Fatal Attraction

Chicago Tribune relies on questionable source to bash ailing GOP senator

June 21, 2012

As Sen. Mark Kirk (R., Ill.) recuperated from a severe stroke, the Chicago Tribune published what critics deemed a scathing attack on his credibility that was based solely on accusations from his ex-wife, whom those close to the Kirk family describe as unstable and unreliable.

Ex-wife Kimberly Vertolli – who in an interview with the Washington Free Beacon dismissed attacks on her character – began discussing her former spouse in the Chicago press just days after he was struck with a debilitating stroke that nearly took his life.

First, Vertolli said Kirk was to blame for his stroke, a claim his doctors immediately disputed.

Months later, Vertolli talked to Chicago Tribune reporter Todd Lighty, along with reporter Katherine Skiba, for an investigative piece that alleged Kirk had violated campaign finance laws, charges that a former Federal Elections Committee chairman maintains are legally unsound.

The bitter back-and forth between Kirk and his former spouse has led Kirk allies to question Vertolli’s mental stability. They allege that her brazen media assault on Kirk is part of a pattern of increasingly erratic behavior.

However, Vertolli scoffs at such accusations, and told the Free Beacon that Kirk loyalists are anonymously smearing her in attempt to distract from the substance of the FEC complaint, which she says was filed out of a "sense of duty to report what I know."

"I find it shocking that Kimberly is doing all of this," said one longtime Kirk confidante who would speak only on background. "The question I would posit is, ‘Why is she doing what she’s doing? What is the agenda or motive?’"

"It’s the natural attack to make, for someone who wants to keep their job and senses a threat to their power is at bay," Vertolli said in response. She maintains that the allegations of mental instability have "no merit whatsoever."

"That’s their M.O., a whispering campaign that I’m crazy," she said. "There’s no evidence, but if you say it enough, people will believe it."

Kirk allies complain that the Chicago Tribune provided Vertolli a prominent outlet in which she could air personal grievances despite warnings about her credibility.

The media blitz began in the pages of Chicago Magazine on January 23, when it was unclear if Kirk would awake from his sudden stroke two days before.

Vertolli told the glossy that "she was not surprised" about Kirk’s stroke and accused him of having an unhealthy lifestyle.

"He doesn’t take care of himself and doesn’t take breaks," Vertolli told the magazine, further alleging that her ex is "not a person who places fitness as a priority."

However, Kirk, a Navy reserve commander who recently completed a two-week tour of duty in the Middle East, was in peak physical condition, according to his physicians.

"To my knowledge, his lifestyle is the lifestyle of a normal, healthy person who works out and eats a reasonable diet and takes care of themselves," Dr. Richard Fessler, the Illinois neurosurgeon who operated on Kirk, told reporters during a press conference the day after Vertolli’s comments were published.

"This is the same woman whose first reaction to hearing that her ex-husband had a stroke was to blame him," said one of those close to the Kirk family.

Vertolli has filed what experts say is a dubious claim with the FEC, which alleges that Kirk violated campaign finance laws by making several payments to a political consultant who was his girlfriend at the time.

The story first came to light in the Chicago Tribune, which reported on the filing and relied on Vertolli and a Democratic lawyer as sources.

"At the heart of the matter is Vertolli's assertion that the Kirk campaign may have improperly hidden money to [then-girlfriend Dodie] McCracken by paying her through another company working for the campaign," Tribune reporter Lighty asserted in writing about the matter. "Because the money was not paid directly to McCracken, her name does not appear in Kirk's federal disclosures."

However, nothing illegal occurred, according to Michael Toner, a government ethics lawyer and former FEC chairman.

"I find this complaint to be utterly frivolous," Toner said in an interview with the Free Beacon. He explained that the law requires campaigns only to report payments to second party vendors—meaning that McCracken’s name is not required by law to appear on official filings.

"As a legal matter I find that complaint to be baffling," he said.

"There’s no requirement whatsoever for the campaign to report a sub-contractor payment," Toner said. "Some people may want that to be part of the law, but it’s not."

Vertolli, for her part, argues that Kirk’s relationship with McCracken raises red flags, and should have been disclosed.

"He tried to hide the fact that Ms. McCracken qualified as a family member as well because of their intimate status," Vertolli said, explaining that she has obtained letters, receipts, and invoices that document the extent of the relationship. "If I had known what [Kirk] was hiding … I could have stayed out of" the campaign.

Asked why she did not step forward sooner, Vertolli said she needed more concrete evidence and wanted to mull over the decision.

"I’m very comfortable with the decisions I’ve made," she said.

Reporter Lighty downplayed the law as written, focusing instead on Vertolli’s attacks and innuendo from a Democratic lawyer, Kirk allies said.

One journalism expert questioned relying on such sources for a story as sensitive as this one.

"There’s always a need to understand the motivation of a source, and if they know what that motivation is, they should proceed with whatever caution is called for," Lois Boynton, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, told the Free Beacon.

Boynton added, "It’s important to determine the reliability of a source, which is why good reporters will verify the information with at least one other."

Several sources and former Kirk campaign employees blasted the Tribune for what they said is its biased coverage.

"A responsible news organization is taking the word of someone they were told was unstable and use it to smear this guy who is in the struggle of his life," said a former Kirk staffer who came into close contact with Vertolli.

Others questioned the motivation of reporter Lighty, whom the Free Beacon has been unable to reach for comment.

"There’s no journalistic way to defend the Tribune’s stories unless it has a political agenda or you don’t care what news is and want to sell papers," said one of the longtime Kirk family confidants.

Vertolli, these insiders claim, has been spiraling out of control since she and Kirk divorced.

"In the last few years, I’ve noticed a substantial change in her personal and professional behavior that makes me question if she is rational or mentally healthy," said one of the sources familiar with the couple.

"If you’ve known someone as long as I have and one day you see the person and they act like a completely different person, you know something is wrong."

The sources described Vertolli as "confrontational," "aggressive," and "unreliable." They also pointed to her lengthy resume as evidence that she has trouble holding down a job.

Vertolli was spotted at a Congressional spouses event with First Lady Michelle Obama last month, though she has not been a Congressional spouse for several years.

Vertolli dismissed attempts to portray her as mentally unstable.

"What is the evidence?" she asked. "That’s the first thing people always say, ‘She’s crazy.’ They’re trying to discredit someone who is shedding light."