CHICAGO - It’s the biggest federal corruption investigation in years, but the most remarkable thing about the Commonwealth Edison bribery probe in 2021 might be what didn’t happen.
The year began with pressure mounting on Michael Madigan, the then-powerful House speaker whose ironclad grip on the General Assembly was slipping after being exposed the previous summer as “Public Official A” in the ComEd scandal and again in a bombshell postelection indictment of a key player and others alleging ComEd paid bribes to win his influence in Springfield.
By the end of January, Madigan was out as speaker after a record reign of nearly 40 years. He resigned his House seat and his position as head of the state Democratic Party soon after, and rumors began to bubble at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse that prosecutors were readying to file a superseding indictment potentially adding Madigan to the already explosive case.
Those rumors waxed and waned in legal and political circles for weeks, culminating in May, when an attorney for one of four defendants already charged in the alleged scheme told a federal judge there had been “intimations” that new charges were imminent.
That was seven months ago. And as the year drew to a close, crickets.
With the grand jury investigation still open, 2022 is certain to bring more speculation over whether Madigan, who will turn 80 in April, will ever be charged. He has repeatedly and vehemently denied wrongdoing.
Longtime observers of Chicago’s federal court know that the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office operate on their own timetable and that trying to read tea leaves is an often fruitless exercise.
But if history is any guide, the ComEd case appears to be progressing in similar fashion as many big political corruption probes that have come before it, with a prominent politician tacitly identified in indictments against associates and underlings, a sure sign investigators are trying to work their way up the political food chain.
“This is a playbook that’s been run time and time again,” said Jeffrey Cramer, a former federal prosecutor who is now senior managing director of Guidepost Solutions. “A year may seem like a long time, but in the Dirksen Federal Building, especially during a pandemic where things slowed down for a while, it’s not unreasonable.”
Cramer said the coming year will be crucial for the direction and timeline of the case, as other defendants already charged argue pretrial motions and will likely be forced into making the choice to plead guilty or go to trial.
“Some of those individuals could decide to cooperate, and the case could become much stronger,” Cramer said. “(Prosecutors) can’t do any more covert investigation, but it’s not like all the evidence is in right now. ... Just because the trigger hasn’t been pulled yet certainly doesn’t mean it won’t in the future.”
Much of the evidence in the case has already been laid out in the indictment brought in November 2020 against Madigan’s longtime confidante, Michael McClain, and three others who allegedly helped orchestrate the bribery campaign: former ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore, lobbyist John Hooker and consultant Jay Doherty, the former head of the City Club of Chicago. All four have pleaded not guilty to bribery conspiracy charges.
The alleged scheme has also been detailed in a parallel case against ComEd, which was charged with bribery in July 2020 and has admitted to hiring a long list of Madigan-connected consultants in what were often do-nothing jobs to help grease the wheels for legislation the utility wanted passed in Springfield.
ComEd agreed to pay a record $200 million fine and cooperate in the probe in exchange for the charges being dropped in three years.
Meanwhile, the indictment against McClain and his co-defendants is heating up, with a jury trial tentatively set for September.
Before that happens, U.S. District Judge Harold Leinenweber is expected to rule in the coming months on several defense motions challenging the evidence in the case, including allegations that prosecutors misused the federal bribery statute by trying to criminalize legal lobbying and consulting.
“The government does not allege any connection between the jobs and any actions by (Madigan),” lawyers for the defendants wrote in a motion to dismiss certain counts earlier this year. “Adopting the government’s view would put huge numbers of American citizens at risk of prosecution for their ordinary participation in the political process.”
That argument is strikingly similar to one made in the case against another high-profile elected official, former Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who claimed that his efforts to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama in 2008 were not tied directly to any campaign donations, jobs or other things of value, and therefore did not constitute a bribe.
Defense attorneys in the McClain case also referenced another famous Illinois politician, Abraham Lincoln, noting that the revered president asked in May 1863 that U.S. Trust Corp. hire the nephew of a Union Army general killed in a Civil War battle.
“Even Abraham Lincoln, renowned for his honesty, made job recommendations while serving as president,” their motion stated.
