‘Corrupt influence’ or ‘collateral damage’? Jury to decide fate of ‘ComEd Four’

Bribery trial comes to a close after attorneys have last words

The Everett McKinley Dirksen U.S. Courthouse is pictured in Chicago Monday as a federal trial of the former Commonwealth Edison lobbyists and one ex-executive continues. (Capitol News Illinois photos by Hannah Meisel)

Before jury deliberations begin on the fate of four ex-Commonwealth Edison officials after a six-week bribery trial, an attorney for one of the defendants got emotional Monday afternoon when imparting the weight of the jury’s task.

“Be the shield that you were meant to be,” Patrick Cotter told jurors after gathering himself. “The shield between an individual citizen and a very powerful government, in this case a very powerful government committed, dedicated and on a mission to get Mike Madigan.”

Former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan’s name has been invoked countless times throughout the trial as the subject of ComEd’s alleged 7½-year bribery scheme. Cotter on Monday echoed his opening arguments, saying Madigan was the true object of prosecutors’ aims in this case.

Madigan – along with Cotter’s client Mike McClain, a longtime ComEd lobbyist and friend to the speaker – will face a related criminal trial next year which includes racketeering charges. But the jury hasn’t been informed of that.

“Don’t let Mike McClain and these other people be collateral damage in that war,” Cotter told jurors.

Madigan gave up his speaker’s gavel under pressure from his own party more than two years ago, after McClain and his codefendants – two other longtime lobbyists for the company and ComEd’s former CEO – were indicted in late 2020. Prosecutors said the speaker, who served a record-breaking 36 years as leader of the Illinois House, was the beneficiary of “a stream of benefits” from ComEd in the utility’s alleged bribery scheme.

According to the government, ComEd allegedly gave Madigan allies jobs and contracts at the utility in exchange for an easier path for ComEd’s preferred legislation in Springfield.

In her closing arguments preceding Cotter’s on Monday morning, Assistant U.S. Attorney Diane MacArthur summed up the case with a diagram representing the alleged cycle of benefits between Madigan and ComEd.

“Madigan wanted, ComEd gave and Comed got,” MacArthur said.

During the last six weeks of trial, prosecutors spent the most time dissecting how a handful of Madigan allies did little to no work for their monthly subcontracting checks of $4,000 to $5,000, paid out by ComEd contract lobbyists.

One of the subcontractors, longtime Madigan loyalist Ed Moody, testified under an immunity agreement earlier this month. He told jurors that as precinct captain in the speaker’s 13th Ward political organization on Chicago’s southwest side, he personally appealed to Madigan for a lobbying contract – which he said the speaker ultimately controlled.

But Cotter downplayed Moody’s testimony, pointing out that when he was a subcontractor under McClain’s contract early on in the arrangement, he performed hours of door-to-door canvassing work on ComEd’s behalf.

“Mr. Moody didn’t work because Mr. Moody didn’t want to work,” Cotter said of Moody’s lack of work product after McClain passed him off to other ComEd contract lobbyists.

Cotter sought to remind the jury of the case’s roots, noting that an FBI agent testified early on in the trial that the investigation stretched back to 2014, and that the original target was Madigan. In the last several years, the sprawling federal probe has nabbed dozens of other politicians, lobbyists and business leaders in Illinois.

“I believe this is a case of a conclusion in search of evidence,” Cotter said. “If you start by assuming Madigan is guilty, then everyone near Madigan starts to look guilty.”

And there was almost no one nearer to Madigan than McClain; their friendship goes back to the 1970s when they served together as young Democratic representatives in the Illinois House. On numerous wiretapped phone calls and in letters shown to the jury during trial, McClain described himself as an “agent” of the speaker. Other witnesses described McClain as a “double agent” who always put Madigan’s interests first even as he was ComEd’s top outside lobbyist and strategist.

Also facing charges in the case are former ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore, longtime internal lobbyist John Hooker – although he retired from ComEd in 2012 and spent the last seven years of his career as a contract lobbyist until 2019 when the feds’ investigation became public – and Jay Doherty, a longtime contract lobbyist and former president of the City Club of Chicago.

After attorneys for Hooker and Doherty make their closing arguments on Tuesday morning and the government gives its final rebuttal, the jury will be sent to deliberate after getting a lengthy set of instructions for how to weigh the nine-count indictment against the evidence they’ve seen in 21 days of testimony.

