Breaking Down The ComEd Patronage Scandal — And What's Next For Michael Madigan House Speaker and Democratic Party boss Michael Madigan has been investigated by the feds before — and emerged unscathed. Here's why this time could be different.
From NPR station

WBEZ Chicago

NPR logo Breaking Down The ComEd Patronage Scandal — And What's Next For Michael Madigan

Breaking Down The ComEd Patronage Scandal — And What's Next For Michael Madigan

Illinois House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, left, and Illinois Speaker of the House Mike Madigan, D-Chicago, part ways after conversing on the floor during the spring legislative session Thursday, May 21, 2020. The State Journal-Register/via AP hide caption

toggle caption
The State Journal-Register/via AP

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan has attained two distinctions since becoming a legislative leader during Ronald Reagan's first term and before personal computers were a thing.

First, the Southwest Side Democrat has become the longest-serving legislative House speaker in American history. Second, he's managed to avoid criminal charges in a state so infamous for its array of political rapscallions that the word "corruption" might be chiseled into the official state credo.

But now Madigan faces an unprecedented and dangerous, new legal threat. On Friday, federal prosecutors sent new grand jury subpoenas to Madigan's offices and made a separate court filing in which utility giant Commonwealth Edison admitted to engaging in bribery to burnish its image with Madigan as it looked to advance a high-stakes Springfield agenda.

Here are some of the main takeaways from the political shockwaves launched from the 219 S. Dearborn offices of U.S. Attorney John Lausch.

Grand jury subpoenas issued as feds zoom in on Madigan

In a dramatic widening of their corruption investigation, federal prosecutors on Friday unleashed multiple grand jury subpoenas aimed at Madigan, including one issued to the House speaker's office.

Article continues below

A Madigan statement acknowledged the subpoenas, but aides would not divulge how many others had been issued or what entities received them — including Madigan's law firm, his 13th Ward political office or the Democratic Party of Illinois, of which he's chairman.

The one subpoena to the speaker's state government office released Friday showed federal investigators had broadened their Madigan-centric public corruption probe beyond just ComEd to include AT&T, Walgreens, Rush University Medical Center and a host of political operatives and lobbyists.

Investigators sought records involving members of Madigan's political organization, his Madigan & Getzendanner law firm, four former state legislators, four former or current Chicago aldermen and a Chinatown land deal in which government mole and former Chicago Ald. Danny Solis were at the center.

A Rush University Medical Center spokesman confirmed it, too, had received a subpoena seeking records "reflecting work by, and communications with, certain government relations consultants" since 2014.

Spokesmen for both Walgreens and Madigan & Getzendanner declined to comment, and AT&T did not respond to a WBEZ inquiry about the subpoenas. Solis could not be reached.

Even after Friday's developments, Madigan's aides vociferously defended his honor, saying he never has engaged in criminal wrongdoing, never pushed someone for a no-show job, never offered favoritism to employers willing to hire his preferred job applicants and never tied legislative action to "improper motives."

Madigan has been subpoenaed by federal investigators before, but this investigation is alleging a much deeper scheme that puts the speaker and his political operation in the federal government's crosshairs unlike ever before.

Contracts and legislation

The centerpiece of ComEd's corrupt lobbying practices is the manner in which it lavished contracts and subcontracts on Madigan's supporters, dating all the way back to 2011 and lasting through 2019. The feds say that Madigan allies benefiting from ComEd's largesse typically did little to no work for the power company.

That corporate generosity came at the same time the state-regulated utility scored big legislative wins in Springfield that required the speaker's blessing, including legislation that benefited ComEd to the tune of more than $150 million, according to the agreement.

In 2016 alone, the Madigan-led House allowed ComEd's corporate parent, Exelon, to hit ComEd ratepayers with as much as a $2.3 billion, 10-year rate increase to subsidize two of Exelon's financially flagging nuclear plants.

Multiple times, the federal filing said, ComEd took steps to benefit Madigan. That included paying an unnamed "Consultant 1," who then passed the money to Madigan's associates who were subcontractors – an arrangement that evaded public disclosure.

WBEZ has previously reported that Jay Doherty, president of the City Club of Chicago public affairs group, was being investigated for being a "pass through" for the utility's deals with politically connected individuals. Both ComEd and the City Club cut ties with Doherty after the radio station reported on his connections to the federal investigation.

'An old-fashioned political patronage system'

Besides the lure of contracts, ComEd, with its 6,000-person payroll, offered up jobs for those favored by Madigan. That's according to another key figure identified in Friday's court filing only as "Individual A," a former state lawmaker who served in the state House for a decade starting in 1972, and who later went on to lobby ComEd and have a "close personal relationship" with Madigan.

Retired lobbyist Michael McClain, who's been a central figure in the criminal probe, fits all of those details.

Prosecutors detailed a March 2019 conversation between Individual A and ComEd personnel about the importance of continuing to keep paying those with Madigan clout.

Individual A "explained that for decades, [Madigan] had named individuals to be ComEd employees, such as meter readers, as part of an 'old-fashioned patronage system,'" prosecutors alleged in the filing.

In response, the utility company official acknowledged maintaining a hiring record friendly to Madigan's whims "could be a 'chip' used by ComEd, the document stated.

Madigan wanted an ally on ComEd's board

Federal investigators also alleged in Friday's filing that the former CEO of ComEd even went so far as to appoint a Madigan ally to the power company's board of directors, under pressure from the speaker's camp.

Juan Ochoa fits the description of that board member, according to regulatory documents. Ochoa is the former CEO of the organization that manages the McCormick Place convention center. In an interview with WBEZ Friday, an Exelon official said Ochoa is no longer a board member.

Investigators said Madigan began pushing for the appointment of an unnamed board member in 2017 but encountered internal resistance from the company.

By May 2018, Individual A — who appears to be McClain — intervened with then-CEO Anne Pramaggiore, who instead offered Madigan's pick a part-time gig that would have paid the same as a board membership, roughly $78,000 a year.

But that wasn't good enough, the filing said.

By September of that year, Pramaggiore assured Individual A that she was still pushing to get Madigan's ally appointed to the ComEd board. According to the feds, she said, "You take good care of me, and so does our friend [Madigan], and I will do the best that I can to, to take care of you".

The court filing says Madigan's board pick was ratified on April 26, 2019 – the same day Ochoa joined the company, according to regulatory documents.

Could Friday's "upsetting" developments spur a GOP revival?

Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker called the newly filed accusations about Madigan 'upsetting' and went so far as to say the speaker should relinquish power if any of them are proven true.

"When I think about the possibility of people committing these kinds of wrongdoings, I think people who are in public service need to live up to the integrity of the job they're asked to do," the governor said. "If it turns out these things are true, he's going to have to resign."

Since 2012, when Republicans hawked t-shirts and other novelties silk-screened with anti-Madigan screeds, the GOP has meandered its way into super-minority status in both the Illinois House and Senate.

Yet Friday's developments lend credence to at least some of what the GOP has been saying for years about Madigan, and could give new traction and vitality to those old talking points heading into November's elections.

Just as Pritzker did, both Senate Minority Leader Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, and House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, said Friday that Madigan should step down if the federal allegations against him are proven.

"The allegations presented today are troubling and downright depressing," Durkin said. "Speaker Madigan needs to 'speak' up on this issue, and if the allegations are true, he needs to resign immediately."

Dave McKinney and Tony Arnold cover Illinois politics and government for WBEZ. Follow them on Twitter @davemckinney and @tonyjarnold.

Questions or comments about the story?

WBEZ Chicago values your feedback.

From NPR station

WBEZ Chicago