Over 100 FBI recordings will be played at ComEd trial, but defense claims jurors will hear no hard evidence of bribery

The opening statements Wednesday kicked off the highly anticipated trial of Madigan confidant Michael McClain, ex-ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore, former ComEd lobbyist John Hooker and onetime City Club President Jay Doherty.

SHARE Over 100 FBI recordings will be played at ComEd trial, but defense claims jurors will hear no hard evidence of bribery
Michael McClain, a longtime confidant to former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, walks into the Dirksen Federal Courthouse.

Michael McClain, a longtime confidant to former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, walks into the Dirksen Federal Courthouse Wednesday.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Federal prosecutors told jurors Wednesday they will hear more than 100 recordings over the next several weeks in the wide-ranging trial of four former political power players accused of trying to bribe then-Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan.

They’ll see piles of documents, hear from current and former lawmakers and cooperating witnesses, including a former Cook County recorder of deeds. And the feds promised in the trial’s opening statements that all of the evidence will show a clear scheme by the four to sway Madigan, “the most powerful person in the Illinois General Assembly,” to help ComEd.

But within the massive trove of evidence, gathered amid an aggressive federal investigation of old-school Chicago-style politics, defense attorneys insisted Wednesday that jurors will never see the four link jobs given to Madigan’s allies to specific legislation passed in Springfield.

And that’s where they said the “dark theory of the government” will fail more than two years after it ended Madigan’s record-breaking tenure as the leader of the Illinois House of Representatives and ultimately landed him under indictment for racketeering.

“Thank God you’re here,” defense attorney Patrick Cotter told a jury of six men and six women. “Because finally, that theory will be put to the test.”

The commentary from prosecutors, Cotter and other defense attorneys kicked off in earnest the highly anticipated trial of Madigan confidant Michael McClain, ex-ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore, former ComEd lobbyist John Hooker and onetime City Club President Jay Doherty.

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Former ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore walks into the Dirksen Federal Courthouse Wednesday.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

A federal grand jury indicted the four in November 2020, charging them with a bribery conspiracy and falsifying ComEd’s books and records. But at its core, the indictment accused the group of a scheme to arrange jobs, contracts and money for Madigan associates in order to sway Madigan as key legislation moved through Springfield.

The legislation at issue included a 2011 measure that stabilized ComEd’s formula rate, a 2013 measure that was considered a legislative fix to the rate bill, and the Future Energy Jobs Act, which passed in 2016.

Madigan is charged with the same scheme, but in a separate, broader indictment. His trial is not expected to begin until April 2024.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Streicker began Wednesday with commentary that lasted roughly 90 minutes. She started with McClain’s own words, caught on one of the many recordings jurors will hear: “We had to hire these guys because Mike Madigan came to us.”

“In short, Madigan wanted, the defendants gave, and the defendants got,” Streicker told the jury. “It’s that simple.”

She described former Cook County Recorder of Deeds Edward Moody as a cooperating government witness in the case, who has “not been charged with a crime in exchange for his truthful testimony.” She placed former state Rep. Eddie Acevedo squarely in the middle of the scheme as a Madigan ally allegedly paid by ComEd through a third party.

And the prosecutor detailed a stream of money paid by ComEd to four additional Madigan allies — former Alds. Frank Olivo and Michael Zalewski, Raymond Nice and Moody. She said Olivo was paid more than $360,000, Zalewski was paid $45,000, Nice was paid more than $400,000 and Moody was paid more than $350,000 while allegedly doing little or no work.

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Former ComEd lobbyist John Hooker walks into the Dirksen Federal Courthouse Wednesday.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Nice, Zalewski, Olivo have not been criminally charged. Acevedo pleaded guilty to a separate tax-evasion charge and served a six-month prison sentence. He was also previously tied to the Madigan investigation through a similar scheme involving AT&T Illinois.

Streicker illustrated her presentation by flashing photos of the Illinois Capitol building and Madigan on a screen in the courtroom. She made clear the extent of Madigan’s political power while showing his photo — taken from his driver’s license.

Next to the photo were the words “most powerful person in IL General Assembly.”

She described McClain’s close relationship with Madigan to jurors. And she said job recommendations made by Madigan — typically through McClain — were treated as demands. By way of example, she described a recorded conversation McClain had with a senior ComEd employee.

“He told this employee that ComEd must immediately handle requests from Madigan, and that ComEd must understand that, when McClain sends over a resume, it’s not a request. It’s a demand to hire someone,” Streicker said.

When the prosecutor finished, defense attorneys spent the entire afternoon telling their side of the story to jurors — and each tried to separate themselves from the pack. They also tried to soften the anticipated blow of the recordings.

Cotter, representing McClain, called the case the product of an “exceptionally focused, goal-driven investigation” aimed at the former speaker.

“I didn’t count how many times Mr. Madigan — who isn’t here — was mentioned during the government’s opening,” Cotter said. “I didn’t count. But it was a lot.”

Cotter insisted to the jury that they will “hear no words” linking a job recommendation from Madigan with any piece of legislation. Nor, he said, will jurors hear any discussion of Madigan helping pass a piece of ComEd legislation.

“No connection to legislation, no bribe,” Cotter said.

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Former City Club President Jay Doherty walks into the Dirksen Federal Courthouse Wednesday.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Cotter explained that ComEd — despite allegedly bribing Madigan — invested in a massive lobbying effort to try to get the legislation passed, and that Madigan’s staff still forced the utility into concessions worth millions.

He urged jurors not to let their feelings about politics or political parties enter deliberations.

“Politics is not on trial here,” Cotter said. “Knowing about politics is not on trial.”

Cotter, who painted McClain as a hardworking Springfield insider, also sought to distance him from ComEd, telling jurors, “Mike McClain is not an employee of ComEd.”

“He has no authority of ComEd,” Cotter said. “Mike can’t hire anybody. Mike can’t fire anybody. Mike can’t order anybody at ComEd to do anything.”

Gabrielle Sansonetti, Jay Doherty’s attorney, also pinned some blame on ComEd — mentioning multiple times that there was an “oversight problem” when it came to Madigan’s associates, who appeared to be subcontractors. But she argued it wasn’t evidence of a crime and that those hired, including the two former Chicago aldermen, were “government guys” who “knew people” and “had access.” That equates to a prime candidate to hire, she argued.

Sansonetti also told jurors that there is little evidence to prove the government’s argument that those subcontracted lobbyists did little to no work, arguing that some lobbyists are hired so they’re not snatched up by a competing firm, or just in case an issue pops up. Others are paid on a retainer. And lobbyists frequently attend dinners, charity events and political events that aren’t necessarily tracked by their employers, she told jurors.

It was a prime example of the defense’s dissection of the business of lobbying, which is becoming a focal point of the trial. Jacqueline Jacobson, who is representing John Hooker, insisted, “Lobbying is not a crime.”

Former U.S. Attorney Scott Lassar, who is representing Pramaggiore, repeatedly said the former ComEd CEO never asked Madigan for help in passing legislation. He mentioned a wiretap recording in which Pramaggiore says, “Oh my God,” when she was told the subcontractors were just “collecting checks.”

“If they hired somebody, they never thought that was going to affect legislation,” Lassar said.

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