Against the backdrop of new criminal charges, a legislative inquiry into Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and whether he improperly helped Commonwealth Edison in Springfield is set to begin this week.
It’s a process that historically has been reserved for lawmakers accused of crimes – including disgraced ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich. But its focus on the longest-serving House speaker in American history and sitting Democratic Party chair is extraordinary.
Madigan himself has not been charged, but an expanding federal probe into ComEd’s interactions with the speaker is closing in on him.
Late Friday, federal prosecutors revealed conspiracy and bribery charges against the utility’s former top in-house lobbyist, who was at the center of an alleged scheme to offer no-work jobs and contracts to Madigan’s supporters to win favor for ComEd’s Springfield agenda.
For now, Madigan holds the advantage in this Republican-driven House investigation, which he’s derided as an election-year “political stunt.” But this unfolding drama has potential to embarrass the speaker – even if it’s still uncertain whether he’ll be expelled from the House absent criminal charges.
Here’s what you need to know about this newly launched Madigan investigation.
What’s the process?
A rarely-used House committee is scheduled to convene this Thursday to begin investigating whether Madigan improperly boosted ComEd’s legislative fortunes after the utility admitted it doled out jobs and contracts to his associates in a long-running bribery scheme.
Republicans filed paperwork this past week to launch the investigation, which will be led by state Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside.
The committee will determine whether Madigan engaged in any wrongdoing, the first step in a process that could end in sanctions against the speaker – including expulsion – if enough Democrats break ranks with him.
But for now, that still has to be viewed as a political longshot so long as Madigan is not charged.
The six-member panel is composed equally of Democrats and Republicans. For the committee to make any big moves, including subpoenaing witnesses or recommending charges against the speaker, a majority vote is required. That means all tie votes favor Madigan.
Madigan has recused himself from any decision-making involving the House Special Investigating Committee, handing those duties off to the No. 2 House Democrat: Majority Leader Greg Harris, D-Chicago. Harris named Welch chairman of the committee.
The suburban Democrat says he intends to proceed with a fair-minded and cooperative approach and, with backing from Republicans, wants to reach out to the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago to seek its cooperation in the legislative probe.
In his personal dealings with the speaker, Welch said he has never observed Madigan crossing any legal or ethical lines.
“I have never seen the speaker engage in anything inappropriate,” Welch told WBEZ. “Every conversation I’ve had with him, every interaction I’ve had with him, he’s by the book.”
Will the speaker speak?
Madigan can’t be compelled to testify before the House panel. And in a raging statement he offered after Republicans forced the formation of the committee, the speaker didn’t say whether he would cooperate.
But Republicans are eager to hear from the speaker, whom they’ve made a central focus of their statewide and legislative campaigns since at least 2012, typically with little electoral effect.
They want to know about the allegations of improper behavior involving Madigan that are spelled out in a deferred prosecution agreement between U.S. Attorney John Lausch and ComEd. That deal staves off a bribery charge against the utility for three years if it cooperates in the ongoing federal probe.
And in a new development late Friday, the feds charged Fidel Marquez, ComEd’s former senior vice president of governmental and external affairs. He’s accused of funneling $37,500 to an unnamed company, which in turn was expected to spread “a substantial portion” to associates of Madigan, who was referred to as “Public Official A” multiple times in Friday’s filing.
Prosecutors also alleged Friday that Marquez and ComEd illegally doled out jobs, contracts and cash payments to Madigan’s political allies who “performed little or no work that they were purportedly hired to perform for ComEd.”
The type of criminal filing made public late Friday typically is associated with defendants who intend to plead guilty and cooperate with investigators, though those details were not revealed in the newly-filed court papers.
“We’d expect to hear from Speaker Madigan and help get some of the answers to the many, many questions that both Republicans and Democrats have been asking over the last couple of months,” said state Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, the ranking Republican on the new committee.
“He’s identified in [the deferred prosecution agreement] many, many times as ‘Public Official A,’ as sort of the nexis of how that whole picture came together,” Demmer said. “You’re hearing Gov. [JB] Pritzker. You’re hearing Democratic members of the House and the Senate as well as Republicans in Illinois asking, ‘What’s the story here?’ We have a really, really significant court filing that got the attention of people up and down the state of Illinois. We need to know what [his] side of the story is and what really happened.”
There are legal risks in Madigan testifying under oath because anything he says could be used against him in an ongoing federal probe that appears to be directed his way.
There are also risks in the court of public opinion. It’s an election year, and any image of the speaker being grilled about his possible role in one of Springfield’s biggest corruption scandals in years is sure fodder for GOP campaign commercials in all corners of the state this fall.
Still, Welch said he could envision a scenario where the speaker might be willing to cooperate.
“This is going to be an opportunity for Speaker Madigan to receive due process and a fair hearing,” Welch said. “And if he’s called upon to participate, I’m sure he’ll participate.”
Who else might lawmakers hear from?
Welch said he does not have anyone specific from whom he wants to hear and said that would be a decision the committee would make.
But Demmer laid out a broad range of potential witnesses who were alluded to in the government’s filing outlining ComEd’s bribery effort at the statehouse.
Among them is former lobbyist and State Rep. Michael McClain, a long-time confidant of Madigan’s and the utility’s former point man under the Capitol dome. Federal agents raided his Quincy, Ill., home last year and sought his cooperation in the probe of Madigan and ComEd.
WBEZ identified McClain as the author of an email to Madigan’s one-time chief of staff, touting a “magic lobbying list,” which the speaker allegedly helped compile to reward an elite group of favored former staffers with lucrative lobbying gigs.
McClain also used his clout to help loyalists of his own, including a former state worker facing disciplinary action under former Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration. A 2012 email McClain wrote to Quinn’s senior aides on behalf of the worker encouraged leniency because the person had “kept his mouth shut on Jones’ ghost workers, the rape in Champaign and other items.” WBEZ’s disclosure of that email set off a firestorm, though its meaning is still unclear and several agencies are investigating.
Another potential target of Republicans is former City Club of Chicago head Jay Doherty, who lobbied for ComEd and is believed to have steered no-work utility company contracts to favored Madigan allies, according to prosecutors. Federal agents raided the not-for-profit public affairs group’s offices last year, as well, seeking information about Madigan and others.
Neither McClain nor Doherty have been charged. But Demmer said both they and “anybody else who’s mentioned” in the ComEd agreement could be called to testify.
ComEd’s current and past executives also could be called upon to testify. While the company has pledged cooperation with federal prosecutors as a condition of its settlement agreement, its level of cooperation with legislative investigators is unclear.
“They may be in a good position to shed light on how some of this happened, who was involved in making it happen and what their direct involvement was and what they saw others’ involvement was,” Demmer said of the utility. “They may be in a good position to shed some light on that for us.”
Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics and government for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @davemckinney.