He survived millions of dollars worth of TV commercials and mailers casting him as the poster boy for everything that’s wrong with Illinois politics.
He weathered a string of sexual harassment scandals hitting some of his top lieutenants.
And now Mike Madigan’s voice has reached the ears of the feds.
Is this the final nail for the “Velvet Hammer?” Or is the powerful House speaker invincible?
The Chicago Sun-Times revealed this week that the FBI secretly recorded Madigan trying to get business for his private law firm from a developer brought to him by Ald. Danny Solis, who later wore a wire to record conversations with Ald. Ed Burke. Madigan isn’t facing any charges and has denied any wrongdoing.
But the surprise revelation has political insiders from Chicago to Springfield questioning whether the man whose political acumen and survival skills prompted the statehouse adage “Never bet against the Speaker” might finally be holding a losing hand.
‘Be strong, or you’re going to be gone’
From his days as a protege of Richard J. Daley — the longtime mayor whom Madigan has called a “carbon copy” of his father — to becoming a pariah at the hands of former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, Madigan has been a case study in power politics, Illinois style.
The speaker has a vivid and nostalgic memory of his rise to the top — from law clerk in the city’s Law Department, to a job at the Illinois Commerce Commission, to 13th Ward Democratic committeeman, state representative, assistant House majority leader and ultimately the longest serving statehouse speaker in the country and chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois.
His idol accumulated power, used the patronage system and the election system to provide for Cook County, Madigan said of the first Mayor Daley in a 2009 interview with the University of Illinois at Chicago as part of the elder Daley’s historical archives.
Daley taught Madigan about family, strength and power.
“His approach was to build his personal power. And then he’d have that personal power — then he’d have that personal power for what he wanted to do,” Madigan said of his political mentor.
And of strength, he said: “In my life, I live in a lot of situations where you’d better be strong, or you’re going to be gone.”
But Madigan, too, has admitted he’s made mistakes throughout his historic political career.
“In politics and in government, everybody makes mistakes. I make mistakes. And I spend a lot of time and I develop structures to try and prevent mistakes,” Madigan said in the interview.
‘Too careful and smart to be caught’
So why are so many people waiting for the Southwest Side Democrat to make a mistake?
Perhaps because Madigan has, so far, been untouchable. He’s weathered convicted governors, scandals and unfavorable media reports about his law firm, and always seems to survive. He stood in the shadows for months to avoid distraction from Democrat J.B. Pritzker’s gubernatorial campaign and as Rauner pumped millions into the airwaves and mailboxes to try to tarnish Madigan’s public image.
“He’s too careful and smart to be caught doing something that would lead to any legal action,” said a Republican lawmaker, who did not want to be named.
The lawmaker said the timing of the federal investigation might be of benefit to the speaker.
“I would be shocked if Madigan, knowing that Rauner was basically heavily investigating him, did anything wrong. I would say my view is that I would be absolutely shocked if there’s anything between 2013 and 2018 because he knew Rauner was watching him,” the lawmaker said.
The affidavit detailed that the Solis probe dates back at least as far as May 2014. The recorded Madigan meeting happened in August 2014.
In public meetings, in press conferences, and even in a lengthy deposition released this week — the 76-year-old’s first ever deposition — Madigan answers questions succinctly, albeit sarcastically. He never says more than he has to.
The day it was reported Madigan had been recorded by the FBI, the speaker took private meetings in his Springfield office. And lawmakers across the state Capitol were publicly mum about the recording. Pritzker, now elected governor, played it safe, saying the investigation should take its course.
‘Not interested in a quick killing’
Legally speaking, Madigan doesn’t seem to be in hot water — yet. Though it’s remarkable that federal investigators caught him on tape, Madigan did not seem to cross any lines in the conversation described in the court affidavit.
During the August 2014 meeting, Madigan pitched his private law firm’s services to a developer who wanted to build a hotel in Chinatown, as well as an associate of the developer. The men were brought to Madigan by Solis while the developer was seeking a letter of support for a zoning change from Solis.
“We’re not interested in a quick killing here,” Madigan said during the meeting. “We’re interested in a long-term relationship.”
Though the pitch might sound unseemly, that doesn’t make it illegal.
For it to rise to that level, investigators would need evidence that something was being offered in return for legal business.
And prosecutors need enough evidence to prove defendants guilty of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt.
And one of the hardest things for them to prove is an intended quid pro quo.
That’s according to Steven Block, a former federal prosecutor who is now a partner at Thompson Hine. Though he did not feel comfortable talking specifically about the investigation that led to the Madigan recording, he spoke to the Sun-Times generally about the difficulties of putting such a case together.
“When the government investigates corruption cases, it is almost always their goal to develop a cooperator,” Block said. “In other words, someone on the inside who can help explain the party’s conduct.”
Smoke, but no smoking gun?
It’s unknown whether the feds found their man in Solis — who didn’t begin cooperating until well after the recorded Madigan meeting. Still, a defense attorney would surely have a field day with Solis’ own dirty laundry if he ever took the stand as a government witness.
The 25th Ward alderman received everything from sex acts at massage parlors to Viagra to campaign contributions in exchange for handing official City Council business, according to allegations in the federal affidavit.
And most legal experts say that while the secret recording paints a vivid picture of what it’s like to take a meeting with Madigan in his private law office, there’s no smoking gun in what’s been revealed by federal authorities so far.
But it gets uncomfortably close to the line between power in private business and power in politics.
“I think anybody who pays attention to state politics would have said he’s been in a position where he benefits from the sense that he’s exceptionally powerful and generates business for a firm that generates income. And that sounds to a lot of people that it’s a conflict of interest, but he’s been able to do it without breaking the law,” said Brian Gaines, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
‘Walked an interesting line for a long time’
In the federal affidavit, Solis told a developer’s associate, “He’s going to benefit from being with the speaker.” Solis, who chaired the City Council’s powerful Zoning Committee, also told the associate, “If he works with the speaker, he will get anything he needs for that hotel.”
Legally, that does not implicate Madigan with any wrongdoing. Clients could flock to Madigan with simply a perception that they’ll get ahead by hiring the powerful speaker.
“If people believe this is how powerful he is, people will steer business his way just in the belief that he’ll help them. He doesn’t have to help them there. No quid pro,” Gaines said. “That probably doesn’t really hurt him. That doesn’t really alter his legacy. That’s sort of already common wisdom about him.”
Prior to last week, things had been relatively quiet for Madigan as he basked in the glow of a post-Rauner Illinois. He had been working to reform the image he said was tarnished during the Republican governor’s four-year term, even airing a rare television ad in December.
Even still, he remains the most powerful politician in the state — a title he doesn’t publicly acknowledge. He earned the moniker “Velvet Hammer” in part from his quiet mastery of wielding the gavel longer than any other House leader in the country.
“He’s walked an interesting line for a long time of wanting everybody to know he’s exceptionally powerful but then denying it when other people say the state is a mess and you’re the most powerful person in the state,” Gaines said. “And then he’ll suddenly deny that he’s the most powerful person in the state. But by and large he wants people to know nothing gets done unless he wants it done.”
So how will Madigan’s political reign ends? Some speculated he’d retire sometime after ensuring the state had another Democratic governor taking the reins. Others see a different exit.
“I thought at one point he was going to step down so his stepdaughter [Lisa Madigan] could run for governor,” Gaines said. “Now I just kind of think he’ll be in office until he dies. He’ll be in the Capitol.”
Contributing: Jon Seidel