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UPDATED: ‘ComEd Four’ found guilty on all counts in bribery trial tied to ex-Speaker Madigan

UPDATED: ‘ComEd Four’ found guilty on all counts in bribery trial tied to ex-Speaker Madigan

By HANNAH MEISEL
Capitol News Illinois
[email protected]

CHICAGO – A federal jury on Tuesday convicted three ex-lobbyists and the former CEO of electric utility Commonwealth Edison for their involvement in an alleged bribery scheme aimed at longtime Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Former ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore and Mike McClain – the utility’s longtime contract lobbyist and close confidant of Madigan – were each found guilty of nine counts of conspiracy bribery and falsifying records. Former City Club of Chicago President Jay Doherty, who also served for decades as an external lobbyist for the utility, and John Hooker, a former ComEd executive turned contract lobbyist for the company, were each found guilty of six counts.

Prosecutors alleged the foursome gave Madigan allies jobs and contracts at the utility in exchange for an easier path for ComEd-supported legislation in Springfield.

The four defendants were stoic as Judge Harry Leinenweber read the verdict late Tuesday afternoon. The benches in the courtroom were filled with friends and family of the defendants, and sniffles could be heard in the audience as the judge read the guilty counts.

Defendants declined to comment as they left the Dirksen Federal Courthouse, though Pramaggiore’s attorney, Scott Lassar, briefly spoke to reporters, saying only that his team was “disappointed in the ruling” and planned to appeal.

The six-week trial was borne of a wide-ranging federal corruption probe that has rocked Illinois politics and ultimately unseated Madigan, who had been the longest-serving legislative leader in the nation. The former speaker faces related criminal racketeering charges in his own trial, set for next April.

After the verdict Tuesday, acting U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, Morris Pasqual, acknowledged that the bribery alleged in this case wasn’t about cash flowing to Madigan, but rather a more intangible benefit: increased political capital.

“This was not the $10,000 in a grocery bag in the back room; it was much more complex,” Pasqual told reporters, flanked by the assistant U.S. attorneys who prosecuted the case. “And the dollar amounts involved and the gain involved was much more significant as well. So it was a different type of (bribery) case.”

Acting U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois Morris Pasqual speaks to reporters after a jury found four executives and lobbyists associated with ComEd guilty of participating in a conspiracy to bribe longtime House Speaker Michael Madigan. (Capitol News Illinois photo by Andrew Adams)

Pasqual said the government was “gratified” that “the jury saw it for what it was.”

Tuesday’s verdict could bolster prosecutors’ case against Madigan, who, in the course of the trial, was revealed as the initial target of the feds’ investigation which opened in late 2014.

Since then, the probe has grown to encompass more than a dozen high-profile players in the state’s political ecosystem.

The jury deliberated for approximately 27 hours since getting the case last Tuesday afternoon. A sentencing date was not set before court adjourned.

Speaking to reporters after the verdict, jury member Amanda Schnitker Sayers said the jury grew to like the defendants over the course of the trial.

“All in all, they’re good people that made bad decisions,” she said.

Schnitker Sayers said the jury stayed away from discussing Madigan outside of his role in the case at hand, but said they came to believe the speaker’s involvement with ComEd “was key.”

“He really did cause this all to happen,” she said. “If it wouldn’t have been for him, these people would not have been in the position that they would need to commit crimes in the first place.”

‘Tier-one game’

During 21 days of testimony beginning mid-March, the jury heard from upwards of 50 witnesses, heard dozens of wiretapped phone calls, watched a handful of videos that were secretly recorded by a ComEd executive turned government informant, and saw hundreds of emails and text messages.

The most damning of the recordings tied the foursome’s actions to Madigan – particularly the calls in which McClain described himself as an “agent” of the speaker, saying Madigan was his “real client.”

In a February 2019 call, McClain spoke to Pramaggiore and Hooker about the need to train someone to take his place as liaison between ComEd and Madigan upon McClain’s eventual retirement. The need was made more pressing after Pramaggiore had been promoted and replaced by Joe Dominguez, whom they did not trust.

Mike McClain, ComEd’s former top contract lobbyst in Springfield, walks out of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in downtown Chicago on May 2 after a jury found him guilty of participating in a conspiracy to bribe longtime House Speaker Michael Madigan. (Capitol News Illinois photo by Andrew Adams)

“My instinct is that I come up to Chicago and I sit down with Dominguez and say, ‘Now look-it asshole, uh if you want to pass this bill, this is what it requires,’” McClain said of accommodating Madigan’s requests. “So, either you’re gonna play in the tier-one game here or you’re gonna keep playing in your tier-two game. …And if you wanna fire me today that’s fine but, uh this is like serious business, it’s millions of dollars. So either you wanna look like you’re the leader, and be the leader, but that means you’ve gotta authorize your people to do things.’”

He later added: “I don’t mind having a daddy talk with this guy.”

In the government’s closing arguments, Assistant U.S. Attorney Diane MacArthur leaned on McClain’s own words to drive home the prosecution’s case.

“(The four) spent years playing this ‘tier-one’ game to get legislation that ComEd needed,” MacArthur said. “This was not lobbying, this was not building goodwill, this was not politics, this was not normal business operations. These were crimes.”

Prosecutors emphasized how ComEd benefitted financially from key pieces of legislation passed in 2011 and 2016. The 2011 “Smart Grid” law, in particular, pulled ComEd out of a difficult period through a “formula rate” that automatically bypassed regulatory hurdles.

