A public corruption charge against the state’s biggest utility on Friday has revealed a wide-ranging effort by federal prosecutors who are pursuing cases involving some of the past and present holders of the state’s most powerful offices: House Speaker Michael Madigan, former Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios, Chicago Ald. Ed Burke (14), and even Gov. JB Pritzker.
The storm broke Friday when prosecutors in the Northern District of Illinois Eastern Division announced a public corruption charge against Commonwealth Edison (ComEd) for scheming to bribe public officials over nearly a decade in return for regulation tipped in their favor. U.S. Attorney John Lausch said ComEd will be forced to pay a $200 million fine, the largest ever issued in district history, if they fail to fully cooperate over a three-year period.
What Lausch’s office wants from ComEd is cooperation involving public officials, particularly Madigan, who Lausch said “controlled votes and exerted substantial influence over lawmakers,” a position that motivated the Illinois General Assembly to consider “bills and legislation that had substantial impact on ComEd’s profitability including the regulatory process used to determine utility rates.” In return, ComEd allegedly allowed Madigan to name precinct captains in his ward he wanted “to obtain jobs, vendor subcontracts, and monetary payments and even instances where allies and workers did little to no work they were required to perform for ComEd,” according to Lausch.
“This is probably the closest that Michael Madigan has come to being dethroned by an investigation. If he is found guilty of any of these charges, he should resign,” said Dick Simpson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago who studies public corruption in Illinois.
The scheme is alleged to have taken place between 2011 and 2019. Madigan is not named in the indictment, but the document makes clear that “Public Official A” is the “Speaker of the House of Representatives.” ComEd has apologized and said it will cooperate fully with the investigation.
Madigan said he received a grand jury subpoena on Friday related to hiring practices. He “has never made a legislative decision with improper motives and has engaged in no wrongdoing here. Any claim to the contrary is unfounded,” he said in a statement.
Madigan now a political liability
Charges of cronyism have followed Madigan for decades, since he became House Speaker in 1984.
Last year federal prosecutors raided multiple homes and Springfield offices of lobbyists working for ComEd’s parent company, Exelon. The majority of the 23 lobbying firms Exelon contracted to advocate for them have ties to Madigan, including by employing his former staffers.
Madigan is also frequently criticized for his role as the co-founder of Madigan and Getzendanner, a Chicago-based law firm that specializes in tax appeals for corporate clients. Critics say Madigan’s role as the state’s top Democrat gives him undue influence over Cook County’s property tax system, which is a persistent conflict of interest as he seeks to lower tax bills for some of the biggest property holders in Illinois, as this Tribune/ProPublica Illinois investigation shows.
Calls for Madigan’s resignation from both parties continued throughout weekend. Pritzker told reporters Friday that the House Speaker should step down if the allegations are true. He was joined by several Illinois Democrats who released statements arguing why Madigan is a liability for their party. “While Speaker Madigan has not yet been charged by federal authorities, it is clear from the contents of this case that he was intimately involved in both the planning and execution of a longstanding bribery scheme,” said State Sen. Melinda Bush (D-31).
A chorus of Republicans throughout the state also joined in denouncing Madigan. “We need to come together in one voice as Republicans, Democrats and independents to make clear that we have zero tolerance for public corruption in this state. All of our Democrat colleagues in the General Assembly have their opportunity right now to put the public good ahead of political allegiance and call for Speaker Madigan to resign,” said State Rep. Joe Sosnowski (R-69).
The future is also uncertain for ComEd. While leaders of the utility giant have apologized, the company faces more public scrutiny.
Jim Chilsen, a spokesperson for the Citizen’s Utility Board, a non-profit group advocating for taxpayers, told The Daily Line that ComEd’s behavior “is unacceptable.”
“The company has let down the general public and its customers … They’ve got a lot of work to gain that trust back,” Chilsen said.
The Illinois Commerce Commission is calling ComEd executives to appear beforecommissioners July 29 to answer questions about ethics reforms. The commission is charged with making sure the company does not take steps to charge utility customers for the costs of its lobbyists.
ComEd executives are also expected to face scrutiny in Chicago at a July 30 public hearing before the City Council Committee on Environmental Protection and Energy. “Chicagoans deserve fairness and transparency from all who are paid with taxpayer dollars,” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement.
Feds probing Pritzker for potential tax fraud
Also this weekend, the Sun-Times reported that federal investigators asked Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi’s office for records related to a $330,000 property tax break that Berrios, the former Cook County assessor, gave to Pritzker in 2016. The break is connected to a Gold Coast mansion Pritzker owns that was stripped of its bathrooms during a remodel. His attorneys at the time said the home was uninhabitable because it had no toilets.
After media accounts revealed the tax break, Pritzker paid it back in 2018. He has denied wrongdoing. He told reporters Friday that he has not yet been contacted by federal authorities.
The Sun-Times reports that the recent record requests are also related to lowered property tax assessments Berrios handed out between 2010 and 2018 to over 100 property owners, including the groups that owns the United Center, Gibsons steakhouse, and even Rev. Jesse Jackson regarding his house on the South Side.
Madigan’s law firm is one of three in Chicago that handled the tax appeals to Berrios’ office for all the property owners involved. Another is a firm owned by Burke, who was indicted last year in an alleged extortion scheme. He is awaiting trial.
Simpson said that property tax fraud is not covered under federal law but is something that is more likely pursued at the state level, meaning Pritzker could still be vulnerable.
“If the federal government can show Pritzker mailed or used other similar sources of communication across interstate lines, he could become embroiled in it,” he said.
Illinois Republican Party Chairman Tim Schneider is suggesting that recent events show Madigan and Pritzker are unfit to run the state.
“Governor Pritzker’s refusal to make such a clear statement [for Madigan to resign immediately] may have to do with his own federal investigation into property tax fraud. Perhaps he is concerned that calling on Speaker Madigan to resign will lead to calls for his own resignation,” he said.