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    ‘ComEd Four’ bribery trial to put focus on ex-Speaker Madigan’s power, state’s blurry line between politics and crime

    March 13, 2023 - Jason Meisner, Ray Long, Chicago Tribune


      The City Club of Chicago dining room was filled with the usual lunchtime crowd of movers and shakers seven years ago for a speech by Commonwealth Edison’s CEO touting the utility’s new “smart grid” technology and upcoming legislative goals in Springfield.

      “She really is second to none,” City Club President Jay Doherty said in his gushing October 2015 introduction of Anne Pramaggiore, who at the time was a rising corporate star and one of the country’s top female executives. Then Doherty raised a finger and pointed to another luminary he’d spotted in the audience.

      “You know, while Anne’s coming up here I just realized, we have the chairman of the CHA, John Hooker, right there!” Doherty exclaimed about Hooker, one of ComEd’s top lobbyists and the newly appointed board chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority. “John, stand up! Give him a round of applause!”

      On Tuesday, seven years after that portentous event, Doherty, Pramaggiore and Hooker will be together again on a much different stage: As defendants at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse in one of the biggest political corruption cases the state has ever seen.

      They will be joined by the fourth co-defendant: Michael McClain, a longtime confidant of then-House Speaker Michael Madigan.

      According to federal prosecutors, at the time Pramaggiore and Hooker were being lauded by Doherty at the City Club, the three were secretly conspiring with McClain to funnel as much as $1.2 million in illicit payments and other perks to Madigan’s associates to advance the company’s interests in the state capital.

      McClain, 75, of downstate Quincy, Pramaggiore, 64, of Barrington, Hooker, 73, and Doherty, 69, both of Chicago, have pleaded not guilty to an indictment filed in November 2020 charging them with bribery conspiracy.

      In a highly unusual situation brought on by the pandemic, all four defendants will be making their first public appearances at the courthouse on Tuesday, the day jury selection is set to begin before U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber.

      While the indictment centers on the alleged scheme by ComEd, the trial promises to hold up a mirror to Illinois politics on a much larger scale, reflecting the cozy relationships between lobbyists, politicians and clout-heavy public utilities that depend on action in Springfield, where Madigan controlled the fate of virtually every piece of legislation.

      The trial will feature an only-in-Illinois cast of characters that allegedly benefited from Madigan’s vaunted political machine, including precinct captains and door-knockers who hustled votes at election time, current and former state legislators who twisted arms in the General Assembly, and those who went through the golden revolving door of politics and cashed in their allegiances in the form of lucrative lobbying careers.

      And at the center of it all will be the age-old question of Illinois politicking: How much can the lines be blurred before it becomes a crime?

      The case, which is expected to last up to two months, will also serve as a preview of the criminal case against Madigan, who was indicted along with McClain on separate racketeering charges in March 2022.

      In court papers, attorneys for the defendants have alleged that prosecutors misused the federal bribery statute to try to criminalize what amounts to legal lobbying. They intend to argue at trial that many of the Madigan-recommended jobs were legitimate, and say the feds will fail to show a connection between the money ComEd was showering on Madigan associates and the positions he took on legislation.

      Much of the evidence presented by prosecutors, meanwhile, will come from the defendants’ own mouths. Prosecutors have outlined some 160 recorded phone calls and other wiretapped conversations that are expected to be played in court, including many where the defendants talk with startling candor about their mutual interest in keeping Madigan happy.

      In one recorded call in May 2018, Pramaggiore allegedly thanked McClain profusely for her promotion to ComEd’s parent company, Exelon, saying, “the only reason I am in this position is because ComEd has done so well, and you guys have been my, my spirit guides. ... I love you guys.”

      Other calls will feature Madigan’s own voice, including one from 2018 when Madigan and McClain shared a chuckle over how much money ComEd was raining on their friends.

      “Some of these guys have made out like bandits, Mike,” Madigan allegedly said to McClain as the FBI was listening in.

      “Oh my God, for very little work too,” McClain allegedly replied, coughing. “Very little work.”

