What did Mike Madigan know and when did he know it?
Those questions have no direct bearing on the General Assembly going forward, but that doesn’t make them unworthy of exploring. They surfaced most recently Sunday night with a Chicago Tribune report on unsealed court documents connected with an ongoing federal investigation into the man who used to be the state’s most powerful politician.
Unpacking specifics is remarkably complicated, but it’s worth noting this isn’t new information to federal investigators. The details come from a May 2019 affidavit the Department of Justice filed while obtaining a search warrant for longtime Madigan aide Michael McClain. Allegations include a call the FBI recorded in August 2018 in which McClain told Madigan he’d lined up people to funnel money to Kevin Quinn, whom Madigan drummed from his organization because of sexual harassment allegations from a Democratic campaign worker.
The reason this remains a public issue is because the people McClain arranged to pay Quinn also have lobbied Madigan and other public officials, and the feds are investigating as part of a larger attempt to prove ComEd essentially bribed its way into legislation that directly improved the utility’s bottom line.
Back-channel checks to Quinn are old news. But the unsealed affidavit seems to show Madigan knew about the payments, though his people have maintained for years he wasn’t aware of the agreement. Furthermore, this all was happening while Madigan was attempting to position himself as directly involved in correcting a culture of sexual harassment within state government.
There are several takeaways, none more obvious than being reminded actions speak louder than words. But the story of Madigan has always been one about power and control. Even based only on public conduct, Madigan clearly wielded remarkable control over the General Assembly’s doings, to the point he and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner essentially had a four-year standoff despite the fact Madigan was never the sole representative of the legislative branch.
But Madigan expertly understood the way the 1970 state Constitution vests such strength in the Speaker of the House and so he built his political organization around maintaining that control. We may have changed players since Madigan left office in early 2021, but we haven’t changed the rules.
Which is why this also is a cautionary tale of power and the lengths people go to maintain that power. Most of what’s going on here is about money, but that framing discounts the genuine harm done to sexual harassment victims and the message sent to those intimidated into silence.
Today’s Democratic leadership can’t undo Madigan’s actions, but only they can drive the reforms that might prevent a recurrence. Fully understanding Madigan’s strategies is crucial to meaningful change.