WASHINGTON — Sen. Mark Kirk’s campaign made a bold and potentially risky move on Friday.
Campaign manager Kevin Artl launched a pre-emptive attack against an anticipated Chicago Tribune story that is likely to allege Kirk is abusive to staffers – an assertion Artl strongly denies.
Artl took the highly unusual step of providing to Capitol Fax, a publication focusing on Illinois government and politics, a series of emails between Tribune investigative reporter Todd Lighty and the campaign.
It’s obvious from the emails that Lighty was digging into claims that Kirk was verbally abusive to four aides. In the case of one of them, Lighty was also looking into assertions that Kirk “became physical on two separate occasions.”
It’s also clear from the emails that Artl was building a case to try to convince the Tribune there was nothing to the allegations.
Artl even provided a sworn statement, dated Sept. 18, from the staffer, Patrick Campion, who figured in the alleged physical abuse.
Campion worked for Kirk between October 2014 and March 2015.
He was Kirk’s “body man,” the staffer who would help transport Kirk – a stroke victim who needs someone to push his wheelchair and provide other assistance. Campion was 23 when he started the job, his first out of college.
Campion said in his affidavit there were “occasions” where he would have “disagreements” with Kirk, but nothing “inappropriate.”
Because of the stroke, Kirk would sometimes “communicate” through hand gestures or “touching my arm or hand.” At no point, Campion said, was the senator “physically or verbally abusive.”
Tribune Editor Gerould Kern said in a statement Friday, Kirk’s “campaign and the conduct of his office are subjects of legitimate inquiry, and the Chicago Tribune stands fully behind our reporter, Todd Lighty.”
“We will not comment on unpublished reporting, but we can say that the Kirk campaign has wholly mischaracterized Lighty’s diligence and thoroughness.
“Lighty has been direct, open and honest at all times with the Kirk staff in his reporting. He is a meticulous and professional journalist. Good reporters ask tough questions.
“We will not allow the Kirk campaign to attack unchallenged the professionalism and integrity of Lighty and the Tribune.”
It’s routine for campaigns to dispute negative stories. It’s rare to do it before anything has been published.
Artl’s aggressive strategy suggests he believes he lost his fight with the Tribune editors and Lighty.
What’s risky is that the raw work of Lighty is out there – grist for Democrats to exploit. Kirk is one of the Democrats’ biggest 2016 targets.
Indeed, in a pre-publication memo Artl already wrote the official campaign response.
“Terrible journalism written by a biased reporter about an event that his own source signed an affidavit saying never happened,” Artl said.
The bottom line, Artl said, “as indicated from affidavits, statements and conversations Mr. Lighty is fully aware of, the incidents he is alleging did not occur according to those involved. Should Mr. Lighty continue with his story, Kirk For Senate will not hesitate to avail itself of all available legal remedies.”
Artl told me he made his move because he thought the Tribune was poised to publish its investigation.
He said Lighty “crossed the line from acceptable aggressive reporting to harassment of people, including Sen. Kirk’s 79 year-old mother, who aren’t telling him . . . what he wants to hear.”
Kirk’s mom is fair game. Judith Kirk has been on Kirk’s campaign payroll for years. So far in 2015, according to the latest statement on file with the Federal Election Commission, the campaign has paid her $6,930.