      At Madigan’s doorstep

      Unlike the investigations that felled two consecutive Illinois governors — Operation Safe Road and Operation Board Games — the case now known unofficially as the “ComEd Four” was never given a nickname by the U.S. attorney’s office. Still, it has reverberated across the state’s political landscape due to the breadth and longevity of Madigan’s power.

      The Tribune first reported in July 2019 that the FBI had quietly raided McClain’s home in Quincy as part of an ongoing criminal probe. The newspaper also revealed weeks later that the feds were looking into thousands of dollars in checks that had been sent from current and former ComEd lobbyists loyal to Madigan, including McClain, to Kevin Quinn, a lieutenant in Madigan’s 13th Ward operation who had been ousted in a sexual harassment scandal in 2018.

      Other reports, including by WBEZ and the Tribune, soon filled in that investigators were focused on the full scope of ComEd’s lobbying practices, including money flowing from the utility to Doherty, whose offices at the City Club had also been raided.

      The first big shoe dropped in July 2020, when the U.S. attorney’s office unveiled a deferred prosecution agreement where ComEd admitted in court that it funneled payments to Madigan’s associates through Doherty’s consulting company, Jay D. Doherty & Associates.

      The company admitted the goal was to influence Madigan so he would look favorably upon its Springfield agenda, which had scored a string of big wins in the General Assembly beginning in 2011. ComEd agreed to pay a record $200 million fine and cooperate with the probe in exchange for prosecutors dropping a bribery charge in three years

      A cascade of federal charges soon followed, beginning with former ComEd Vice President Fidel Marquez, who’d agreed to cooperate with the feds when he was first confronted in January 2019 and made secret recordings of his associates. Marquez pleaded guilty in September 2020 and is expected to testify at trial.

      Two months after Marquez’s plea, the ComEd Four case was unveiled in November 2020, at the height of the pandemic — and the same month Madigan was reelected to the House for the last time. Others since swept up in the probe include Madigan’s longtime chief of staff, Timothy Mapes, who was charged in 2021 with lying to the grand jury investigating the case, and several former state legislators and consultants allied with the former speaker who were hit with tax-related charges.

      Mapes is set to go to trial in August.

      Meanwhile, the far-reaching bribes-for-favors investigation, along with lingering fallout from multiple #MeToo outrages among his allies, eventually weakened Madigan’s once-unassailable political status and eventually cost him the top job in the House in January 2021.

      Madigan was indicted in March 2022 and has pleaded not guilty to racketeering charges alleging his elected office and political operation were a criminal enterprise that provided financial rewards for him personally and his associates.

      Madigan has vigorously denied any wrongdoing and defended his long-standing practice of making job recommendations, both before and after his indictment. Not only is “helping people find jobs not a crime,” Madigan wrote in 2020 to a legislative panel, it’s not even “ethically improper” for politicians to make job recommendations.

      “To the contrary, I believe that it is part of my duties as a community and political leader to help good people find work — from potential executives to college interns, and more,” Madigan wrote. “What an employer chooses to do with that recommendation rests solely with their discretion.”

      But prosecutors allege in the ComEd Four indictment that not only did the co-conspirators know that what they were doing was illegal, it was enormously successful, with ComEd receiving at least $150 million in legislative benefits over the length of the scheme.

      Among the key legislative victories was passage of a massive smart-grid system designed to improve service and a formula-rate-making plan that critics complained was too lucrative for the company.

      In 2013, the legislature endorsed a trio of accounting techniques that helped ComEd’s bottom line despite opposition from the Illinois Commerce Commission. And in 2016, the company won support for a consumer subsidy for some of its nuclear power plants and the thousands of jobs that went with them.

      The quarterback of it all, according to prosecutors, was McClain, a former House lawmaker who served with Madigan in the 1970s and 1980s and then became a contract lobbyist for ComEd and many other top-shelf clients.

      One of the speaker’s frequent dinner companions, McClain had Madigan’s ear and helped him with campaign strategy and political fundraising. McClain even sent out fundraising pitches to political friends that he called “the most trusted of the trusted.”

      McClain’s closeness to Madigan will be a focal point for prosecutors, who need to prove the nexus between the speaker’s office and the benefits ComEd expected to draw from its largesse.

