It’s not Madigan’s trial, but the feds’ big upcoming case is all about the former speaker

Jurors at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse are expected to get a close-up look at how Springfield operated in the last decade when four political power players head to trial.

SHARE It’s not Madigan’s trial, but the feds’ big upcoming case is all about the former speaker
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House Speaker Mike Madigan

AP file photo

Michael J. Madigan will likely never step foot in the federal courtroom where four former political power players are about to face trial, accused of trying to bribe the longtime Illinois House speaker to benefit ComEd.

But the case starting Tuesday is all about Madigan.

And once it’s underway, it is expected to finally pull back the curtain on an aggressive federal investigation that reshaped Illinois politics, forced Madigan out of office in 2021 and landed him last year under a separate indictment for racketeering.

The trial will give jurors a close-up view of how Springfield operated in the last decade. They’ll hear talk of an “old-fashioned patronage system.” And they’ll learn how an apparent obsession with pleasing Madigan might have prompted four officials to cross a legal line as ComEd sought to pass legislation it valued at more than $150 million.

But jurors will also watch as lawyers explore that line, between legal lobbying and criminal activity.

Defense attorneys contend the legislation championed by ComEd passed as a result of a massive effort to win support “using entirely legitimate and Constitutionally protected persuasion.” One defense attorney also recently argued there was “not so much as a wink-wink-nod-nod” to show her client knew anything improper was underway.

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Clockwise, from top left: Former ComEd lobbyist John Hooker, longtime Madigan confidant Michael McClain, ex-City Club President Jay Doherty and onetime ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore.

Sun-Times File

At the defendants’ tables will be longtime Madigan confidant Michael McClain, former ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore, ex-ComEd lobbyist John Hooker and onetime City Club President Jay Doherty. They are each charged with bribery conspiracy and falsifying ComEd’s books and records, and they could face serious prison time if convicted.

They are accused of arranging for jobs, contracts and money for certain Madigan associates in an illegal bid to influence him as the legislation affecting ComEd moved through Springfield, where Madigan held considerable sway.

ComEd admitted to the scheme in 2020, agreeing to pay a $200 million fine.

Though the defendants are far from household names, they operated at the center of state politics and enjoyed special access to Madigan. That means there will be plenty of intrigue as the feds begin to call witnesses, play recordings from secret wiretaps and reveal other details about the investigation that went public in 2019.

The trial is expected to last as long as two months.

It will also feature a clash of some of Chicago’s legal heavyweights. Among those prosecuting the case will be Assistant U.S. Attorney Amarjeet Bhachu, the section chief of public corruption and organized crime. He and other top prosecutors will face some of Chicago’s premier defense attorneys, including former U.S. Attorney Scott Lassar.

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Scott Lassar, when he served as Chicago’s U.S. attorney, on July 21, 2000. Lassar is now a defense attorney representing former ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore.

STEVE MATTEO, AP

Members of the defense team either declined to comment ahead of the trial or did not respond to messages.

1 of 3 major corruption trials

It’s one of three major public corruption trials scheduled at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in the next 13 months, all of them targeting old-school Chicago politics. Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) is set to go to trial in November. Madigan’s own trial is set for April 2024.

Madigan’s indictment accuses him of participating in the same scheme for which McClain, Pramaggiore, Hooker and Doherty now face trial. That means the trial that starts this week offers a rare preview of the case against one of the state’s most significant politicians.

Jurors in the upcoming trial may even hear Madigan’s voice as the feds play phone calls secretly recorded during the investigation. Madigan quipped in one that associates of his, allegedly paid by ComEd to keep him happy, had “made out like bandits.”

Finally, the upcoming trial could have implications for Madigan’s own case — especially if the feds fail to secure convictions. A defense attorney for Madigan declined to comment.

J. Steven Beckett, a longtime defense attorney in Urbana, once secured an acquittal for a client caught up in such a probe in the 1990s. That investigation seemed to have its sights set on then-Gov. Jim Edgar, who was ultimately left unscathed.

