Northern Illinois lawmakers react to ‘ComEd Four’ ruling

Dirksen Federal Courthouse

SPRINGFIELD – Northern Illinois lawmakers called for changes to Illinois’ political system following the conviction of three ex-lobbyists and the former Commonwealth Edison CEO in federal court this week.

While public corruption in Illinois has been bipartisan, Republicans in the General Assembly pounced on Tuesday’s convictions of Michael McClain, former ComEd CEO; Anne Pramaggiore, former ComEd lobbyist; John Hooker; and former ComEd consultant Jay Doherty. The four were accused of seeking favors for Illinois’ largest electric utility by arranging $1.3 million in contracts and payments for associates of former House Speaker Michael Madigan.

“This trial has been a costly seven-week reminder of just what is wrong in state government. This guilty verdict has proven that the system of doing business in Springfield is broken,” state Rep. Tony McCombie of Savanna, a Republican leader in the statehouse, said. “This should not have been the first step to rooting out corruption in Illinois, but after [Tuesday], it is clear there must be a sense of urgency in bringing back the people’s trust in state government.”

Illinois Democratic leaders also condemned the actions that led to Tuesday’s convictions.

Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, issued a statement blasting the actions of the four defendants.

“The behavior brought to light and put on display at this trial was shockingly gluttonous and unhealthy to democracy,” Harmon said in a statement. “We’ve taken concrete steps to discourage bad behavior. But most importantly, I believe we have people committed to behaving better.”

The trial in Chicago offered the public an inside look at pay-to-play politics in Illinois. And the jury’s decision to convict all four people marked a resounding win for U.S. prosecutors in one of the biggest corruption trials in Illinois since former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was convicted in 2011 at the same federal courthouse, including on charges he sought to sell President Barack Obama’s vacated U.S. Senate seat.

“This trial is just one example of the disappointing and corrupt behavior that has plagued our state government for years. This is why I filed House Bill 2964, which would have placed term limits on leadership positions in the General Assembly,” state Rep. Bradley Fritts, R-Dixon, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, this bill never moved past the Rules Committee. As members of the General Assembly, it is our responsibility to work together and finally pass some serious reform to prevent this corruption from continuing.”

During a month and a half of testimony, prosecutors sought to prove the defendants arranged contracts, jobs and money for associates of Madigan – once one of the nation’s most powerful legislators – to ensure proposed bills boosting ComEd profits became law.

Madigan, 81, has been indicted in the case, although his own trial is scheduled for next year. He wasn’t in court during the just-ended trial but featured in much of the key evidence. The across-the-board convictions Tuesday may not bode well for his prospects when he gets to trial.

During closing arguments, prosecutor Amarjeet Bhachu called the four defendants “grand masters of corruption,” according to the Chicago Sun-Times. Defense attorneys argued their clients were engaged in run-of-the-mill lobbying and never crossed lines into illegality.

Jurors deliberated for several days before returning with the sweeping convictions. Bribery conspiracy, the headline count in the case, carries a maximum five-year prison sentence.

Bhachu likened the alleged conspiracy to a toll drivers pay to continue their journey on state highways, and suggested Madigan was the gatekeeper.

“It was a corruption toll to make sure that Mr. Madigan was not an obstacle to their legislative agenda,” Bhachu said, according to the Chicago Tribune. “And they paid that toll every month, from 2011 to 2019, when they were caught.”

Madigan was indicted in 2022 on charges that included racketeering and bribery. He’s denied wrongdoing. A year earlier, he resigned from the Legislature as the longest-serving state House speaker in modern U.S. history amid speculation he was a federal target.

Job recommendations from Madigan were at the heart of the trial, ranging from ComEd’s paid internship program – in which Madigan-recommended students allegedly didn’t have to compete against the broader pool of applicants – to a $78,000 one-year position on ComEd’s board. McClain also pressured ComEd’s general counsel to contract with the law firm headed by Victor Reyes, a prolific fundraiser for Madigan.

Prosecutors, however, spent most of their time questioning defendants about the $1.3 million ComEd indirectly paid to a handful of subcontractors who did little to no work for their monthly checks.

