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Speaker Madigan is starting to make his case

House Speaker Michael Madigan and his allies have begun to offer a more substantive public response to the bombshell $1.3 million bribery case against ComEd that implicated him this summer.

House Speaker Mike Madigan listens to debate during a session of the Illinois House of Representatives at the Bank of Springfield Center in May. 
Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP file

Ever since the threat of a federal prosecution seemed to materialize last year over the head of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, the powerful Southwest Side Democrat has had little to say about it, aside from a general denial of wrongdoing.

That’s changed in the last week or so, as Madigan and his allies have begun to offer a more substantive public response to the bombshell $1.3 million bribery case against ComEd that implicated the speaker this summer. Federal prosecutors accused ComEd of arranging jobs for Madigan allies while trying to win his support for key legislation in Springfield.

Madigan’s response surfaced amid a recent political debate, but it may help explain the hurdle prosecutors face as they consider whether to bring criminal charges against him. In short, Madigan has denied personal knowledge of the scheme and said he never expected someone to be hired for a job in exchange for an action he took — so no quid pro quo.

“Helping people find jobs is not a crime,” Madigan wrote in a letter to House colleagues.

Whether that position helps Madigan survive the latest threat to his power remains to be seen. Though Madigan has not been criminally charged, ComEd and former executive Fidel Marquez have agreed to cooperate with what U.S. Attorney John Lausch says is an ongoing investigation. There are surely more shoes to drop in court.

Meanwhile, a special House committee in Springfield has begun to dig into Madigan’s dealings with ComEd.

Despite formally pleading “not guilty” to the bribery charge, ComEd has signed a three-year deferred-prosecution agreement admitting to the conduct. It agreed to pay a $200 million fine but could ultimately see the bribery charge dismissed. Marquez separately pleaded guilty to a bribery conspiracy Tuesday and could avoid prison time with his cooperation.

The feds’ deal with ComEd led to the House committee’s investigation, and its work prompted Madigan to write a three-page letter offering his most substantive response so far to the ComEd case.

“To the extent that anyone at ComEd or (its parent company) Exelon believed that they could influence my conduct as a legislator by deciding to hire someone I may have recommended, someone who worked for me, or someone who did political work for me, they were incredibly mistaken,” Madigan wrote.

Then, during a meeting of the committee Tuesday, Democrats asked questions that seemed to make similar points. They posed them to David Glockner, Exelon’s executive vice president of compliance and audit.

For example, Chairman Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch asked: “Is a public official guilty of bribery because someone tries to bribe them?” And Rep. Elizabeth Hernandez asked: “Is it a crime for a legislator to make a job recommendation to ComEd?”

Glockner chose not to answer those questions directly, though he told Hernandez a job recommendation from a legislator is “not inherently illegal.” He added that such an interaction should be handled with “caution and great care.”

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin spoke to the committee before the questioning began, telling its members “it’s impossible to sell” the idea that Madigan was unaware of what ComEd was doing.

“You know Michael Madigan,” Durkin said. “He is not ignorant of what is going on around him. He is not naive. And he is not easily surprised.”

That may be a popular sentiment, and one that could hold sway in a political debate. But veteran defense attorney Michael Ettinger said it’s not enough to prove a crime beyond a reasonable doubt in court.

“You need specific proof,” Ettinger said.

Ettinger has dealt with similar issues before. He represented Robert Blagojevich, charged in the federal corruption case against Blagojevich’s brother, ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Since then, a U.S. Supreme Court opinion has further clarified the boundaries of public corruption prosecutions by defining an “official act.”

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in that case involving former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell that a public official “must make a decision or take an action” involving a formal exercise of governmental power to qualify.

He also wrote that, “setting up a meeting, talking to another official, or organizing an event (or agreeing to do so) — without more — does not fit that definition of ‘official act.’”

In order to bring such a case, Ettinger said, “you’ve got to tie it up with money or exchange of assets.”

“We’re dealing with political acts that happen every day,” Ettinger said. “And to tie it to a criminal act there’s got to be a quid pro quo.”