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Dumped on by Silver Shovel

Jorge Oclander is my friend. Ambrosio Medrano is Oclander's. A year ago Oclander, then a reporter at the Sun-Times, faced a personal crisis that required a sum of money he didn't have, and Medrano was one of the friends he borrowed from to get it. Medrano, at the time a Chicago alderman of no particular fame or notoriety, lent Oclander about $800. The crisis passed. Knowing why he needed the money, I wouldn't fault Oclander if he'd knocked on every cell door in Stateville to raise it.

Last January, Medrano's life became a nightmare. He was flung from obscurity onto Chicago's front pages as the first alderman indicted in the FBI investigation known as Silver Shovel. He pleaded guilty to various acts of official corruption, left the City Council, and is now serving a 30-month sentence in a federal prison.

Oclander's life briefly turned pretty bleak too. Over the summer someone apparently tipped off the Sun-Times that its reporter owed money to a corrupt ex-alderman. Oclander immediately felt the ground at the paper shifting beneath his feet, and when he finally sat down in mid-August with editor in chief Nigel Wade it was to discuss his resignation. Oclander told Wade he was leaving to become editor in chief of La Raza, a position that had been offered to him weeks before. Wade didn't try to talk him out of it.

"They gave me a wonderful letter of reference," Oclander told me, insisting that leaving was his choice--a version that others at the Sun-Times support. But the changed atmosphere caused by the Medrano loan made staying on intolerable. "We discussed the issue," he said. "They weren't happy, and I wasn't happy that they weren't happy. Because nothing happened! There's no issue. What's the issue?"

The issues would have been (1) Oclander's failure to mention the debt to his editors and (2) simple appearances. Yet when Silver Shovel broke, his open friendship with Medrano was a prized asset. "They came to my desk and said, 'Can you get hold of your friend Ambrosio? Do you think he'll talk to you?'" Oclander remembered. "And I said, 'Yeah, he'll talk to me.' And I called him. Most politicians have three phone numbers. One is their office number. One is the home phone number for public consumption. And the third is where they are. I had all three. It wasn't any big deal to get hold of him the night everybody was screaming that he was indicted. In fact he wasn't in. He called me back. Right off the bat he said, 'There are some things I'm not going to tell you, because I know you'll report them.'"

Even so, Oclander added a fresh piece to the story. He found out Medrano had been introduced to mole John Christopher by Alderman Allan Streeter. Streeter would eventually become an even more sensational figure than Medrano. He was exposed as the snitch who wore a wire to tape other aldermen.

When the story broke, and the news desk was hollering at Oclander to find his pal, he could have warned the desk that he owed Medrano money. "I never even thought about it," Oclander told me. "What do you think I was thinking of when they came up to me and said, 'Can you get your friend Medrano?' Get the story! I got the story. Isn't that what I was supposed to do?"

If instead he'd replied, "You should know something. There may be a problem," it would have been the last thing the desk wanted to hear. "Call him anyway," a frantic editor might have barked. Or he might have asked Oclander for Medrano's numbers and given them to another reporter, who would have placed a call that Medrano would never have returned.

If you had known, and only you had known, that Medrano was taking bribes, would you have gone with the story? I asked Oclander.

"I'd have written it," he said. "Anybody who knows me knows I'd have written it. I was always kind of pissed off I didn't find out about it first. 'Jesus, Ambrosio. If you're going to confess, confess to me!' I'd have gotten down on my knees for the story, to be honest with you."

Another reporter told me Medrano must have hated Oclander's stories. "Oclander got the money, but he was writing about how he was this slime bag."

But all Medrano, who wept at his July sentencing and vowed to take prison "like a man," would admit to feeling was "pretty hurt" that "something personal between Jorge and I should have interfered with his employment at the Sun-Times." Medrano and I talked a few days before he left for prison. "He knew absolutely nothing about what was going on in my personal life, much less with Silver Shovel. Let me make that perfectly clear," Medrano said. "I think he wrote some articles about me even after Silver Shovel. He didn't let what happened between us on a personal basis interfere with his job. I know that's hard to believe in this cynical world."

