Monthly Archives: July 2013

All That Glitters Isn’t Gold

How Rod Blagojevich Talked Himself
out of the Governor’s Office and Into Prison
by Jeff Coen and John Chase



Jeff Coen and John Chase, two Chicago Tribune reporters who devoted years to covering Rod Blagojevich’s triumphs and travails, have distilled those experiences (and mountains of transcripts, both wiretap and courtroom) into Golden, a dense, often infuriating account of their subject’s unlikely rise to the position of9781569763391 Golden hi res cover Governor of Illinois, and his subsequent highly publicized fall from grace, the latter precipitated by his attempts to realize personal profit from his opportunity to name a successor to the United States Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama upon Obama’s election to the White House. That effort was encapsulated in the public’s mind by a remark Blagojevich made to one of his staffers in a telephone conversation monitored by the FBI, a remark that also provides the book’s title: “I mean I, I’ve got this thing and it’s fucking—golden. And I, I’m not just not giving it up for fucking nothing.”

Among the alternatives to “fucking nothing” discussed by the state’s chief executive and his team of advisers was the possibility of asking the President-elect to name Blagojevich as Secretary of Health and Human Services, or perhaps Secretary of Commerce, or maybe White House support for a proposed large nonprofit organization that Blagojevich would head for a fat salary. (The evidence indicates that Obama’s White House transition team, who preferred to see Valerie Jarrett named to the seat, dismissed the Governor’s heavy-handed horse-trading efforts, and Blagojevich, facing increasingly outraged public criticism, eventually named former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris to Obama’s Senate seat. Jarrett now serves as a special assistant to the President.)

Golden recounts the whole of Blagojevich’s unlikely, undistinguished political career. (He never lost an election held outside a jury room.) After growing up in Chicago, he attended law school at Pepperdine, then launched his career as a clerk in the office of powerful Chicago alderman Edward Vrdolyak, before landing a position as an assistant state’s attorney for Cook County, where he served as an unremarkable prosecutor. He married Patricia Mell, daughter of Richard Mell, yet another powerful (and recently resigned) Chicago alderman (and later one of Blagojevich’s most persistent political enemies), and with the help of his family connections won election in 1992 to the Illinois General Assembly, where he represented part of Chicago’s North Side. In 1996, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for the state’s 5th District, thereby winning the seat long held by Dan Rostenkowski, whose career also ended in felony conviction and imprisonment.

Blagojevich, who was re-elected in 1998 and 2000, wasn’t much of a Congressional star, and was later mocked by opponents who claimed that his only accomplishment during his Washington years was to direct the naming of a new post office after a fallen police officer. In 1999, Blagojevich, whose parents immigrated to the United States from the former Yugoslavia, accompanied Rev. Jesse Jackson to Belgrade as Jackson successfully negotiated with Slobodan Milošević for the release of three U.S. soldiers taken prisoner while serving with U.N. peacekeeping forces. Thus Blagojevich in Washington.

According to the account provided by Coen and Chase, these early years in Blagojevich’s political career were not particularly distinguished by corruption, although the authors paint him as a policy lightweight with a comical commitment to his hair (staffers were directed to maintain perpetual custody of an oval black hairbrush they called “the football”). The trouble started with the money required to run for the state’s top job. He won election as Illinois Governor in 2002—the first Democrat to do so in decades—substantially assisted by more than $1 million in donations “bundled” by one Tony Rezko, a Chicago businessman and longtime political operator who was himself convicted on federal charges of fraud, bribery, and corruption in 2008, and who is now serving a sentence of 10.5 years. Amusingly, Blagojevich presented himself to Illinois voters as a “reform” candidate in contrast to the scandal-plagued career of his predecessor, Republican George Ryan, who also was convicted on federal corruption charges and served five years in prison. The charges against Rezko arose from a federal investigation called Operation Board Games, which was directed into pay-for-play allegations into business conducted with the Illinois Teachers System Board and the Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board.

Rezko, whose status as a major Blagojevich fundraiser was mentioned frequently by the prosecution throughout his trial, partnered with one Stuart Levine, yet another bipartisan “fundraiser,” to assist Blagojevich in establishing his first administration. The two men controlled votes on state boards that, the prosecution argued, made decisions about very large state contracts for the management of state-owned real estate and large retirement funds, always ensuring a slice came off the top for them personally. Their ability to manage the boards in question came from their ability to manage appointments to said boards, thanks to their influence with the Governor.

For Rezko and Levine, the proximity and influence accorded to them by the Governor by their fundraising prowess—“the access,” as Levine testified during Rezko’s trial—was easily converted into personal gain, especially in the cases of the numerous boards and commissions that had to be staffed. Such appointments were often determined by Rezko, Levine, and Christopher Kelly, a Blagojevich advisor who pleaded guilty to corruption charges in 2009.

Coen and Chase write that, “But when it came to some of the most pivotal commissions, it was often Rezko and Kelly who had much of the say over which loyalists were named. In many cases, those they picked were not the best people for the job but were the best at taking direction from Rezko and Kelly when the pair communicated the wishes of ‘the administration.’”

