What the ComEd trial guilty verdicts means for Illinois politics
The fallout from bribery convictions against four former Commonwealth Edison executives and lobbyists may take months or maybe years to sort out, but a federal jury appeared to make a forceful statement with its verdicts.
It strongly disliked how Springfield does business.
The outcome of the seven-week trial of former ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore and former company lobbyists Michael McClain, John Hooker and Jay Doherty — convictions for all four — is certain to impact the racketeering and bribery trial next year of one-time House Speaker Michael Madigan.
The evidence of how those former ComEd officials bribed Madigan — roughly 140 secretly taped audio and video recordings, testimony from a government mole and about three dozen witnesses for the prosecution — underwent an important legal stress test in this trial in putting the ex-speaker in an ugly light.
Portions of that same evidence could be reused in the Madigan trial since part of the case involves the ComEd bribery storyline. A juror on Tuesday evening said that the group saw Madigan at the center of the entire scheme.
“Our perception was that he really did cause this all to happen,” said juror Amanda Schnitker Sayers, a veterinarian from Logan Square. “If it wouldn’t [have] been for him, then these people would not have been in [a] position that they would need to commit crimes in the first place.”
The guilty verdicts in the current case also could ignite new ethics reforms at the statehouse Madigan once commanded. As Illinois history shows, major criminal cases or ethical scandals almost always have forced change.
A federal corruption case that touched former Gov. Jim Edgar’s administration, for example, led to bans on lobbyist gifts and the personal use of campaign funds by state officials. Former Gov. George Ryan’s downfall triggered the creation of state inspectors general and ethics commissions.
And the federal case against former Gov. Rod Blagojevich that culminated with his impeachment, conviction and imprisonment helped drive caps on contributions and a voter-approved change to the state Constitution to allow for the recall of governors.
Madigan is among 12 current or former House and Senate members to face federal charges in the past decade, making the value of all of those past legislative ethics dances a genuinely arguable point.
Reaction from the ruling Democrats in Springfield to the convictions was swift, but devoid of any need for further reform. Illinois Senate President Don Harmon, an Oak Park Democrat issued this terse statement:
“The behavior brought to light and put on display at this trial was shockingly gluttonous and unhealthy to democracy. We’ve taken concrete steps to discourage bad behavior. But most importantly, I believe we have people committed to behaving better.”
And while Republicans at the statehouse may see corruption as a persistent problem, they don’t have the power to make major change.
“We have had an opportunity to tackle ethics in our statehouse for years,” said House Republican leader Tony McCombie in a statement Tuesday. “This should not have been the first step to rooting out corruption in Illinois, but after today, it is clear there must be a sense of urgency in bringing back the people’s trust in state government.”
Indeed, how far legislators are willing to invest in new ethical soul-searching this time worries reformers like Joe Ferguson, Chicago’s former inspector general. He says Illinois is ripe for ethics reforms — if only someone would do something.
“Here we are, after what is an extraordinarily dramatic trial, and it’s been crickets,” said Ferguson, a former federal prosecutor now weighing a possible run for Cook County state’s attorney. “It is abundantly clear from what has played out at this trial and what we have all learned, this is not the way we should be governed.”
Ferguson has ideas.
He advocates creation of a statewide grand jury under the attorney general to explore public corruption cases, tightened conflict of interest laws, broadened revolving-door restraints to slow retiring legislators from becoming lobbyists, and a review of why ex-legislators like McClain can continue drawing state pensions despite felony convictions.
Past fruitless reform
The clock is winding down on the General Assembly’s spring session, which is scheduled to adjourn on May 19th, and Democratic leadership has been neither vocal nor specific about tightening state ethics or laws any further.
A spokesman for second-term Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker said he believes “we must restore the public’s trust in government, and he will continue to work with the General Assembly to ensure that those who violate that trust are held accountable.”
The governor’s office pointed to his enactment of ethics laws that required lobbyists to identify consultants they hire and that mandated additional lobbyist disclosures. He also put his signature on a clean-energy package in 2021 that contained ethics reforms arising from the 2020 deferred prosecution agreement ComEd entered into with the Justice Department.
In that agreement, ComEd acknowledged the broad outlines of the bribery scheme that first toppled Madigan from power and, now, led to convictions of the four former company executives and lobbyists. Under the deferred prosecution agreement, ComEd pledged to cooperate with the feds in later prosecutions and agreed to pay a $200 million fine. In exchange, a federal bribery charge against ComEd for its lobbying misdeeds was set aside.
One ethics provision within the clean-energy package Pritzker’s office cited was a first-time requirement that lawmakers and state officials disclose on their annual state financial disclosure forms whether spouses or other immediate family members worked for utility companies.
But so far, that change has proven to be a rather fruitless endeavor.
In the requirement’s first full year of implementation, a WBEZ analysis of state economic interest statements found that 174 out of 177 lawmakers whose forms were available online did not identify anyone in their families who was employed by public utilities. Statements for three other lawmakers were not available online for review.
To go a step further, of the dozens and dozens of job applicants Madigan and his surrogates allegedly pressured ComEd to hire, none were the ex-speaker’s wife or immediate family members. Instead, prosecutors showed some of those whom Madigan allegedly wanted ComEd to employ were political allies or friends of political friends, including former aldermen, an ex-legislator and some of his most productive 13th Ward precinct captains.
