ComEd trial puts spotlight on lobbying practices of state politicians

Mike Madigan “perfected” his political and statehouse operation to the point where companies and other special interests believed they had to hire his people to advance their bills, Rich Miller writes.

SHARE ComEd trial puts spotlight on lobbying practices of state politicians
Former ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore (right) walks into the Everett M. Dirksen U.S. Courthouse in the Loop for the ComEd bribery trial, Tuesday, March 28, 2023. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Former ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore (right) walks into the Everett M. Dirksen U.S. Courthouse in the Loop for the ComEd bribery trial, Tuesday, March 28, 2023.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

We’re going to talk some history today.

According to testimony at the federal ComEd Four trial, then-House Speaker Mike Madigan’s former 13th Ward Ald. Frank Olivo was brought on as a subcontractor under then- ComEd Chairman and CEO Frank Clark.

Clark retired in September 2011, almost a dozen years ago. He has never been charged nor has it ever been claimed he did anything illegal. And Olivo didn’t officially register as a lobbyist until the beginning of 2012, according to a 2019 report by NBC Chicago.

Olivo was put on ComEd lobbyist Jay Doherty’s payroll as a subcontractor, according to a secretly recorded video of a conversation Doherty had with ComEd’s top in-house lobbyist at the time, Fidel Marquez. Doherty explained that John Hooker, ComEd’s former top in-house lobbyist, was the person who carried the news to him.

Columnists bug

Columnists


In-depth political coverage, sports analysis, entertainment reviews and cultural commentary.

It didn’t stop there, of course. The alleged ComEd scheme was drastically expanded and even perfected under Clark’s successor, ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore, who appeared to express surprise when she was told by Marquez how, long ago, Olivo had been hired and by whom. “Oh my God,” she said on a secret government recording when told the news.

Pramaggiore, Doherty, Hooker and former statehouse lobbyist Mike McClain are now all on trial for allegedly carrying out a massive scheme to bribe Mike Madigan.

Give Madigan an inch, and he would always try to take a mile. But this sort of thing often happens with big bureaucracies, private and public. Assign a bureaucracy a task, and it’ll tend to stay on that path, sometimes to a ridiculously absurd conclusion — although rarely does that conclusion wind up with a federal criminal trial, as it has here.

Putting Olivo on the payroll eventually led to a level of absurdity that surpassed anything seen before or since, even if there are legitimate arguments the behavior was not criminal.

Needless to say, this is not how it was all supposed to end when Olivo was awarded a $4,000-a-month Doherty subcontract a dozen years ago.

‘Perfecting’ Madigan’s political operation

But there’s an aspect to this lobbying topic that isn’t really being addressed at the ComEd Four trial.

Over the decades, Madigan built a giant “farm system” that became the backbone of his political and statehouse organization. Young people either started out on campaigns before they were put on Madigan’s issues staff or were subsequently sent out to work on campaigns after joining the staff.

The most favored were moved up to the top of the in-house food chain, and the most favored of them were eventually sent forth into the lobbying world, where they could make very good money and continue overseeing campaigns, training the young people hired for the next cycle.

Every other legislative leader had a similar operation, although none were nearly as extensive as Madigan’s far-flung operation. Madigan, as was his habit, “perfected” it to the point where companies and other special interests believed they had to hire his people as contract or in-house lobbyists or their bills wouldn’t advance.

A buddy of mine recently recalled a conversation with a former legislative leader who only half-jokingly predicted a certain bill wasn’t going anywhere because the proponents hadn’t yet hired enough Madigan people to work the legislation.

None of the current legislative leaders have been around long enough yet to set up anything like that. Senate President Don Harmon is the most senior leader, but he’s had the job a little over three years. House Speaker Chris Welch has led his chamber for a bit more than two years, and the two Republican leaders just started in January.

The ComEd Four trial should put a damper on such things going forward. Madigan and the other leaders branded this practice as building “goodwill,” and the accused have used that in their defense. Those who wanted something done did favors for people close to the leaders to grease the skids, and what could possibly be so horrible about that was the feeling.

But doing such things now could well be seen as attempted bribery by the feds.

To be clear, many of the lobbyists themselves are not the issue here. They participated in a tradition that started long before they came to the legislature. And none of them were charged by the feds in this case, after all.

But now the statehouse leaders need to figure out where to go from here.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

The Sun-Times welcomes letters to the editor and op-eds. See our guidelines.

The Latest
The Chicago Botanic Garden’s urban agriculture and jobs training initiative has graduated 264 graduates with a 91% job placement rate six months after graduation since 2009 through its apprenticeship program.
Aunque muchos elogian el sistema canadiense de Entrada Rápida (“Express Entry”) por considerarlo más rápido que la espera de meses para obtener un permiso de trabajo en Estados Unidos, los inmigrantes tienen dificultades para encontrar sueldos y puestos de trabajo equivalentes a los de sus países de origen.
Pritzker, who has made early education a focal point of his second term, said the state agency is intended to help simplify an over complicated process for parents.
The Invert undergroud development has enormous economic potential. Plus, a reader from West Ridge has no sympathy for Ed Burke, given his role in 1980s ‘Council Wars.
Canadá es conocida por su postura amigable hacia la inmigración, pero también se encuentra con obstáculos a medida que se desplaza un número récord de personas en todo el mundo.