Coen and 220px-Rod_Blagojevich_mug_shotChase go on to say that these loyalists were little more than puppets who were allowed control of the reins only once a contractor had ponied up. They write that, “Lucrative contracts always had room for many to siphon away extra money. In many instances, even the board members who were following directions from men like Rezko and Levine would be kept in the dark about who was taking in illegal payments for themselves from state business. Levine found a way to take bribes through the hospital panel, but even more money was to be had at the Teacher’s Retirement System of Illinois (TRS) …”

Rigging the system allowed Rezko, Kelly, Levine, et al. to select the “consultants” with whom they wanted to work and to collect “finder’s fees” when “allocations” were made. The authors write that, “The cover was the consultants linked the investment firm with TRS. In reality, the consultants had done little to no work since the deals were already preordained by the insiders. Many of the firms agreed to hire the fake consultants and pay the fees knowing they might very well have been paying off somebody in exchange for access to state funds. That was just the way it was done in Illinois, many knew.”

Among the most interesting elements in Golden is its revelation of the insatiable requirement for campaign money at the base of most of Blagojevich’s offenses. Although his administration was, from the first, solidly grounded in the Illinois tradition of pay-to-play politics, most of the monies directed toward the Governor went to his campaign fund, and hence weren’t available for his personal use. Judging by the account in Golden, Blagojevich and his family were in a state not far from real financial distress by the time he was finally arrested in December 2008.

The detailed reporting of Coen and Chase, most notably of the Governor’s own words, leaves little doubt that the Blagojevich administration was a dog’s breakfast of corrupt decision-making, although it is far from clear that Blagojevich was making all the decisions. Coen and Chase describe a chief executive who didn’t enjoy being Governor and spent little time on his public responsibilities—often as little as two to eight hours a week, according to his staff—a publicity hound far more interested in participating in Cubs radio shows than governing the state. The comprehensiveness of their account is sometimes daunting, as Golden reads like 500 pages of newspaper prose and is occasionally a bit of a grind, but this is a necessary read for anyone—even Chicagoans and Illinoisans familiar with the story—concerned by the decline of American “democracy” into cynical money corruption.

Just before midnight on July 15, 2013, Blagojevich’s indefatigable lawyers appealed his conviction on seventeen corruption counts, which resulted in a fourteen-year sentence now being served in a minimum-security federal facility in Englewood, Colorado, where media accounts report that Blagojevich is “teaching Civil War history” and “learning to play the guitar.” The appeal also asks for reconsideration of Blagojevich’s sentence.

Three-Star Review

September 2012, Chicago Review Press
Politics/Current Affairs
$27.95, hardcover, 486 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1-56976-339-1

—Reviewed by Patrick Quinn



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No Kidding! Children’s Publishing Thrives in Chicagoland

CBR_Logo2As publishing professionals, as readers, as bibliophiles, most of us can name a few or several or even a whole lot of books that have shaped our lives. Many of us can’t even remember a time when we weren’t surrounded by books. Childhood trips to the library were filled with wonder and awe at all the colorful books that were available to take home, to borrow for a few precious days. Bookshelves creaked under the weight of board books and picture books and chapter books. Bedtime equaled storytime, snuggling under the covers to read to or be read to by someone we loved.

Many of the books we loved as children have serious staying power. Nancy Drew books have been in print for more than eighty years. Classics such as The Velveteen Rabbit (1922) and Good Night Moon (1947) have been charming children for generations. Some of the best loved and most enduring children’s books, such as The Boxcar Children, were published right here in the Chicago area.

boxcar 21PIn fact, The Boxcar Children, the lovable series of mysteries for young readers, is published locally by Albert Whitman & Company. Based in Park Ridge, Albert Whitman has been publishing award-winning children’s books for nearly a century. Launched in 1919, the house focuses on board books, picture books, novels, and nonfiction titles for children and teens. Whitman publishes about forty books a year and serves an audience that varies from babies to teenagers. The company was founded by—surprise!—Albert Whitman, who, according to the company’s website, spent his entire life in publishing, first with Hammon Map & Atlas Company and then Rand McNally. He founded Albert Whitman & Company in Chicago, retiring thirty years later, in 1949. Today, the house remains independently owned and operated.

norwood 9781599535586Barely three miles southeast of Albert Whitman & Company is Norwood House Press, another indie children’s publisher. Norwood focuses on materials for schools and libraries, publishing paperbacks, hardcovers, ebooks, and educator resources. Not quite a decade in the making, Norwood strives to publish books that meet the needs of K–8 librarians and teachers. The house has roughly four hundred titles in print, including popular series such as Team Spirit, Smart About Sports, Dear Dragon, and Matt Christopher. Some of the house’s newer releases include Mummies in the Library: Divide the Pages and Indivisible: Poems for Social Justice, both of which have received rave reviews from the likes of Booklist and other media.

