with Golden, that hardly constitutes “stonewalling.” There’s no indication that Whitaker didn’t cooperate on anything else. It’s only the question about sex with Golden that he refused.
– The Sun-Times makes a big deal out of Whitaker potentially being designated a “hostile witness,” making it sound like he’s ending up on the wrong side of the law. In fact, that designation means very little. The primary significance of that designation is simply that it allows prosecutors to ask leading questions in their initial direct examination when they put a witness on the stand. No word on whether that designation has even happened.
– Whitaker gets no opportunity to respond to the Sun-Times. Like any person in his position he was undoubtedly advised what any lawyer would advise, to say nothing. His lawyers, too, need to say as little as possible in public. In the hearing on which the Sun-Times based the article, neither Whitaker nor his lawyer were even present to comment on what was discussed. The Sun-Times knows full well that when it extracts meaningless fragments from court proceedings and inflates them into incendiary articles it will face no rebuttal.
– No charge or even allegation of any kind has been made against Whitaker.
The story should be retracted and the Sun-Times should apologize.
Interestingly, the story was rapidly Tweeted out after it was published last night by none other than Dave McKinney and Carol Marin. “Stunning” was the comment McKinney added. They are two of the reporters who authored the now infamous Sun-Times article alleging Bruce Rauner threatened a former CEO of a company he invested in. That’s the story that was based solely on hearsay, by a guy who would not confirm it now, about a woman who changed her story under oath, regarding a threat she never heard herself, in a case that was thrown out for lack of evidence (and not on a “technicality,” as Carol Marin has said repeatedly).
What’s the parallel? That things get said in court proceedings all the time that are not reliable or newsworthy. McKinney, Marin and the Sun-Times don’t let that get in the way of a salacious story.
A note about the Sun-Times: It’s mostly not bad. Fran Spielman there is perhaps the best reporter in town, and even its bad apple reporters write good stories often. We have linked to hundreds of their good stories, sending thousands of readers their way, which we are happy to do — we hope they end up finding a revenue model that supports good reporting.
But something is deeply wrong there if stories like those on Whitaker, Rauner and plenty of others in the past can get published. Liberal bias is not the issue in this case, though it has been sometimes. Muckraking is a bigger issue, as we have been saying here recently, and this article on Whitaker is an example.
Wrapports, the Sun-Times owner, is being criticized for a allegedly intervening to complain about the Rauner article and to influence the editorial process. If it did so, Wrapports was butt-stupid to do it just before the election, which predictably would ignite controversy. But the real criticism of Wrapports is that they should have cleaned house long ago. Owners have every right — and responsibility — to make changes when they see muckraking or bias in the media they own.
Clean it up, Wrapports.
*Mark Glennon is founder of WirePoints and formerly practiced law*