      A top ComEd lawyer will describe for the jury how McClain had such a long-standing and close relationship with Madigan that he was sometimes referred to within ComEd as a “double agent,” prosecutors revealed in a filing last month detailing the expected testimony.

      Among other evidence is a note McClain wrote to Madigan in 2016 saying he wanted to let his “real” client know he was retiring from lobbying, but still willing to do “assignments” for him.

      “I am at the bridge with my musket standing with and for the Madigan family,” he wrote, according to a copy included in the prosecution filing.

      And agents who searched McClain’s personal vehicle in 2019 discovered a handwritten ledger allegedly showing he was at Madigan’s beck and call “24/7,” helping to manage the speaker’s ever-growing list of associates working as ComEd subcontractors as well as the “allotment of interns” Madigan was sending to the utility giant each summer, according to prosecutors.

      To close the circuit, prosecutors have said that Madigan was not only aware of the scheme McClain was running, he at times personally participated in it.

      In one pivotal phone call from May 2018, Madigan allegedly instructed McClain to talk to Pramaggiore about giving a lucrative consulting contract to retiring 23rd Ward Ald. Michael Zalewski, a longtime Madigan ally, court records show.

      In the same conversation, Madigan also told McClain to keep pushing the appointment of former McPier CEO Juan Ochoa, a onetime political nemesis of Madigan’s, to ComEd’s board despite getting pushback from some of the utility’s top executives over Ochoa’s qualifications and financial baggage, prosecutors alleged.

      “And Mike, my recommendation is, go forward with Ochoa,” Madigan said, according to the prosecution filing. “So if the only complaint about Ochoa is he suffers from bankruptcy twice, so did Harry Truman.”

      Around the same time, Madigan also talked to McClain by phone about working to “kill” a 2018 bill in the House that was designed to help low-income electricity users, a bill ComEd opposed as too restrictive and costly, according to prosecutors.

      Prosecutors have alleged Madigan worked behind the scenes to block the bill even though it was being touted by his own daughter, then-Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

      “On this Lisa Madigan bill ... we’ve gotta kill it. Period,” McClain said to Pramaggiore in one key phone call that jurors will hear. “Yes, yes,” Pramaggiore allegedly replied in agreement.

      By the time the General Assembly’s spring session was over, the bill had fallen four votes short with eight Democrats voting against the legislation. ComEd’s victory, according to the feds, came only because Madigan had paved the way.

      Expected testimony

      Attorneys for the defendants last week scored a couple of mild legal victories in pretrial skirmishes over what evidence can come in to the trial.

      Perhaps most notably, the judge ruled that prosecutors cannot call retired University of Illinois at Chicago professor Dick Simpson as an expert witness on Chicago machine politics, saying such testimony wouldn’t help the jury decide the facts at issue and could prejudice the defendants.

      Leinenweber also barred a few potentially damaging recordings, including one in which McClain allegedly referred to utility executives who complained about being pressured to make political hires as “dumb (expletives).”

      Still, jurors in the ComEd Four case are expected to get a crash course on Madigan’s formidable 13th Ward political operation, including a parade of allies — and some enemies — that have played cameos in the investigation but are not facing criminal charges.

      Among them are Madigan’s former 13th Ward Ald. Frank Olivo, a paid Doherty subcontractor, and Zalewski, who first turned up in the investigation when his house was raided in May 2019. Like Olivo, Zalewski wound up landing a consulting contract with ComEd in 2018 that paid $5,000 a month, even though he never did a thing for the utility, according to the charges.

      While neither Olivo nor Zalewski is expected to testify, prosecutors have said they will call a relative of Olivo’s who will explain to jurors that Olivo asked them to email invoices to Doherty’s company even though he “never said he worked for ComEd.”

      At the time, Olivo was caring for the relative’s children full time and didn’t seem to have any other employment, the person is expected to testify.

      By far, the biggest cog in the Madigan machine expected to take the stand to buttress the government’s case is Ed Moody, the former Cook County recorder of deeds and longtime 13th Ward precinct captain who for years was one of Madigan’s most loyal and legendary door-knockers.

      Moody is expected to testify he began receiving $45,000 per year from McClain beginning in May 2012, at first for doing nothing more than calling a list of legislators “to determine if they had any issues relevant to ComEd.” Moody will testify that the work “was a ‘joke,’ because there was no substance to it,” prosecutors said in their recent filing.

