Saturday, December 12, 2009

William Rentschler

Posted By on 12.12.09 at 12:57 PM

Rest in peace, William Rentschler, who among several other things should be remembered as a former Chicago newspaper man. Rentschler died a few days ago at the age of 84 in Ohio.

Among those other other things, Rentschler ran Richard Nixon's presidential campaign in Illinois in 1968, and two years later he was a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate. Five years after that was convicted in federal court on 17 counts of conspiracy, mail fraud, and bank fraud. The charges had to do with a Malaysian timber operation.

Rentschler later described himself as the "showcase Republican" that Jim Thompson, the local U.S. attorney in the early 70s before he was elected governor, went after to ward off accusations of partisanship as he prosecuted a raft of prominent Democrats, led by former governor Otto Kerner. In a 1995 Hot Type column, I wrote that "the life he's fashioned for himself since his release [from prison] has been that of a fearless journalist alerting the public to prosecutorial tyranny. In columns and editorials written in the mid-80s for a string of North Shore newspapers he owned, he contended that Thompson had perfected 'the technique of political assassination,' that within the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago 'there is an arrogance that smacks of the police state,' that there is a 'Thompson Cabal . . . whose tentacles of influence have spread octopus-like through the federal prosecutorial apparatus in Chicago, the federal bench, and some of Chicago's biggest law firms.' To 'Thompson and his cronies' Rentschler attributed 'Machiavellian cunning.'"

At the time I wrote, Rentschler had become an occasional Sun-Times columnist who'd just lambasted Thompson in one of those columns for "his sensational, successful, publicity-bathed prosecution" of Kerner. I pointed out that he'd made no mention of his own legal history with Thompson, an unfortunate concealment of "profound bias." Rentschler told me, "I felt my case was relatively inconsequential." while Kerner was "the biggest hide of all the hides that Jim Thompson went after."

A year later, the Chicago Headline Club introduced an Ethics in Journalism Award, which got off to an interesting start by being given to Rentschler "for editorial integrity and a body of work spanning decades in columns and stories that tackled tough issues." According to the lengthy death notice I linked to at the beginning of this post, it was the honor he was most proud of.

Rentschler wrote at least once for the Reader. A 1994 article on his favorite subject, unjust and politically driven prosecutions, assailed Jim Ryan, the Republican Du Page County state's attorney then running for Illinois attorney general, and Roland Burris, the Democratic incumbent attorney general then running for governor. Rentschler examined the cases of two men "sentenced for vicious murders they almost certainly did not commit" — Rolando Cruz, "in prison because of Jim Ryan's tenacious pursuit of a prosecution that is now widely regarded as a sham." and the far more obscure Steve Shores, who'd been convicted of murdering a security guard on Chicago's south side in 1982. Despite compelling evidence that Cruz and Shores were both innocent, "Burris and his staff have ignored every entreaty and fought fiercely to uphold the convictions and let justice be damned."

The article was headlined, "Prisoners of Politics / Two men waste away in prison, one on death row, because Roland Burris, the man who would be governor, lacks the courage to let them be tried again."

At his third trial, Cruz was acquitted in 1995. After filing his third habeas petition, Shores was freed in 1996. I regretted the ethics award Rentschler got in '96 and I'm sure I questioned our running anything by him in '94. Burris is in the Senate today, and Ryan's a candidate for governor, but Rentschler's article has held up better than they have.

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