Madigan indictment brings hope of more ethical government in Illinois

Illinois has a history of corruption and also reforms admired and emulated by other states.

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U.S. Attorney John Lausch announces an indictment in a public corruption investigation against former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan at the Dirksen Federal Building on Wednesday.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Let’s hope we are hearing the soft rustle of a new page being turned in Illinois politics.

On Wednesday, a federal grand jury returned a 22-count indictment against former House Speaker Michael Madigan following an investigation that went on for years. It charged Madigan, who lost his role as speaker in January 2021 and later resigned his House seat, with a litany of schemes. Taken together, the racketeering and bribery charges portray a politician with an iron grip on the political machinery of Springfield who used that power to place allies in jobs, extort money from entities doing business with the state and twist arms to get lucrative business for his private property tax law firm.

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The news of an indictment was not entirely a surprise, not after all the hints federal prosecutors dropped in the lead-up to the grand jury’s decision. With the federal charges, Madigan is no longer just “Public Official A.”

Still, it left many people, long used to the Madigan of unquestioned clout, feeling somewhat unmoored. Widely considered to have been the most powerful politician in the state, Madigan was synonymous with backroom influence for so long even those who pay little attention to politics know his name and recognize his face. “Who hasn’t heard of Mike Madigan?” Gregory Hatchett, 55, of Country Club Hills asked the Sun-Times after Madigan announced his decision to resign.

Others were surprised that Madigan, cautious, tight-lipped and inscrutable to the point even members of his own party often said they had no idea what he was really thinking, would allegedly cross the line into illegal activity.  

It’s both fitting and shameful that Madigan — seemingly so smart, so wily — would allegedly get caught in an old-school Chicago-style scheme: ComEd wanted Madigan’s influence to sway in excess of $150 million in legislation its way by hooking up Madigan’s friends and associates with no-work jobs over a decade.

With any luck, the indictment will herald a new time when the old ways of doing politics no longer work. With any luck, it will send a message for those continuing to involve themselves in shady practices: The law will catch up with you.

We see once again that corruption has an actual price that taxpayers continue to pay. Improving Illinois means more than new roads and better education. It also means electing honest folks to office and rooting out those who play fast and loose with the public offices they hold. Doling out jobs to people who don’t have to work hard, lowering property taxes for favored clients, enacting legislation that raises costs for average people, as alleged in the indictment, slams ordinary people hard in the wallet.

Madigan’s fall parallels that of Sheldon Silver, one of New York’s most powerful politicians until he was forced from his job as State Assembly speaker in 2015 by federal charges of which he was later convicted.

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Madigan’s allies will point to many good things he did in his decades in the Legislature. But if he is convicted, his record will forever be besmirched.

In the end, federal prosecutors will have to prove their case. The public never liked how Madigan’s tentacles reached into jobs and contracts all over the state and that over the years he built a formidable army of precinct workers. But prosecutors will have to produce evidence that shows Madigan went beyond all that into the illegal world of quid quo pro. In a statement Wednesday, Madigan said he didn’t.

Illinois has a history of corruption and also reforms admired and emulated by other states. When the dust settles, we hope this case will move Illinois closer to the beacon of good government long hoped for by its more idealistic citizens.

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