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U.S. attorney spells out rules of the road for legislators investigating Madigan: Go, until I tell you to stop

Ron Safer — a former federal prosecutor now advising House Republican Leader Jim Durkin — called the letter a “green light to pursue all avenues of the investigation.”

State Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, left; U.S. Attorney John Lausch, center; State Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, right.
State Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, left, at a news conference last year in Springfield; U.S. Attorney John Lausch, center, at a news conference outside the Dirksen Federal Building in July; State Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, right, talks to reporters last week in Springfield.
Rebecca Anzel/Capitol News Illinois; Pat Nabong/Sun-Times; Ted Schurter/The State Journal-Register via AP, Pool

Federal prosecutors gave the state House committee investigating Speaker Michael Madigan’s dealings with ComEd the “green light” to proceed on Thursday — but not without flashing a cautionary yellow light.

U.S. Attorney John Lausch wrote to the top state representatives on the panel — Democratic chair Emanuel “Chris” Welch of Hillside and Republican Tom Demmer of Dixon, telling them his office did not “have a general objection” to the House Special Investigative Committee seeking documents or testimony related to the federal probe of the utility company during the course of its proceedings.

But Lausch also set some parameters. The six-member panel can’t ask witnesses about their participation in grand jury proceedings or request they produce materials disclosing grand jury activity.

In the letter released by Republicans, Lausch also objected to the committee asking witnesses about any contact they’ve had with prosecutors or federal law enforcement related to the criminal investigation into the utility or to share information learned from the feds during the investigation.

And, should the committee steer too close to his own ongoing investigation into ComEd, Lausch said his office “might raise objections to particular testimony or document requests” as the two parallel probes go forward. Lausch said he was not currently raising that objection.

U.S. Attorney John R. Lausch at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in 2019.
U.S. Attorney John R. Lausch at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in 2019.
James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Lausch also said his office will not provide the committee with documents, information or testimony.

“We recognize the SIC’s separate and independent responsibilities, and therefore, we do not object generally to the SIC’s pursuit of testimony … even if the party previously shared the same underlying factual information with federal prosecutors or law enforcement agents,” Lausch’s letter reads in part.

Ron Safer — a former federal prosecutor now advising House Republican Leader Jim Durkin — called the letter a “green light to pursue all avenues of the investigation.”

“The U.S. attorney’s office has given the Special Investigating Committee the green light to pursue all avenues of the investigation, including testimony and documents, that were articulated in the petition,” Safer said in a statement released by Republicans. “We are grateful that U.S. Attorney John Lausch told the committee that his office recognizes the SIC’s ‘separate and independent obligation to conduct its inquiry.’ We look forward to the committee convening promptly to do this important work.”

Durkin was one of the three Republican state legislators who filed the original petition calling for the formation of the panel.

In the panel’s first meeting last week, Welch called for members to follow the precedent of similar committees in the past by reaching out to Lausch before going any further.

Members of the committee had a telephone conversation with the U.S. attorney on Monday, but Republicans and Democrats have spent the time since haggling about exactly what Lausch said.

On Wednesday, the Democratic chair sent his own letter to Lausch, memorializing that Monday call, drawing the ire of Republicans who complained he sent it “without any of our suggestions or changes.”

State Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, speaks to lawmakers at the Capitol in Springfield in 2016.
State Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, speaks to lawmakers at the Capitol in Springfield in 2016.
AP file

In a statement Thursday, Welch said the letter from Lausch “confirms our understanding that while this committee can call individuals to voluntarily appear, they would be limited in what they can discuss.”

“In particular, information underlying the deferred prosecution agreement beyond what is already public could be met with objection by federal investigators, and any further information collected by the federal government that informed that agreement is explicitly off limits,” Welch said in a statement.

“We also see clearly that Republican members of this committee attempted to go beyond what has originally been discussed with the U.S. attorney. Once again, I will not allow this committee to inappropriately interfere with the work of the U.S. attorney, and I will not allow it to be used as a stage for political theater.”

Demmer sent his own letter to Lausch, ensuring him the panel would not interfere with the federal investigation and spelling out exactly what Republicans will be seeking.

State Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, left; State House Speaker Michael Madigan, left.
State Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, left; State House Speaker Michael Madigan, left.
BlueRoomStream; Rich Hein/Sun-Times

“Suffice it to say, I have a very different view of our conversation than Chairman Welch,” Demmer wrote. “I regret that we have presented you with dueling letters. You have more important work to do than mediate an internecine dispute over what I thought was a straight-forward and collaborative conversation. But alas, here we are.”

The special bipartisan legislative panel is looking into any potential wrongdoing on Madigan’s part after the political juggernaut was implicated in an alleged bribery scheme in a July federal court filing. 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 a rarely used House rule for “disciplinary proceedings” against the powerful Southwest Side Democrat.

Welch said the committee’s next meeting will likely be Sept. 28, and he’s working on invitations to the witnesses on the committee’s list.