Medrano's far from alone in insisting on Oclander's honor. "I know the facts," said Charles Nicodemus, a former Sun-Times colleague, "and at no time in my view was there ever any question about Jorge's integrity. He's a hell of a journalist."

I've known Oclander since he was a La Raza reporter back in early 1994, writing stories that would help send schools superintendent Sharon Grant to prison. I shared his exuberance last May when he won a Lisagor for a story exposing the ties of Chicago cops to Latino gangs. I second Nicodemus.

Nigel Wade has been heard to proclaim around the newsroom that the Sun-Times needs to find someone to fill the "Jorge spot." The reporter who created the Jorge spot is back at La Raza, where he now runs the entire editorial operation.

"I envy him the situation he's in," Nicodemus told me. "I've been very public for some time that the Sun-Times and all the media do not properly cover the Hispanic community, which is the fastest growing ethnic group in this city and a logical target for coverage. I really feel personally frustrated because I don't find anyone around here with the interest in covering the Hispanic community simply as a source of news stories that should be news everywhere."

Page one of last week's La Raza carried two striking examples of what Nicodemus was getting at. A Chicago man named Victor Manuel Nieves was acquitted after spending six years in jail awaiting trial for a murder in Elmwood Park; Nieves's mother told La Raza that she'd paid his original attorney $20,000, and then he'd walked away from the case. And the Franklin Park school district had refused to enroll an American-born youth named Joel Rodriguez Salazar for classes because he was living with an aunt while his parents were back in Mexico. Congressman Luis Gutierrez denounced the district's decision as tantamount to "deportation" of an American citizen. "It forces him to return to his parents' country" to get an education.

"What I learned at the Sun-Times," said Oclander, "is how important it is to be the one who decides what gets in and what doesn't. That's why all of a sudden becoming an editor became very attractive to me. I get to keep on writing, and I also get to teach people to be journalists. A lot of it's stuff I learned at the Sun-Times from great people, and I'll be very specific: Steve Huntley [metro editor], Tom McNamee [reporter], and Don Hayner [city editor]."

What did you learn from the Medrano incident? I asked.

Oclander paused for dramatic effect. "Nothing," he said. "What am I supposed to say--that I shouldn't be friends with a source? He's my friend. He's my friend today--I send him La Raza. What he did is wrong. He violated a public trust, and when they asked me to call him I did without a moment's hesitation.

"Look, I had been friends with Ambrosio Medrano for six years. I needed help. I turned around to my friend and said, 'Can you help me?' He helped. There was never any discussion of anything. He knew who I was. I knew who he was. That's the way it is in our culture. You turn around and talk to a friend."

Did he ever-- ? I began.

"Never!" said Oclander. "He knew better."

Oclander's past and present boss is Luis Rossi, publisher of La Raza. "I know that he went through difficult moments economically," Rossi told me. "I even helped him myself. It wasn't just Medrano--it was a lot of people who helped him. There was no money that went under the table. The only way I feel there's something suspicious is if I see an article where he helped Medrano. But you're going to see he's always been professional."

Nigel Wade wouldn't take the time to discuss Oclander. When I called for comment he complained about other stories. "You didn't give me a fair crack of the whip," he said, and hung up.

News Bites

Ben Joravsky's Neighborhood News piece in this issue mentions a lively tension between Congressman Luis Gutierrez and an occasional paper called El Pito that seems to exist only to denounce and ridicule him. This tension may or may not have had anything to do with the mysterious demolition of an apartment building owned by a realtor who may or may not be one of El Pito's nominally mysterious publishers. Joravsky gallantly translated the paper's name as "the whistle," which is correct. In street slang, however, it also means "the dick," and in any event the paper's motto is "Blow me."

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia came in for criticism this week for asserting in a speech that "it is absolutely plain that there is no right to die." Scalia's timing was questioned because an assisted-suicide case is now before the Court. I'm puzzled. Does he believe the nation's graveyards are full of scofflaws?

The knee-whacking story went on for weeks, but when Tonya Harding does a good deed, how much ink does she get? One lousy paragraph. Harding dialed 911 and gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to revive an 81-year-old woman with a weak heart. "I thank God I was there," said Harding, who'd impulsively stopped to play video poker in the bar where the woman collapsed.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.

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