Former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Rich Hein / Sun-Times file

What ComEd trial guilty verdicts could mean for Michael Madigan and Illinois politics

The convictions could affect the bribery trial next year of former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and could spark ethics reforms and questions about how politicians are lobbied.

The fallout from this past week’s bribery convictions of four former Commonwealth Edison executives and lobbyists could take months or years to sort out. But the jury appeared to make a forceful statement with its verdicts.

It doesn’t like the way Springfield does business.

The outcome of the seven-week trial of former ComEd chief executive officer Anne Pramaggiore and former ComEd lobbyists Michael McClain, John Hooker and Jay Doherty — convictions for all four — is certain to affect the scheduled racketeering and bribery trial next year of longtime former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.

The evidence that those former ComEd officials bribed Madigan — roughly 140 secretly taped audio and video recordings, testimony from a government mole and about three dozen witnesses for the prosecution — underwent an important legal stress test in this trial.

Portions of the same evidence could be used in the Madigan trial since part of the case against him involves the ComEd bribery storyline.

A juror said the group saw Madigan as being at the center of the scheme.

“Our perception was that he really did cause this all to happen,” said juror Amanda Schnitker Sayers, a veterinarian from Logan Square. “If it wouldn’t [have] been for him, then these people would not have been in [a] position that they would need to commit crimes in the first place.”

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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The guilty verdicts also could spark reforms. As Illinois history shows, major criminal cases or ethical scandals almost always prompt change:

  • A federal corruption case that touched former Gov. Jim Edgar’s administration led to bans on lobbyist gifts and the personal use of campaign funds by state officials.
  • Former Gov. George Ryan’s downfall triggered the creation of state inspectors general and ethics commissions.
  • And the case against former Gov. Rod Blagojevich that resulted in his impeachment and imprisonment helped drive caps on political contributions and a voter-approved change to the state Constitution to allow the recall of governors.
Former Gov. Jim Edgar in February 2022.
Former Gov. Jim Edgar in February 2022.
Sun-Times file
Former Gov. George Ryan.
Former Gov. George Ryan.
Sun-Times file
Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich in August 2022.
(Clockwise from top left) Former governors Jim Edgar, George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich.
Sun-Times file, Pat Nabong / Sun-Times
(Clockwise from top left) Former governors Jim Edgar, George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich.
Sun-Times file, Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

Madigan is among 12 current or former Illinois House and Senate members to face federal charges in the past decade, making the effectiveness of those past legislative ethics dances an arguable point.

Reaction from the ruling Democrats in Springfield to the convictions was swift but devoid of any mention of a need for further reform.

Illinois Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, said: “The behavior brought to light and put on display at this trial was shockingly gluttonous and unhealthy to democracy. We’ve taken concrete steps to discourage bad behavior. But, most importantly, I believe we have people committed to behaving better.”

Illinois Senate President Don Harmon stands at a microphone with an American flag in the background to the left.

Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park: “I believe we have people committed to behaving better.”

Justin L. Fowler / The State Journal-Register via AP

While Republicans at the statehouse might see corruption as a persistent problem, they don’t have the power to make major change.

“We have had an opportunity to tackle ethics in our statehouse for years,” House Republican leader Tony McCombie said. “This should not have been the first step to rooting out corruption in Illinois, but, after today, it is clear there must be a sense of urgency in bringing back the people’s trust in state government.”

How far legislators are willing to invest in new ethical soul-searching concerns reformers like Joseph Ferguson, Chicago’s former City Hall inspector general. Illinois is ripe for ethics reforms, according to Ferguson — if only someone would make them happen.

“Here we are, after what is an extraordinarily dramatic trial, and it’s been crickets,” said Ferguson, a former federal prosecutor now weighing possibly running for Cook County state’s attorney. “It is abundantly clear, from what has played out at this trial and what we have all learned, this is not the way we should be governed.”

Former City Hall Inspector General Joseph Ferguson.

Former City Hall Inspector General Joseph Ferguson.

Sun-Times file

Ferguson said he supports creating a statewide grand jury operating under the attorney general to explore corruption cases, tightening conflict-of-interest laws, broadening revolving-door restraints to slow retiring legislators from becoming lobbyists and instituting a review of why ex-legislators like McClain can continue drawing state pensions despite felony convictions.

Past fruitless reforms

The clock is winding down on the General Assembly’s spring session, scheduled to end May 19, and Democratic leadership has been neither vocal nor specific about tightening state ethics or laws any further.

A spokesman for Pritzker said the governor “will continue to work with the General Assembly to ensure that those who violate that trust are held accountable.”

The governor’s office points to the enactment of ethics laws that require lobbyists to identify consultants they hire and mandate additional lobbyist disclosures. Pritzker also signed a clean-energy package in 2021 that includes ethics reforms arising from the 2020 deferred-prosecution agreement ComEd entered into with the Justice Department.

In that agreement, ComEd acknowledged the broad outlines of the bribery scheme that toppled Madigan from power and now has led to convictions of the four former company executives and lobbyists. Under the deferred-prosecution deal, ComEd pledged to cooperate with federal authorities in later prosecutions and agreed to pay a $200 million fine. In exchange, a federal bribery charge against ComEd for its lobbying misdeeds was set aside.

One ethics provision in the clean-energy package is a requirement that lawmakers and state officials disclose on their annual state financial disclosure forms whether their spouses or other immediate family members worked for utility companies.

In the requirement’s first full year of implementation, a WBEZ analysis of state filings found that 185 of 188 lawmakers whose forms were available online did not identify any family members as being employed by public utilities. Statements for three other lawmakers weren’t available online.

Of the dozens and dozens of job applicants prosecutors have said Madigan and his surrogates pressured ComEd to hire, not one was an immediate family member of the former speaker.