Beginning in 2011, Madigan allies, including two former southwest side aldermen and a pair of top precinct captains from his 13th Ward political organization, were placed on the contracts of various outside lobbyists for ComEd, receiving between $4,000 and $5,000 per month. They spent the longest under Doherty’s contract, and on a secretly recorded video played multiple times during trial, the longtime lobbyist acknowledged the subcontractors did “not much” in exchange for their pay.

State Sen. Craig Wilcox, R-McHenry, called the jury’s decision a message to Illinois lawmakers and lobbyists.

“Hopefully the days of back-room dealing and pay-to-play politics will soon be behind us, and majority party lawmakers will finally enact meaningful ethics reforms that put people first, ahead of special-interest groups and powerful political insiders,” Wilcox said. “With these verdicts, the criminal enterprise that has long existed in Illinois politics is put on notice. I am hopeful this is the beginning of real change in our state, and that in the future the Legislature can regain the public’s trust by acting honorably.”

Madigan ultimately gave up the speaker’s gavel in early January 2021, and resigned from the House seat he’d held for 50 years the next month. Shortly after that, Madigan resigned as head of the state’s Democratic Party. He still maintains his longest-held elected position as Chicago’s 13th Ward Democratic committeeman, which isn’t up for another vote until next spring’s primary election.

Sen. Andrew Chesney, R-Freeport, called on Democrats to pass government ethics changes aimed at curbing “a complicated and complex pay-to-play system” at the Illinois Statehouse before lawmakers adjourn later this month.

“I hope the majority party will finally recognize that Republican efforts at ethics reforms can no longer be swept under the rug and ignored,” Chesney said. “I believe Illinoisans will be outraged by the guilty verdicts and will demand action. With three weeks remaining in the legislative session, we still have time to pass meaningful reforms.”

State Rep. Dan Ugaste, R-Geneva, echoed that sentiment.

“It’s obvious the Democrats will not police themselves, and the taxpayers of Illinois cannot wait for comprehensive ethics reform any longer,” Ugaste said in a statement. “Democrats need to get serious, work with Republicans on the ethics reform for which we have advocated for many years, restore the broken trust with the residents of Illinois and allow Illinoisans to fairly pick who represents them in Springfield after these shameful abuses of power.”

State Rep. Tim Ozinga, R-Mokena, said “numerous bills” addressing corruption have been introduced in the legislature but have not been voted on.

“It’s time for the politicians to begin holding themselves accountable for the years of corrupt and unethical behavior,” Ozinga said. “Our state has many problems, but we will never be able to fix them until we pass serious and comprehensive ethical reform.”

State Rep. Jed Davis, R-Yorkville, in a statement, took note of Illinois’ history of political leaders winding up in trouble with the law.

“For years, the taxpayers of Illinois have seen indictment after indictment, with virtually zero ethical reform passed in the General Assembly. Enough is enough,” Davis said. “It’s clear that Illinois Democrats are unable to police themselves. Now is the time for us to get serious about fixing corruption by working to pass a series of much-needed bills to end the shameful, unethical policies of the Madigan era.”

However, Gov. JB Pritzker’s office, in a statement, called attention to his signature on a bill that increased the level of detail required on statements of economic interest and lobbyist disclosure requirements.

“Since taking office, Gov. Pritzker has advanced the cause of ethics reform in key areas, especially in bringing more transparency to the process and tightening requirements for lobbyists,” a spokesperson said. “The governor believes we must restore the public’s trust in government, and today’s verdicts are proof that no one is above the law.”

House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, in a statement acknowledged the jury’s decision.

“At every step, I have emphasized the need for due process and that the federal courtroom was the appropriate venue for questions of guilt or innocence,” he said in the statement. “After reviewing the entirety of the evidence, this jury has sent a clear message that the behavior of the defendants was criminal.

“Since my election as speaker, I’ve been clear that restoring trust in government was paramount,” Welch said in the statement. “I’m proud to stand with a new generation of leadership in Illinois who share these values.”

• Capitol News Illinois and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Shaw Local News Network

Shaw Local News Network

Shaw Local News Network provides local news throughout northern Illinois