CHICAGO — After four decades at the helm of Illinois politics, Michael Madigan may no longer be “Mr. Speaker,” but he still retains a decidedly more ignominious title.
Public Official A.
Madigan, whose record run as House speaker ended in stunning fashion last week, remains the unnamed politician at the center of an ongoing federal corruption probe that so far has led to bribery charges against one of his closest confidants and several others tied to utility giant Commonwealth Edison.
Madigan has not been charged and has vehemently denied any wrongdoing. But now that he’s lost the speaker’s gavel, there has been talk in some political circles of what it might mean for the U.S. attorney’s office and its still-active investigation.
Does Madigan’s lost stature take any wind out of the feds’ sails? Would prosecutors count his abdication a victory and back off?
Not a chance, legal experts and former feds told the Tribune.
“If they are convinced that Michael Madigan is guilty of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt, they will indict him even if he’s dog catcher for the 13th Ward,” said Ronald Safer, a former federal prosecutor and partner in the law firm Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila LLP. “It doesn’t matter to them. ... It’s not how prosecutors operate.”
State government has a history of lawmakers resigning while facing federal heat, including some who wound up escaping criminal charges.
Madigan’s situation is different, experts said. For one, he had reached the pinnacle of political power, the longest-running state House speaker in the country who for years has bankrolled the campaigns of favored Democrats with his multimillion-dollar war chest. He controlled everything from what legislation got considered in Springfield to how district maps were drawn.
His profile arguably remains sky high, and the investigation swirling around him doesn’t appear to be one investigators would easily abandon. It has unraveled an alleged scheme that is extraordinarily complex, and untold man hours have been expended, wiretaps conducted and search warrants executed.
A grand jury initially impaneled in January 2019 was hearing evidence as recently as mid-December.
Meanwhile, ComEd already has admitted in a deferred prosecution agreement that its CEO and a phalanx of high-paid lobbyists made at least $1.5 million in illicit payments to Madigan-favored consultants, a group who performed largely do-nothing jobs. The arrangement allegedly helped usher through legislation that’s had massive implications for ComEd and millions of its Illinois customers.
ComEd is cooperating with the investigation, as is Fidel Marquez, a former ComEd vice president who pleaded guilty to his role in the alleged scheme last year.
In November, a federal grand jury indicted Michael McClain, a longtime ComEd lobbyist and trusted friend to Madigan, as well as former ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore and lobbyists John Hooker and Jay Doherty on bribery conspiracy charges. All four have pleaded not guilty.
Where the investigation will ultimately land remains to be seen. But Juliet Sorensen, a former federal prosecutor and now professor at Northwestern University Law School, said that any charging decisions by the U.S. attorney would be based on the “quantum of evidence” gathered against Madigan, not his sudden loss of power.
“Madigan stepping down as speaker was a political calculus in response to waning political support,” Sorensen said. “They’re not totally disconnected — the waning support is related to the ComEd investigation and the effect that’s had — but it doesn’t signal one way or another what will happen to him in that probe or whether or not he’s likely to be charged.”
Joseph Fitzpatrick, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney John Lausch, declined to comment on the political developments out of Springfield, saying only that the investigation “ongoing.”
To be sure, the bombshell developments around Madigan weren’t the first time a state politician has had a career altered by federal scrutiny.
Nearly two decades ago, federal authorities investigated the General Assembly over allegations of using state legislative staffers to do political work on state government time. The House Republicans and both the House and Senate Democrats were reviewed during the probe, though no lawmaker was charged with a crime.
The publicity surrounding the investigation did contribute to House Minority Leader Lee Daniels, R-Elmhurst, stepping down from chairmanship of the state Republican Party and eventually giving up his legislative leadership role.
Mike Tristano, Daniels’ chief of staff, later pleaded guilty to a fraud charge for assigning legislative staffers to do campaign work on state time and was sentenced to a year in prison.
The investigations arose during a time when Republican Gov. George Ryan was under scrutiny for a licenses-for-bribes investigation in his previous office of secretary of state.
While Ryan ran for governor in 1998, some of his former employees at the secretary of state’s local facilities where licenses are issued were indicted. At that early point in the investigation, then-U.S. Attorney Scott Lassar said Ryan was not a target of the investigation.
That took some of the political pressure off of Ryan. But as some of Ryan’s associates were indicted, the governor was wounded so badly by the growing scandal he would have had a difficult time winning reelection. He opted against running for a second term and was indicted after he left office on corruption counts that eventually sent him to prison.
In February 2011, then-state Sen. Rickey “Hollywood” Hendon abruptly quit about six months after prosecutors armed with grand jury subpoenas sought records dealing with state grant programs. Among them were groups that won money for after-school and job-training programs, including several that were part of a 2008 Tribune investigation into Hendon’s sponsorship of after-school grants.
“I’m out. Out is out,” Hendon told the Tribune at the time.
Hendon was never charged, but others were in the ensuing months and years.
Since then, Hendon has made at least $900,000 working on political campaigns, more than half of that from businessman Willie Wilson’s losing campaigns for public office, according to campaign spending reports. The former West Side alderman recently released a new music video, “Rona Money,” in which he implores Congress to cut some COVID-19 pandemic relief checks.
Resignation didn’t prompt prosecutors to back off an investigation of former state Rep. Connie Howard, who retired in July 2012 amid the federal grant probe.