However, juror Schnitker Sayers said the jury perceived the 2016 Future Energy Jobs Act as more corrupted by Madigan’s influence, despite the defense’s efforts to emphasize that ComEd’s involvement in FEJA was far less than ComEd’s parent company, Exelon, which received bailouts for its failing nuclear facilities.

Former ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore walks away from the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in downtown Chicago on May 2 after a jury found her guilty of helping to bribe longtime House Speaker Michael Madigan. (Capitol News Illinois photo by Andrew Adams)

“Because by 2016 Madigan was very used to being able to just ask for certain people to be hired. …He was just asking for so much by then that they were so far deep in it,” Schnitker Sayers said.

ComEd’s success also meant Pramaggiore’s success – a fact prosecutors hammered home in their closing arguments. MacArthur highlighted a wiretapped phone call from September 2018 in which Pramaggiore told McClain good news about a Madigan-backed appointee to ComEd’s board.

“You take good care of me and so does our friend, and I will do the best that I can to take care of you,” Pramaggiore said, using the same coded language of “our friend” that McClain often used to refer to Madigan. “You’re a good man.”

On the witness stand, Pramaggiore downplayed her effusive language – and the fact that she called Madigan first with the news that she’d been promoted to CEO of Exelon Utilities in the spring of 2018. That same day, she’d told McClain her promotion “never would’ve happened without you and John (Hooker) and the speaker.”

“I mean, really. Because the only reason that I’m in this position is because ComEd has done so well,” Pramaggiore said in the wiretapped call with McClain. “And you guys have been my spirit guides.”

‘Little to no work’

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.

But prosecutors 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.

One of those subcontractors, former Cook County commissioner and recorder of deeds Ed Moody, testified under immunity last month, affirming he didn’t lobby on ComEd’s behalf for the six years he was on lobbyists’ payroll. When he first began collecting his $4,500 monthly checks under McClain’s lobbying contract, he testified he made phone calls and did some door-to-door canvassing at McClain’s direction, although in closing arguments, prosecutors called Moody’s work a “joke.”

Moody also testified that his contract with McClain was a direct result of asking Madigan to connect him with lobbying work after years of service as a top precinct captain in the 13th Ward. He said the speaker made it clear that his main job as McClain’s subcontractor was to keep doing what he did best: knocking on doors and speaking to voters.

“He said: ‘Understand this, that I control that contract,’” Moody said of Madigan. “‘If you stop doing your political work, you’ll lose that contract.’”

McClain himself said on a wiretapped phone call in 2018 that the subcontractors he’d had working under him didn’t do much more than “give me pieces of paper.”

He was speaking to Madigan’s longtime political director, Will Cousineau, who also testified under immunity earlier in the trial and acknowledged that McClain had hoped he’d follow in his footsteps as the utility’s top outside lobbyist.

“Not saying that will happen to you in the future, but it helps you to be flexible,” McClain explained on that wiretapped call, referring to requests for job placements that Madigan would make.

“Yeah, ‘Just for a few months can you hire him for a few months?’” McClain said of Madigan’s requests. “So… you want to be nimble enough to say, ‘of course, of course.’”

Madigan at center of complicated case

Madigan largely exited public political life in early 2021 after a growing faction within his own House Democratic caucus vowed to deny him an unprecedented 19th term as speaker. That pressure grew over a period of six months after Madigan was named “Public Official A” in a federal court filing in July 2020.

Prosecutors announced ComEd had agreed to a deferred prosecution agreement and would pay a $200 million fine in addition to cooperating with the feds’ investigation into the utility’s alleged bribery scheme intended to influence Madigan.

McClain, Pramaggiore, Hooker and Doherty were indicted in November 2020, heightening the pressure campaign against Madigan, who had been speaker of the Illinois House for all but two years since 1983.

Longtime ComEd lobbyist John Hooker walks away from the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in downtown Chicago on May 2 after a jury found him guilty of helping to bribe longtime House Speaker Michael Madigan. (Capitol News Illinois photo by Andrew Adams)

Madigan’s name was mentioned countless times throughout the trial. During his closing arguments last week, McClain’s attorney, Patrick Cotter, echoed a theme in his opening statement, saying Madigan was the true object of prosecutors’ aims in this case.

“Be the shield that you were meant to be,” Cotter told the jury. “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.”

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, although he still maintains his longest-held elected position, that of Chicago’s 13th Ward Democratic committeeman, which isn’t up for another vote until next spring’s primary election.

Last March, Madigan was hit with a 22-count indictment on racketeering and bribery charges related to the alleged ComEd bribery scheme. The jury in this case was not told of those charges, although Schnitker Sayers told reporters after the verdict that Madigan’s pending trial was “common knowledge” among the jury.

That indictment also alleged Madigan used all his positions of power – including as a partner in his real estate tax law firm – as a criminal “enterprise” whose purpose was, in part, “to exercise, to preserve and to enhance Madigan’s political power and financial well-being.”

Former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. (Capitol News Illinois photo by Jerry Nowicki)

McClain was indicted alongside Madigan in that case, and in October feds added an extra charge involving telecommunications utility AT&T. In that charge, prosecutors allege Madigan and McClain conspired with AT&T Illinois executives and lobbyists to funnel payments to an ally of the speaker in exchange for help passing legislation in 2017 allowing the utility to end traditional landline service for 1.2 million customers statewide.

Feds allege those within Madigan’s orbit used “threats, intimidation and extortion” to achieve the powerful speaker’s aims. At the time, Madigan denied any criminal activity.

“The government is attempting to criminalize a routine constituent service: job recommendations,” Madigan said in a statement in March 2022. “That is not illegal, and these other charges are equally unfounded.”

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of newspapers, radio and TV stations statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.

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