CHICAGO (AP) — Sen. Mark Kirk's campaign has launched an unusual public attack on a Chicago Tribune reporter, accusing him of "bullying" former and current staff members with questions about allegations that the Illinois Republican has been physically and verbally abusive toward employees.
Kevin Artl, who is Kirk's re-election campaign manager, released a memo this week in which he said Tribune reporter Todd Lighty had contacted more than 15 people connected with Kirk, including current and former staffers and the senator's sister and mother. According to Artl, Lighty has identified four former staffers who the reporter says were subjected to abusive treatment. Artl says those staffers have denied any abuse took place. More broadly, the campaign denies that Kirk has been abusive toward any staff members.
The criticism is especially unusual because it preceded the publication of any story. The Tribune declined to say Saturday whether it even planned to go forward with a story, saying it does not comment on unpublished reporting. But it did issue a statement defending the conduct of Lighty, saying "good reporters ask tough questions."
"The Kirk campaign has wholly mischaracterized Lighty's diligence and thoroughness," Tribune editor Gerould Kern said in the statement. "Lighty has been direct, open and honest at all times with the Kirk staff in his reporting. He is a meticulous and professional journalist."
In a letter addressed to Kern and Tribune managing editor Peter Kendall, Artl threatened legal action if the reporter continued to "harass Senator Kirk's family and associates — or should he print any falsehoods without a reasonable basis to believe them accurate."
Artl said Lighty has persisted despite denials from the four former staffers, including one who signed a sworn affidavit saying he enjoyed working for Kirk and that the senator had never subjected him to verbal or physical abuse.
"We respect the role of your newspaper in aggressively reporting stories that you deem newsworthy," Artl wrote in the letter, which the campaign released to reporters. "But in pursuing those stories, one of your reporters, Todd Lighty, has crossed the line from acceptable aggressive reporting to harassment of people who aren't telling him what he wants to hear."
The letter goes into substantial detail, even tallying the number of calls, text messages, emails and visits that each person received from the reporter.
The first-term Illinois Republican went through a grueling recovery after a 2012 stroke.
He has drawn attention in recent months with a number of public gaffes, including one in which Kirk was caught on an open microphone calling presidential hopeful and South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham a "bro with no ho" because he is unmarried.
The Kirk campaign's attack on the reporter was first reported in the Illinois Capitol Fax blog on Friday.
The campaign also released what it said were email exchanges with Lighty in which the reporter describes several alleged instances of abusive behavior by the senator.
In one of those instances, Kirk is said to have berated an aide after he was late picking the senator up at O'Hare International Airport, according to the Kirk campaign's account of the email exchange.
The aide, Seth Jansen, who no longer works for Kirk, issued a statement through the campaign staff saying, "The inference or accusation that Senator Kirk acted inappropriately towards me is simply false."
An earlier version of this story was corrected to reflect that the campaign's criticism preceded the Chicago Tribune's publication of any story, not that it pre-empted it.