Prosecutors showed some of those they said Madigan wanted ComEd to employ were political allies or friends of political friends, including former members of the Chicago City Council, an ex-legislator and some of his most effective 13th Ward precinct captains.

Madigan resigned before the new disclosure requirement was in place. Had he operated under it, he wouldn’t have had to report any of those people.

Ferguson suggests changing the law to require that each clout-heavy job applicant pushed by a lawmaker be entered into a public log “so everyone knows what legislators are doing.”

Michael McClain, a longtime confidant to former House Speaker Michael Madigan, walks towards the exit at the Dirksen Federal Building on April 18 during his trial.

Michael McClain, a longtime confidant to former House Speaker Michael Madigan, walks towards the exit at the Dirksen Federal Building on April 18 during his trial.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere / Sun-Times

How lobbying could be affected

While the just-concluded bribery trial portrayed Madigan as the requester of favors, ComEd’s lobbying team was shown to be the go-along-to-get-along provider of them.

McClain, who once presided over Springfield’s bluest of blue-chip lobbying portfolios, repeatedly told colleagues in emails and intercepted calls presented during the trial that his only “client” who mattered was the speaker. When it came to Madigan’s requests for favors, McClain said his mantra was: “Drop everything, and get it done.”

Ex-ComEd lobbyist John Hooker leaving the Dirksen Federal Courthouse Tuesday after being found guilty of bribery conspiracy.

Ex-ComEd lobbyist John Hooker leaving the Dirksen Federal Courthouse Tuesday after being found guilty of bribery conspiracy.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere / Sun-Times

In one wiretapped conversation, McClain and Hooker acknowledged it was their idea to steer Madigan-connected, no-work subcontractors to Doherty and his lobbying firm, to which ComEd would funnel payments to keep the “ghosts” off the company’s official ledgers.

The state Lobbyist Registration Act, largely administered by the secretary of state’s office, mandates ethics training for lobbyists, and state records show McClain, Hooker, Doherty and Pramaggiore completed those courses.

Former ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore leavin the Dirksen Federal Courthouse Tuesday after being found guilty of bribery conspiracy.

Former ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore leavin the Dirksen Federal Courthouse Tuesday after being found guilty of bribery conspiracy.

Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times

Outside of sexual harassment, the lobbyist law is silent on what constitutes improper ethical conduct. It addresses things like when and how lobbyists have to register with the state, what happens if they don’t comply and how they have to report lobbying expenditures.

Lobbyists rarely face sanctions from the state. Annual reports from the secretary of state’s inspector general’s office documented eight complaints in 2019 for “improper lobbying activity,” eight in 2020 and six in 2021. Most wound up being resolved without fines or other sanctions.

The exception was a 2021 sexual harassment case involving a lobbyist for Exelon, ComEd’s corporate parent. In that case, which didn’t come up in the ComEd trial, the state Executive Ethics Commission imposed $6,000 in fines against the lobbyist and suspended his lobbyist registration. Those steps came after he had been fired by Exelon.

The case against the former ComEd defendants put several currently registered lobbyists in the thick of the scheme to shower favors upon Madigan. They weren’t charged with any crimes by the Justice Department, and Acting U.S. Attorney Morris Pasqual declined to comment when asked why some named in the case weren’t charged.

Those who surfaced in this trial but haven’t been charged include former Madigan fundraiser Victor Reyes. There was testimony that the former speaker and McClain demanded that ComEd hire Reyes’ law firm and give it a guaranteed allotment of hours even though the utility’s top lawyer testified that there wasn’t enough work for Reyes to meet the specified hourly threshold for which Madigan bargained.

Former state Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion, and former Madigan staffer and political operative Shaw Decremer, both still lobbying in Springfield, also are among the uncharged whose names popped up in the bribery trial. They were paid by ComEd, like Doherty, to employ no-work subcontractors from Madigan’s political organization, according to trial testimony.

It’s not clear whether existing state ethics laws would apply to those individuals or restrict their ability to lobby.

‘Ethical principles for legislators’

Whether Madigan engaged in criminal activity will be decided by another jury, in a trial that’s scheduled for next April.

But what prosecutors attempted to show again and again in the just-concluded trial is that Madigan engaged in activities that posed clear conflicts of interest. They presented emails and recordings to show Madigan repeatedly pushed resumes on ComEd while it sought approval for legislation that brought the company back from bankruptcy. As the company filled the speaker’s requests, its legislation moved forward.

Prosecutor Diane MacArthur put what went on this way: “Madigan wanted, ComEd gave, and ComEd got.”

To deal with possible conflicts of interest, one can go digging in the state statute books and settle in on the arcanely identified, permissively-worded section of law known officially as 5 ILCS 420/Article 3, Part 2. In all-capital letters, it’s titled: “ETHICAL PRINCIPLES FOR LEGISLATORS.” It says, “A legislator should avoid accepting or retaining an economic opportunity which presents a substantial threat to his independence of judgment.”

If a lawmaker has a conflict, the law says: “He should consider the possibility of eliminating the interest creating the conflict situation. If that is not feasible, he should consider the possibility of abstaining from such official action.”

It also says that, if a legislator with a conflict of interest decides to take official action anyway, “He should serve the public interest and not the interest of any person.”

True to form in corruption-stricken Illinois, this section of the law lacks one key element that jurors just dished out on their own in sobering fashion: consequences.

If a legislator like the once-powerful speaker of the House chooses to ignore these “ETHICAL PRINCIPLES,” there are no penalties.

Ferguson said that should change: As the law now stands, these high-minded standards of behavior “are intended only as guides to legislator conduct and not as rules meant to be enforced by disciplinary action.”

Contributing: Jon Seidel

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