Beckett told the Sun-Times and WBEZ there is “absolutely” a chance that history could repeat itself here. He said “good lawyering, I think, can make a difference.”

“If you have multiple defendants, and they’re being tried together, there is always a chance that the jury is going to look for somebody to favor,” Beckett said.

Name dropping

Among the key witnesses expected to take the stand are former ComEd executive Fidel Marquez, who agreed to cooperate with investigators and secretly recorded his colleagues in 2019; Juan Ochoa, the former McPier boss who Madigan allegedly had installed on the ComEd board; and former Cook County Recorder of Deeds Edward Moody.

Other names that could be mentioned — but have not been accused of wrongdoing — are former U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who campaigned but failed to make the runoff in this year’s race for Chicago mayor.

Then-Cook County Board Commissioner Jesús “Chuy” García speaks with reporters after U.S. Representative Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL) (L) announced he will retire from Congress at the end of his current term and endorse Garcia for the seat on November 28, 2017.

Then-Cook County Board Commissioner Jesús “Chuy” García speaks with reporters after U.S. Representative Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL) (L) announced he will retire from Congress at the end of his current term and endorse Garcia for the seat on November 28, 2017.

Scott Olson, Getty

Presiding over the case will be U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber, 85, who served in the Illinois General Assembly from 1973 until 1983. McClain and Madigan also served in the legislature at that time, and the judge made note of the overlap when McClain was arraigned in December 2020.

This will be the second high-profile trial in a matter of months for Leinenweber, who also presided over last summer’s child pornography trial of R&B star R. Kelly.

The indictment against McClain, Pramaggiore, Hooker and Doherty points to at least four schemes designed to influence Madigan. One involved the 2016 renewal of an unusual contract for the law firm Reyes Kurson — where political operative Victor Reyes is partner — in which the firm was assured 850 billable hours per year.

Another is the effort by Madigan and McClain between 2017 and 2019 to put Ochoa on ComEd’s board.

The defendants are also accused of making sure internship positions at ComEd were set aside for people associated with Madigan’s power base in Chicago’s 13th Ward.

And finally, they are accused of steering more than $1 million to Madigan associates through Doherty’s firm, Jay D. Doherty & Associates, and other intermediaries. Those associates included former Alds. Frank Olivo and Michael Zalewski, longtime Madigan campaign worker Raymond Nice and Moody.

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Frank Olivo

Sun-Times Media

Despite their pay, the men allegedly did little or no work for ComEd.

Reyes, Olivo, Zalewski, Nice and Moody either declined to comment or could not be reached.

The overall conspiracy allegedly lasted from 2011 until 2019. But jurors are likely to be taken back even further in time, to when ComEd apparently faced potential bankruptcy in 2005. Its operational capabilities remained poor years later, court records show. When Pramaggiore took over as CEO in 2012, she allegedly viewed ComEd’s business through a political lens.

She was even known to say things like, “What’s important to the speaker is important to us,” according to court records.

McClain worked as a lobbyist or consultant for ComEd after his decade in the Illinois House of Representatives, which began in 1972. People within the utility would refer to him as a “double agent,” though, because he had close ties to Madigan.

Prosecutors say he often relayed messages between the speaker and the utility. They say he and others would refer to Madigan as “our friend” to avoid using the speaker’s name. However, the feds have also acknowledged that McClain disclosed to them in a pair of interviews, in 2014 and 2016, that “our friend” amounted to “a code word for Madigan.”

When he retired as a lobbyist in 2016, McClain allegedly sent Madigan a letter in which he wrote that he “wanted to let my ‘real’ client know that I am retiring.”

In a handwritten addendum, McClain allegedly told Madigan that “Illinois is a great state because of your hand on the rudder, and you know instinctively now, just like Richard J. Daley, when to start, slow or turn off the engine.”

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A letter that federal prosecutors say Michael McClain sent to then-House Speaker Michael Madigan in 2016.