Madigan resigned before the new disclosure requirement was in place. But had he operated under it, he wouldn’t have had to publicly report any of those people.
While criminalizing job recommendations from legislators may not be a viable option, Ferguson suggests changing state law to require each clout-heavy job applicant pushed by a lawmaker be entered into a publicly available log “so everyone knows what legislators are doing.”
How lobbying could be affected
If the now-concluded bribery trial portrayed Madigan as the requester of favors, ComEd’s lobbying team was shown to be the go-along-to-get-along provider of them.
McClain, who once presided over Springfield’s bluest of blue-chip lobbying portfolios, repeatedly told colleagues in emails and intercepted calls presented at trial that the only “client” of his who mattered was the speaker. And when it came to handling Madigan’s requests for favors, McClain said his mantra was to “drop everything and get it done.”
In one wiretapped conversation, McClain and Hooker acknowledged it was their brainchild to steer Madigan-connected, no-work subcontractors to Doherty and his lobbying firm, to whom ComEd would funnel payments to keep the ghosts off the company’s official ledgers.
The state Lobbyist Registration Act, which is largely administered by the secretary of state’s office, mandates ethics training for lobbyists, and state records show McClain, Hooker, Doherty and Pramaggiore completed those courses at various times.
But whatever they learned didn’t avert the misconduct seen by jurors at trial.
The state lobbyist law is silent on what constitutes improper ethical conduct, outside of sexual harassment. It addresses things like when and how lobbyists have to register with the state, what happens if they don’t comply and how they have to report lobbying expenditures.
Not surprisingly, lobbyists rarely face sanctions from the state.
Annual reports from the secretary of state’s inspector general’s office documented eight complaints in 2019 for “improper lobbying activity,” eight in 2020 and another six in 2021. Most wound up being resolved without fines or other sanctions.
The exception was a 2021 sexual harassment case involving a lobbyist for Exelon, ComEd’s corporate parent. In that instance, which didn’t arise during the ComEd trial, the state Executive Ethics Commission imposed $6,000 in fines against that lobbyist and suspended his lobbyist registration. Those steps came after he had already been terminated by Exelon.
The government’s case against the former ComEd defendants put several currently registered lobbyists in the thick of the scheme to shower favors upon Madigan. They weren’t charged with wrongdoing by the Justice Department, and Acting U.S. Attorney Morris Pasqual declined to comment when asked why some named in the case avoided charges.
Those who surfaced in this trial but haven’t been charged include former Madigan fundraiser Victor Reyes. The ex-speaker and McClain demanded that ComEd hire Reyes’ law firm and give it a guaranteed allotment of hours, even though the chief lawyer at the power company testified there wasn’t enough work for Reyes to meet the specified hourly threshold for which Madigan bargained.
Former state Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion, and former Madigan staffer and political operative Shaw Decremer, both of whom also still lobby in Springfield, also are among the uncharged whose names popped up in the bribery trial. They were paid by ComEd, like Doherty, to employ no-work subcontractors from Madigan’s political organization.
It’s not clear existing state ethics laws would apply in any way to those individuals or restrict their abilities to lobby.
The arcane “ethical principles for legislators” law
Whether Madigan himself engaged in criminal activity with his employment-related wheeling-and-dealing will be decided by another jury, in a trial that’s scheduled next April.
But what prosecutors attempted to show over and over again in this current trial is that Madigan engaged in a clear-cut conflict of interest. Prosecutors presented a flurry of back-and-forth emails and recordings to show that Madigan repeatedly pushed resumes on ComEd while it sought approval for legislation that brought the company back from bankruptcy. As the company filled the speaker’s requests, its legislation moved.
Federal prosecutor Diane MacArthur put it this way. “Madigan wanted, ComEd gave, and ComEd got,” she said.
To govern such possible conflicts of interest, one can go digging in the state statute books and settle in on the arcanely identified, permissively-worded section of law known officially as 5 ILCS 420/Article 3, Part 2. In all-capital letters, it’s titled: “ETHICAL PRINCIPLES FOR LEGISLATORS.”
It says “a legislator should avoid accepting or retaining an economic opportunity which presents a substantial threat to his independence of judgment.”
If a lawmaker has a conflict of interest, the law further reads, “he should consider the possibility of eliminating the interest creating the conflict situation. If that is not feasible, he should consider the possibility of abstaining from such official action.”
And then there’s this: If a conflicted legislator decides to take official action anyway, “he should serve the public interest and not the interest of any person.”
But true to form in corruption-stricken Illinois, this section of law is missing something that jurors just dished out on their own in sobering fashion: consequences.
If a legislator like the once-powerful speaker of the House chooses to ignore these “ETHICAL PRINCIPLES,” there are no penalties — and Ferguson believes that should change.
As state law now dictates, these high-minded hallmarks of good behavior “are intended only as guides to legislator conduct and not as rules meant to be enforced by disciplinary action.”
Chicago Sun-Times Jon Seidel contributed.
Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics for WBEZ and was the Chicago Sun-Times long-time Springfield bureau chief.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the number of economic interest statements filed by Illinois state legislators.