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Newspaper swings back at political gadfly Cal Skinner Jr.
By Charles Keeshan | Daily Herald Staff

Cal Skinner

 

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Published: 6/29/2009 12:03 AM

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As an outspoken state legislator, gubernatorial candidate and now blogger, Cal Skinner Jr. is accustomed to dealing with, and sometimes taking on, the press.

Now, however, one local newspaper is taking him on.

The B.F. Shaw Printing Co., the parent company of the McHenry County-based Northwest Herald, is suing Skinner for at least $50,000 in damages, claiming the political commentator damaged the newspaper's reputation with a recent posting on his mchenrycountyblog.com.

The blog - a mix of political commentary, local news and photos of T-shirts, bumper stickers and signs that catch its author's fancy - claimed on June 3 that McHenry County leaders years ago granted the newspaper a multimillion-dollar loan to build a new headquarters in Crystal Lake.

The move by the Republican-dominated board, according to Skinner's post, not only prevented the newspaper from leaving McHenry County, but put it "in the back pocket of the Republican Party."

Skinner also describes the newspaper's current status as "in extremis," a Latin phrase meaning "at the point of death."

The lawsuit, filed in McHenry County Circuit Court, states that the newspaper never received a loan from the county, never contemplated moving out of the county, has never been in the back pocket of the McHenry County Republican Party and is not "in extremis."

"There's nothing more important to the Northwest Herald, or any newspaper, than the integrity of its editorial product," newspaper attorney Don Craven said. "What Mr. Skinner said on his blog attacks that integrity on very false premises."

The newspaper company also contends that Skinner made the statements with "malice or ill will" because of its past stories detailing the former lawmaker's contentious divorce and child custody battle.

Skinner declined to comment, but his attorney, Patrick Ouimet, said he will vigorously fight the suit.

Ouimet said county documents back Skinner's claims of a loan between the county and newspaper ownership. Those documents indicate that in 1985 the county board approved a resolution supporting the issuance of $2.6 million in tax-exempt bonds to fund the construction of the newspaper's Crystal Lake headquarters.

County officials, however, disagree. Deputy County Administrator John Labaj said the newspaper was allowed to take advantage of the county's status to obtain financing at about 80 percent of what was the prime interest rate at the time.

But the company never received any county money, nor was the county on the hook should the newspaper fall behind on the loan, Labaj said. Funding for the loan came through an arrangement between the newspaper company and a private bank, he said.

"They were allowed to use the county's tax-exempt status to get money at a favorable interest rate," Labaj added. "But no county money was ever expended."

As for Skinner's assertions that the newspaper was in cahoots with the local GOP - of which he is a member - Ouimet called that a political opinion protected by the First Amendment.

Craven, himself a First Amendment attorney, had a different take.

"He went beyond opinion and made a statement of fact about the editorial product," he said. "The difference between a newspaper and Mr. Skinner is that Mr. Skinner doesn't care if he's right or not."

The suit, which asks for compensatory and punitive damages, does not state a specific dollar figure being sought, but is filed in a classification of cases asking for more than $50,000. It is scheduled to appear in court for the first time Oct. 15 before Judge Maureen McIntyre.