Democratic and Republican state lawmakers on Wednesday made a stab at collaborating on a letter memorializing a telephone conversation in which U.S. Attorney John Lausch spelled out what he considered off limits in their legislative probe of state House Speaker Mike Madigan’s dealings with ComEd.
By the end of the day, the two political parties settled on the best way to handle their vastly different takes on that Monday discussion with the area’s top federal prosecutor.
Each side would write its own letter.
Underscoring the political nature of the special investigatory committee, the Democratic chair of the panel released his letter to Lausch on Wednesday, accusing his Republican colleagues of using the missive for their “petty political gain.”
The committee’s Monday call with Lausch has been the subject of bickering this week between state Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch, the panel’s chair, and the Republicans on the committee — Rep. Tom Demmer of Dixon, Rep. Deanne Mazzochi of Elmhurst and Grant Wehrli of Naperville.
In a statement Wednesday evening, Welch said Lausch told them he had “no objection to witnesses being invited to voluntarily testify as part of the committee’s work” but the office would “object to witnesses disclosing material information or documents related to their federal investigation or grand jury deliberations,” specifically information involving ComEd’s deferred prosecution agreement.
The Hillside Democrat took aim at his GOP counterparts, saying “it’s clear that the Republicans did not get the answers they wanted from U.S. Attorney Lausch and are now attempting to reinterpret the details to fit their political strategy.”
“I sent this letter myself on behalf of the committee when it became clear that Republicans would continue down a path of using this committee as a political stunt,” Welch said. “While it’s now clear that my Republican colleagues see this committee solely as a vehicle for partisan gamesmanship, I will not allow the work of this committee to inappropriately interfere with the work of the U.S. attorney, and I will not allow it to be manipulated for petty political gain.”
Republicans say everything they offered the Democrats for inclusion in the letter to Lausch wound up on the cutting room floor.
Eleni Demertzis, a spokeswoman for House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, said in a statement the three Republican members of the committee sent a draft to Welch “for review and input” Tuesday afternoon.
“Late this morning, his team sent over their own draft without using any of the content from our letter,” Demertzis said Wednesday. “We did not argue, and sent back our own edits to their draft. At 4:15, Rep. Demmer received a call from Rep. Welch indicating they were going to send their version of the letter at 4:30, without any of our suggestions or changes. We will be sending our own letter shortly and we look forward to the US Attorney’s response so we can proceed with the important work of the Special Investigating Committee.”
Demertzis said the Republican committee members plan to send their own letter to Lausch but, “out of respect for the process of the US Attorney’s Office, we will not be releasing our letter until we receive their response.”
Both sides have presented differing views on the boundaries Lausch set on witnesses being called to testify in the legislative hearings, which are designed to determine whether Madigan should face disciplinary action.
One legal expert told the Sun-Times that Welch’s view of the Monday conversation would mean the committee can call witnesses to testify, but they would be “substantively” limited in what they could share.
Former federal prosecutor Jeffrey Cramer said if the Democratic chairman’s version of the telephone call is correct, “these witnesses can’t provide anything that is germane to the investigation.”
“Everyone is acting as you think they would — the U.S. Attorney’s office is doing exactly what they should do, whereas the Republicans are trying to make political hay, and the Democrats are trying to not let that happen,” said Cramer, the managing director of the Berkeley Research Group. “So, if you look at it through that rubric everything kind of makes sense here.”
The special bipartisan legislative panel is looking into any potential wrongdoing on Madigan’s part after an explosive federal court filing implicated him in an alleged bribery scheme. In that court filing, ComEd is accused of sending $1.3 million to Madigan’s associates for doing little or no work for the utility.
Madigan has not been charged with any crime and has denied any wrongdoing.
But in response to that July federal court document, Durkin and two other Republican House members called for the legislative investigation, invoking the House rule for “disciplinary proceedings” against the powerful Southwest Side Democrat.
In the panel’s first meeting last week, members squabbled over how they should proceed, with Welch calling for them to follow the precedent of similar committees in the past by reaching out to Lausch before going any further.
Mazzochi said she and the other two Republicans prepared letters to ask people to hand over documents and appear as witnesses “to ensure that this committee can proceed expeditiously” while they wait for a response.
Welch, the Democratic chair of the panel, pushed back on that move and said “I don’t think it’s the job of the Illinois House of Representatives to do a criminal investigation — that’s what the US Attorney’s office is doing.”
“I respect that process, and I think that’s why it was important for us to take the action we did today, and it passed unanimously, so we’re gonna move quickly, and we’re gonna reach out to [Lausch] and seek his guidance and see what he says,” the Hillside Democrat said last week.