In response, prosecutors have argued the federal bribery law does not require a quid pro quo, and even if it did, the allegations in the indictment make clear that Madigan was in on the scheme.
Over a nine-year period, ComEd provided at least $700,000 in benefits to key Madigan political operatives that “did not consist merely of lobbying” and proved to be an effective means to gain influence at the Capitol, Assistant U.S. Attorney Amarjeet Bhachu wrote in court filing last year.
“Here, the charges are not based on political logrolling, but rather, on private benefits in the form of jobs, contracts, and payments offered to be paid by a private company in order to influence and reward a legislator in carrying out his official duties,” Bhachu wrote.
In their most recent filing last month, prosecutors wrote they are not required to prove that ComEd intended to bribe Madigan for support on any particular legislation, but rather provided an ongoing “stream of benefits” to him in hopes it would help the company with its overall legislative agenda.
The indictment alleged that beginning in 2011, the defendants “arranged for various associates” of Madigan — including his political allies and campaign workers — to “obtain jobs, contracts and monetary payments” from ComEd, even in instances where they did little or no actual work.
McClain and the other defendants also conspired to have ComEd hire a Madigan-favored law firm and lawyer, previously identified in public testimony as Victor Reyes of Reyes Kurson, and to accept into ComEd’s summer internship program a certain number of students who lived in Madigan’s 13th Ward, according to the charges.
Pramaggiore and McClain also allegedly took steps to have an individual appointed to ComEd’s board of directors at the request of Madigan and McClain, the indictment stated. The Tribune has identified the appointee as Juan Ochoa, the former head of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority of Chicago.
Attorneys for Doherty, a onetime consultant to ComEd and former head of the City Club of Chicago, argued in a legal filing that prosecutors had failed to present to the grand jury any evidence that jobs, internships or board seats mentioned in the indictment were not bona fide.
While the four people named in the indictment have pleaded not guilty, another former ComEd executive, Fidel Marquez, was charged separately and pleaded guilty to bribery conspiracy. Marquez is seen as a linchpin to the case since he started cooperating before the investigation went public and made secret recordings of his colleagues for the FBI.
Meanwhile, Madigan, for decades one of the state’s most prominent and powerful politicians, has largely disappeared from the political stage as the cloud of the investigation has hung over him.
While the guessing game about Madigan’s legal fate continues at the federal courthouse, more activity is bubbling around him.
After losing the speakership, Madigan suffered more political embarrassment by handpicking his successor from his 13th Ward organization, only to have to immediately force him out when the ex-speaker learned of “alleged questionable conduct.”
In May, Madigan’s longtime chief of staff, Tim Mapes, was charged with lying to the federal grand jury investigating the ComEd scandal. He pleaded not guilty, but the case drew extra attention because Mapes had been given immunity to testify truthfully.
Beyond the federal probe, the Illinois Commerce Commission has launched its own investigation and a second one required by a new energy law. One key question is whether ComEd recovered costs from customers that were “not properly recoverable.”
ComEd offered $21.1 million to address the issue, but Abe Scarr, the head of the public interest research group known as Illinois PIRG, called it “chump change” worth less than $5 per residential customer.
Though his political career is largely over, Madigan continues to lord over a massive campaign war chest, which held more than $12.5 million, based on its last report.
The ex-speaker is spending a lot of time nowadays in his longtime 13th Ward headquarters at 65th and Pulaski, where he still rules as ward committeeman, the according to a Madigan insider.
He did not even make a personal appearance for the Cook County Democrats’ candidate slating session.
One of Madigan’s longtime precinct captains sought endorsement for a circuit court judgeship but ended up the eighth alternate — ranking 17th overall in a lineup behind nine endorsed candidates.
The real test of political strength, of course, will be who wins the election, but some Madigan watchers viewed the low ranking of a 13th Ward judicial candidate as a sign that the once all-powerful speaker’s influence may be diminishing even further.
Cramer, the former federal prosecutor, said Illinois politicians who’ve found themselves in the crosshairs of federal investigators have often decided to fade into the background in hopes prosecutors lose interest. But that’s unlikely with someone of Madigan’s stature.
“I don’t get the sense they’re just going to walk away,” he said.