‘I will keep pressing’: Jurors hear ComEd CEO taking orders after key witness explains appointment to utility’s board

The testimony capped the fourth week in the ComEd bribery trial. Prosecutors have presented nearly all of their evidence and predict they will rest their case by Tuesday.

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Juan Ochoa arrives at Lincoln school in Cicero and talked to the media after voting on Tuesday, February 26, 2013. Ochoa was appointed to ComEd’s board at the behest of Speaker Michael Madigan and former Rep. Luis Gutierrez.

Sun-Times files

Former McPier boss Juan Ochoa took the stand Thursday in the trial of four political power players and told the tale of his appointment to ComEd’s board — a seemingly typical Chicago backroom deal involving then-Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Then, prosecutors played another set of phone calls secretly recorded by the FBI in which ComEd officials spoke candidly about the appointment, because they thought no one was listening.

Jurors then heard Michael McClain — a Madigan confidant who had no obvious role in the matter — brokering the deal in 2018 between Madigan and Anne Pramaggiore, who was then ComEd’s CEO. McClain told Pramaggiore on May 16, 2018, that Madigan “would appreciate it” if Pramaggiore “would keep pressing” to get the deal done.

“OK, got it,” Pramaggiore said upon hearing that instruction. “I will keep pressing.”

The testimony of Ochoa, and the recordings played for the jury immediately afterward, capped the fourth week in the trial of McClain, Pramaggiore, ex-ComEd lobbyist John Hooker and onetime City Club President Jay Doherty.

The four are accused of conspiring over nearly a decade to bribe Madigan by arranging for jobs, contracts and money for Madigan’s associates, all while legislation crucial to ComEd moved through Springfield. The recordings played Thursday appear to be another example of ComEd officials bending over backwards to please the powerful politician.

Prosecutors have presented nearly all of their evidence and have predicted they will rest their case by Tuesday. However, defense attorneys have said they might need as many as three additional weeks to present their own evidence to the jury before closing arguments begin.

Ochoa was appointed in 2007 by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich to run the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, the agency which ran McCormick Place and Navy Pier. It was also known as McPier. Blagojevich was then convicted in his own federal corruption prosecution but left prison in 2020 after then-President Donald Trump commuted his sentence.

Ochoa left his McPier post in May 2010. Seven years later, he and then-U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez approached Madigan and then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel about recommending Ochoa for a seat on the ComEd board. Ochoa said both men agreed to make the recommendation.

One year earlier, Gutierrez and then-Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, both Ochoa allies, had also publicly endorsed Madigan.

Still, the campaign to place Ochoa on the ComEd board took nearly two years. He said he spoke with Madigan by phone in April 2018 — before he had heard anything officially from ComEd — and Madigan told him that he would be seated later in the summer.

But Ochoa was not appointed to the board until a year after that call, in April 2019. He said he fulfilled his one-year term, attended all meetings, collected nearly $80,000 in pay and did not seek another term.

On cross-examination, Pramaggiore defense attorney Daniel Craig confirmed that the ComEd position was one of several professional positions Ochoa has held. Ochoa denied that Madigan had anything to do with helping him land the others.

Ochoa also told McClain defense attorney Patrick Cotter that he never would have asked Gutierrez to help approach Madigan about the seat if he thought it was improper to do so.

After Ochoa left the witness stand, prosecutors shared emails and the recorded phone calls that detailed the behind-the-scenes push by McClain and Pramaggiore to have Ochoa appointed to the ComEd board. McClain repeatedly reminded her that Madigan must be the one to call Ochoa himself to deliver the good news.

In a Nov. 28, 2017, email, McClain wrote to Pramaggiore, “Anne, after your professionals do their due diligence and you make a decision, our Friend would like to know from you. He, of course, would like to call Ochoa.”

The instruction to “keep pressing” came in May 2018, after McClain and Pramaggiore floated to Madigan the idea of finding Ochoa a position that would pay the same amount as a board seat: $78,000.

Madigan laughed when McClain told him about the board salary and said, “Maybe I’ll take the appointment.”

Madigan then told McClain he wanted to continue the push for a board seat.

Months later, in a July 10, 2018, email, McClain wrote to Pramaggiore, “Is it possible to nominate Juan Ochoa by July 30th?” McClain offered that “our Friend would like to make a call to him before it is announced of course.”

Pramaggiore on July 17, 2018, called McClain to tell him they were “moving forward” with Ochoa’s appointment,saying “that one took a little bit,” but “we’re all good,” of the vetting process for Ochoa.

She also told McClain he was free to call Madigan to tell him about the appointment: “Yep, you can tell him. Yep.”

Less than two hours later, McClain called Madigan about the green light.

Madigan in turn said, “Now, I’ll probably call Gutierrez. Tell him first,” Madigan said. “I mean, he’s the reason I would talk to Juan Ochoa. When I thought he was still going to be a congressman,” he said with a laugh.

Gutierrez in November 2017 announced he would not be seeking re-election and endorsed Garcia to take his place.

Pramaggiore spoke more freely in a recorded call on August 7, 2018, in which she told then-ComEd executive Fidel Marquez that she was frustrated that the word was getting out — before Ochoa had even formally been appointed.

Marquez told her that state Sen. Martin Sandoval told him he already knew about Ochoa’s appointment.

Sandoval told Marquez that Ochoa was “part of that cabal” — the “Chuy, Luis, somebody else cabal.”

ComEd trial timeline

ComEd scandal timeline

This timeline looks at the key players involved in the trial and the main events that led to it. Scroll through it here.

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