U.S. District Court records

Marquez served as ComEd’s senior vice president of governmental and external affairs from March 2012 until September 2019. He pleaded guilty to a bribery conspiracy in September 2020. His attorney did not respond to a recent message from the Sun-Times seeking comment.

Records show the FBI first approached Marquez on Jan. 16, 2019. Agents showed him evidence that had been gathered against him, and he agreed to cooperate in their ongoing investigation. In the weeks that followed, McClain, Pramaggiore, Hooker and Doherty would each be secretly recorded discussing the arrangement between ComEd and Doherty’s firm — and the key contract used to pay Madigan’s associates.

Secret recordings

Those recordings appear to be crucial to the feds’ case. And they were all made as headlines blared around Chicago about federal public corruption investigations.

Prosecutors insist “not a single defendant” suggested in the recordings that the Madigan associates — or subcontractors — who were paid through Doherty’s firm were “being paid to perform valuable, legitimate work for ComEd.”

But Doherty’s attorney, Gabrielle Sansonetti, countered in court filings that she’d seen “no evidence or any testimony from Marquez that anyone told Marquez the payments were to influence Madigan and ensure that Madigan did not act against ComEd.”

Jurors could hear the following:

Marquez and McClain met at a Springfield restaurant at lunchtime on Feb. 7, 2019. Pramaggiore had recently been promoted to a senior executive position at an Exelon affiliate. Meanwhile, Doherty’s contract with ComEd — through which the subcontractors were paid — was coming up for renewal. So Marquez and McClain discussed how to explain Doherty’s deal to the new CEO of ComEd, Joseph Dominguez, who was a former federal prosecutor.

Marquez told McClain: “My dilemma is I gotta go in … and say, ‘Here’s, this is under your budget, here’s [Doherty’s] contract.’ He’s gonna say, ‘How much is this for? What’s all included? … What’s, what are we paying [Doherty] for?’”

McClain told him, “It’s a favor and it’s, uh, Doherty’s contract, Doherty’s the one that has to prove that if the IRS ever comes in and says, ‘Who are these guys, what do they do?’ … Doherty’s gotta prove it.”

McClain also told Marquez that “if that hour [Dominguez]’s got his ex-prosecutor hat on, he’s gonna say we can’t do this.”

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Fidel Marquez, former ComEd vice president of governmental and external affairs.

Sun-Times file

Four days later, McClain and Hooker spoke by phone late in the evening. During that conversation, the men compared Doherty’s contract and Madigan’s associates to another situation in which someone had apparently been hired at the urging of a labor leader.

McClain said, “We had to hire these guys because Mike Madigan came to us.” He added, “It’s just that simple.”

Hooker agreed, saying “that’s as simple as it is” and adding “this was the best way to do it.”

Two days later, on Feb. 13, 2019, Marquez spoke with Doherty. During their chat, Doherty talked about his history with ComEd and how Hooker initially asked him to hire a subcontractor for $4,000 a month.

But rather than say the amount out loud, Doherty only held up four fingers.

Marquez said to Doherty, “So, as far as I know, and maybe you can tell me different, all these guys do is, they’re a sub under you and you cut them a check. Do they do anything? What do they do? What do you have them doing?”

Doherty replied, “Well, not much, to answer the question.”

Doherty later said any question about the reasoning behind his contract “can be answered in Springfield with Madigan. And to keep Madigan happy, I think it’s worth it, because you’d hear otherwise.”

Marquez next spoke with Pramaggiore on Feb. 18, 2019, about his plans to justify Doherty’s contract to Dominguez. She suggested Marquez urge that Dominguez not make any changes until after the current legislative session.

“Let’s look at this in terms of going forward to next year,” Pramaggiore said, “because we do not want to get caught up in a, you know, disruptive battle where, you know, somebody gets their nose out of joint.”

Marquez and McClain finally met with Dominguez on March 5, 2019. During that meeting, McClain described Madigan’s historical relationship with ComEd as “the old-fashioned patronage system.”

Eventually, he said, it morphed into, “How else can we help you?”

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