Also publishing children’s books, though a bit outside of the Chicago area, is Minnesota’s Capstone Press. Launched in 1991, Capstone publishes materials for students from PreK through high school. From graphic novels to illustrated nonfiction titles, Capstone strives to connect with children of all ages and all reading levels. Partnering with such organizations as Sports Illustrated and The Smithsonian, Capstone offers readers innovative, interactive content in a variety of formats. In addition, the publisher is home to a number of imprints, including Compass Point Books and Stone Arch Books.

crp 9781613740286Books, ebooks, and other materials geared toward children represent a robust segment for publishing, and that’s something that dedicated children’s publishers and larger houses recognize. Here in Chicago, houses like Chicago Review Press and Sourcebooks are publishing for adults and children, reaching readers of all ages. Chicago Review Press is publishing what the house calls “a line of sophisticated nonfiction children’s activity books” for “highly motivated young readers.” And Sourcebooks, through its Jabberwocky imprint, strives toward “engaging children in the pure fun of books and the wonder of learning new things.”

jabberwocky 9781402225178Although most of us think of Chicago as the home to such authors as Saul Bellow, Sara Paretsky, Scott Turow (and countless others—I know, I know), the city is home to some fabulous publishers who are reaching out to children, from wee babes to young adults, with traditional print titles, user-friendly ebooks, and other interactive digital products. In fact, in many ways, Chicago-area publishers are leading the way in bringing exciting new materials to children of all ages, helping today’s young people discover the books (in whatever format) that will shape their lives and fill them with awe and wonder.

—Kelli Christiansen




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Hungry for More

CBR_Logo2Wisconsin Supper Clubs:
An Old-Fashioned Experience
by Ron Faiola


Seems like at least a few editors at a couple of Chicago’s publishing houses are feeling both nostalgic and hungry. Just like time travel seems to be the theme of the moment for fiction, supper clubs are on the menu when it comes to nonfiction.

On Friday, we reviewed Dave Hoekstra’s The Supper Club Book. We’re bookending the weekend today with a review of Ron Faiola’s Wisconsin Supper Clubs, another ode to the dining establishments of yesteryear.

Wisconsin Supper Clubs is the follow-up book to Faiola’s highly praised documentary on the same subject. Faiola, an award-winning filmmaker, in 2011 produced a film under the same name as this book, showcasing fourteen supper clubs. That documentary was something of a hit for PBS stations, particularly in Wisconsin and Illinois. Here in the book version of Faiola’s study of supper clubs, more than fifty of Wisconsin’s rural eateries are highlighted.

Loaded with photographs, Wisconsin Supper Clubs is an easy read. Short profiles, averaging about three pages apiece, highlight the various owners of supper clubs, the menu items they feature, their picturesque locations, and the occasional celebrity sightings. Full-color photographs focus on the people, the food, and the settings. Although some of the images are mere snapshots, a number of the images beautifully capture interesting details of various supper clubs, such as vintage menus and cocktail fixings. Most of the photographs are of the food served in each restaurant, tantalizing pictures of steaks, fish, desserts, and cocktails. Many of the images, however, come without any caption information, so readers are sometimes left to guess what is pictured.

Faiola does a fine job of bringing to life a truly Midwestern tradition in Wisconsin Supper Clubs. Interviews with owners and patrons reveal a custom of fine dining and friendly service that keep diners coming back for more, despite the proliferation of chain restaurants that offer cheap, known-quantity food in massive portions. Scenic locations and the opportunity to linger over a good meal while surrounded by friendly people counter the eat-and-get-out mentality that marks many of today’s restaurants, making supper clubs a draw for locals and out-of-town visitors alike. Faiola lovingly captures that draw, highlighting the unique culinary experiences and regional characteristics of the supper clubs featured in the book.

Although each profile treads over familiar territory, making the book feel a bit redundant in its coverage when reading from front to back, Faiola also highlights unique aspects of the clubs. Whether it’s noting a chef who recently prepared his one-millionth steak or highlighting the supper club that brought the first refrigerated salad bar to the world, tiny details keep readers interested. Commonalities are mentioned throughout (brandy old fashioneds feature prominently, as one would expect), but Faiola also digs deeper to find the unusual. In particular, he notes three or four supper clubs that may be haunted, a few that have served as hideaways for Chicago mobsters, and some that started out as speakeasies or brothels.

Aside from an obvious typographical error that mars one of the sidebars in the book, there is little to dislike about Wisconsin Supper Clubs, which serves as an enjoyable guide to these old-fashioned yet somehow still relevant restaurants. Diners who frequent some of these establishments will enjoy reading about their favorite and familiar haunts. Readers who wish to travel vicariously can feast on the eye-catching images that fill the book. And those who are craving a brandy old fashioned by the time they reach the last page will be happy to find at the back of the book the recipe for this Wisconsin mainstay. Colorful, detailed, and accessible, Wisconsin Supper Clubs has a little something for just about everyone.

Two-Star Review

April 2013, Agate Publishing/Midway
$35, hardcover, 224 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1-57284-142-0

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

Watch a trailer for Ron Faiola’s “Wisconsin Supper Clubs” documentary.


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