About a year later, she pleaded guilty to diverting as much as $28,000 for her personal and political use from a scholarship fund she created to benefit needy students. A quirk in state law allowed her to collect at least $195,000 in pension benefits before she was sentenced in late 2015.
On the other hand, appointed West Side Democratic Rep. Derrick Smith had only been in office a few months when he was charged in federal court with taking a $7,000 bribe for a legislative favor. He then won his primary election the following week.
With Madigan in charge, the Illinois House soon tossed Smith from office, making him the first lawmaker expelled from the chamber for alleged criminal behavior in 107 years. Despite that, Smith was back after winning the general election, though he eventually was convicted and sentenced to prison.
Last year, Rep. Luis Arroyo, D-Chicago, faced potential expulsion following a federal bribery-related charge involving then-Sen. Terry Link, a Lake County Democrat who was wearing a wire.
Arroyo was charged with one count of federal program bribery alleging he agreed to pay a state senator $2,500 a month in kickbacks, in exchange for the senator’s support on legislation involving video gambling sweepstakes machines.
As the House geared up to toss Arroyo, though, he resigned. Link later resigned and pleaded guilty in federal court last September to tax evasion.
And then there is the case of Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Chicago.
Sandoval resigned Jan. 1, 2020, after the FBI swooped in to raid his Capitol office over the prior summer. He pleaded guilty weeks later to taking bribes from a red-light camera company executive. The former Senate Transportation Committee chairman was still cooperating with the government when he died of complications from COVID-19 in December.
A game-changing probe
Even if Madigan is never charged in the ComEd case, the mere implication of his involvement in the utility’s jobs-for-favors effort to woo him has changed the landscape of Illinois politics.
Just two years ago, Madigan was sworn in to his 18th term as speaker in the House he had led for all but two years since 1983.
As chairman of the state’s Democratic Party, Madigan was riding high. Democrats had swept all six statewide offices. J.B. Pritzker had won the state’s top job by defeating Madigan’s political nemesis, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who had spent four years and tens of millions of dollars in attack ads blaming the speaker for everything wrong about state government.
Democrats quickly approved more casinos, recreational marijuana, sports betting and a $45 billion construction plan — a pork-barrel bonanza that let rank-and-file lawmakers spread millions of dollars across their districts.
From the House floor, a buoyant Madigan hailed the first spring session under Pritzker as “an extraordinarily productive session of the General Assembly. Simply historic.”
But what wasn’t known publicly until later is that federal authorities had quietly executed raids on three of Madigan’s longtime allies in mid-May 2019, just over two weeks before the legislative session had wrapped up with a string of blockbuster deals.
A series of problems
The burgeoning federal probe certainly wasn’t Madigan’s only problem. In 2018, a female campaign worker called out one of Madigan’s top political operatives for inappropriate advances, sparking a sexual harassment scandal at the height of the national #MeToo movement that weakened Madigan politically. The dust-up led some to openly question whether it was time for him to go.
But the turning point came with ComEd’s admission in U.S. District Court in July that it sought to give “Public Official A” jobs and contracts in exchange for favorable consideration of the highly regulated utility’s needs in Springfield.
Though Madigan was not named in the allegations, the U.S. attorney’s office left no doubt he was indeed Public Official A.
The threat to Madigan ramped up again four months later with the indictment of McClain, a close confidant of Madigan who lobbied for ComEd for years and knew the speaker since serving in the House together beginning in the 1970s.
Federal court records have portrayed McClain as the main go-between who advocated with ComEd’s top brass to keep Madigan happy — a process that ranged from placing 13th Ward college kids into summer internships with the utility to pressing successfully to place a speaker-backed person on the company’s board of directors.
Federal authorities tapped McClain’s cellphone during the investigation — first reported by the Tribune in 2019 — though it is not clear to what extent it was used to talk to Madigan.
So far, only one direct phone call between them has been identified by prosecutors as related to the scheme — a May 2018 call from McClain to tell him Pramaggiore was getting pushback on placing a Madigan-approved appointee on the ComEd board.
A cascade of setbacks followed. Pritzker’s signature ballot issue to allow for a graduated income tax in Illinois failed. Democrats suffered losses for Illinois Supreme Court, Congress and the state House.
The post-election analysis was swift: Madigan cost votes in each of those contests. Pritzker and fellow Democrats U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth questioned whether it was time for the speaker to give up the party’s chairmanship. Duckworth went further, saying Madigan also should no longer be speaker.
McClain’s indictment last fall added one more reason for House Democrats to wonder if keeping Madigan as speaker is the right message to send to the public.
By the time House Democrats gathered in Springfield, the once unthinkable became a reality. Madigan, a master at squeezing lawmakers for support, couldn’t muster the 60 votes needed for him to win his 19th term as speaker.
Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch of Hillside, a Madigan ally, managed to collect the votes and made history as Illinois’ first Black speaker.
The agents and prosecutors involved in the ongoing criminal investigation undoubtedly have been paying attention to the shift in power in Springfield, legal experts and former prosecutors contacted by the Tribune said.
But Madigan was too important of a figure and in power for too long for anyone to consider walking away if they think he’s committed a crime and they can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.
“Nothing (federal investigators) have done so far has been done with the idea of damaging Michael Madigan politically in any way,” said Safer, the former federal prosecutor. “I don’t think they view (his departure) as a win or a loss.”