      Moody’s payments were later bumped up to $4,500 a month and were distributed through Doherty, but when Moody was appointed Cook County commissioner in 2014, his money started coming from two “intermediaries” allied with Madigan who did contract work for ComEd, according to prosecutors.

      Prosecutors said Moody will testify that he went to Madigan at one point and told him he was worried that his contract claimed he was doing work for the utility, when in fact he’d done nothing. Madigan allegedly told him he was a “valuable political operative” and to keep working on his campaigns.

      “Madigan responded that (Moody) did not have to worry, because what (Moody) was doing right then — meaning campaign work — was what was important to Madigan,” prosecutors said in their filing.

      Moody stopped being paid through the intermediaries when he was appointed to be Cook County’s recorder of deeds in late 2018, according to prosecutors. The investigation went overt five months later with a series of raids in the Chicago area and downstate.

      Another longtime political operative to factor in the investigation is Victor Reyes, whose clout-heavy law firm Reyes Kurson was hired by ComEd in 2011, at the outset of the alleged scheme.

      Reyes, who has not been charged, is a Madigan ally who also built a patronage army known as the Hispanic Democratic Organization for then-Mayor Richard Daley. Reyes later surfaced in a City Hall hiring scandal that led to the conviction of Daley’s patronage chief, Robert Sorich, but also escaped that probe without being charged.

      Prosecutors have said that ComEd’s in-house attorney will testify that he was pressured by McClain and Hooker to hire Reyes’ firm. The attorney will explain, prosecutors say, that one day when he was in Springfield for negotiations on the smart grid legislation, “Hooker came into his office and closed the door.”

      Hooker allegedly explained that it was “important” that Reyes Kurson get a contract, but he never mentioned any particular reason or legal expertise that the firm could bring to the table. The attorney “understood by McClain and Hooker’s comments to mean that the contract was important because it was important to Madigan,” prosecutors wrote in a recent court filing.

      ComEd eventually entered into a contract to pay Reyes Kurson a minimum of 850 billable hours per year — which was an unusual requirement that Reyes himself had demanded, according to prosecutors.

      When ComEd later sought to reduce those hours in early 2016, McClain exchanged emails with Pramaggiore and Hooker making it clear how important it was to keep Reyes in their good graces, prosecutors have said. McClain referred to Madigan in the emails as their “Friend,” with a capital “F.”

      “I am sure you know how valuable (Reyes) is to our Friend,” McClain allegedly wrote. “I know the drill and so do you. If you do not get involve(d) and resolve this issue of 850 hours for his law firm per year then he will go to our Friend. Our Friend will call me and then I will call you. Is this a drill we must go through?”

      McClain wrote he didn’t understand “why we have to spend valuable minutes on items like this when we know it will provoke a reaction from our Friend,” according to prosecution filings.

      Prosecutors intend to put on evidence showing Reyes and his firm were prolific fundraisers and had donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Madigan’s political coffers over the years, court records show.

      In addition, Reyes was a key ally in Madigan’s fight against changing the state’s once-a-decade legislative remapping process to change district boundaries, one of Madigan’s sources of power.

      Springfield assist

      In her 2015 speech to the City Club, Pramaggiore was brimming with excitement about her company’s past successes and hope for the future.

      She even made a few wink-wink jokes about the company needing all the help it can get from lawmakers in Springfield — though she never mentioned Madigan by name.

      “We are on the precipice of this great energy future thanks in no small part to the foresight of the Illinois legislature,” Pramaggiore told the crowd. “This is exciting stuff. This is clean stuff, it’s innovative stuff it’s network stuff, it’s neighborhood stuff, it’s Chicago as an energy and technology leader stuff.”

      But, she warned, the promising future was “no foregone conclusion.”

      “It requires leadership just like in 2011 with the smart grid and it requires legislative action just like in 2011,” she said, adding that ComEd was working hard on several energy initiatives in Springfield involving nuclear plants, energy efficiency, access to solar power and myriad other issues.

      “There’s a lot going on,” she said with a faint smile.

      ©2023 Chicago Tribune. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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