Early on in MacArthur’s more-than-two-hour closing presentation, she told the jury that the alleged bribes in this case “are not the kinds of bribes” that involve putting money in an envelope.

“There isn’t an envelope big enough in this world to fit the amount of money ComEd paid out,” MacArthur said.

The prosecutor was referring to the $1.3 million in monthly checks written to the subcontractors who worked under McClain, Doherty and two other Madigan allies not charged in the case. But her remark also encompassed the rest of the supposed conspiracy.

The other pillars of the alleged bribery scheme spanned from ComEd’s paid internship program – which allegedly gave special treatment to applicants from Madigan’s ward on Chicago’s southwest side – to a lucrative outside counsel contract for prolific Madigan fundraiser Victor Reyes.

MacArthur stressed that Madigan’s ultimate benefits from ComEd came in the form of increased political capital, like when he spent a year and a half pushing for Latino business leader Juan Ochoa to get a $78,000 one-year appointment on ComEd’s board. Ochoa was an ally of Madigan’s allies, former U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez and his successor U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, and the speaker’s 13th Ward power base had grown increasingly Latino in recent years.

But MacArthur also reminded the jury that ComEd had much to gain from the utility’s wins in Springfield. For example, the 2011 “Smart Grid” legislation included a change in how state regulators could calculate rate increases for ComEd customers, which meant millions for the utility’s bottom line, and the bill’s passage helped pull ComEd out of a period of near bankruptcy.

In the background of MacArthur’s closing arguments was a slide deck presentation she referred to, which included a timeline of the alleged bribery scheme beginning in August 2011, when the first subcontractor was hired under Doherty. MacArthur alleged the benefits to Madigan were “clustered” around the passage of legislation like Smart Grid in 2011, a 2013 fix to that law and 2016′s Future Energy Jobs Act.

However, Pramaggiore’s attorney Scott Lassar, pilloried that timeline, pointing out that by August 2011, Smart Grid had already passed in the Illinois House. It was delayed by then-Gov. Pat Quinn’s veto, which the General Assembly overrode that fall.

“The government likes to talk about timing because they have no witnesses to say this conspiracy existed,” Lassar said.

Pramaggiore last week struggled under cross-examination when she stuck to her claim that she didn’t know about the subcontractors until the feds’ investigation became public in 2019. MacArthur on Monday told the jury Pramaggiore had lied on the witness stand, pointing to prior calls, emails and texts from years past that mention the subcontractors. But Lassar doubled down on his client’s denials, stressing that none of the previous mentions to Pramaggiore about the subcontractors ever connected them to Madigan.

And Lassar said every other hire Pramaggiore was involved with for people recommended by Madigan – either directly like Ochoa or even indirectly – performed legitimate work. Therefore, Lassar said, those jobs can’t be viewed as a bribe.

MacArthur, however, told the jury to view the job recommendations from Madigan as part of the overall bribery scheme, using her oft-repeated refrain during her closing arguments.

“This was not lobbying, this was not building goodwill, this was not politics, this was a bribe,” MacArthur said.

Cotter on Monday reminded the jury of perhaps the most intense moment of the last six weeks, when prosecutors’ star witness Fidel Marquez was on the stand. Marquez, a former executive at ComEd had agreed to cooperate with the feds’ investigation after two federal agents knocked on the door of his mother’s house, where Marquez was staying, in January 2019.

He secretly recorded meetings with Hooker, McClain, Doherty and a meeting involving Pramaggiore’s successor, Joe Dominguez, all of which were played during the trial. He also allowed his phone to be wiretapped.

During cross-examination late last month, Cotter accused Marquez of saving his own skin to avoid sitting at the defense table himself. Marquez pleaded guilty to bribery charges but will be recommended for probation due to his cooperation.

Marquez admitted he was “scared” of the 33 years’ prison time he was facing, but Cotter forced him to also acknowledge that for the first year of his cooperation with the government, he was adamant that he and the four defendants in the case had done nothing illegal – that is, until he made a plea deal.

“If co-conspirator Marquez didn’t have corrupt intent, how could the others?” Cotter asked.

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Hannah Meisel - Capitol News Illinois

Hannah Meisel is a state government reporter for Capitol News Illinois