As lawyers on both sides of the “ComEd Four” case gear up for Monday’s closing arguments, the difference between conviction and acquittal depends on the jury determining whether the utility’s efforts to woo then-House Speaker Michael Madigan were legitimate lobbying or illegal bribes.
In the pantheon of Illinois public corruption cases, prosecutors have famously used the federal bribery statute to convict an ever-growing list of governors, aldermen and state legislators caught on the take.
The outcome in this trial, however, is far from certain.
Madigan, who turned 81 last week, did not become the longest-serving speaker in American history by openly and recklessly breaking the law.
His acolytes spent decades swearing — sometimes rather loudly on telephone calls, inside saloons and in Capitol hallways — that the speaker, who also led the state Democratic Party, was extraordinarily careful to stay within ethical and legal boundaries.
Even though Madigan is not on trial, lawyers for the ComEd Four defendants have tried fervently over the past six weeks to cast doubt in the minds of jurors by challenging the bedrock allegation built into the case that Madigan could be bought.
The stark contradiction to Madigan’s carefully cultivated reputation as a political untouchable was seized upon by the defense as testimony came to a close last week, when attorney Patrick Cotter all but declared the government’s allegations were preposterous.
“In all your years of experience, did you ever think for one minute that Mike Madigan would risk his speakership and his power to get a few more people some jobs at ComEd?” Cotter asked defendant John Hooker, the longtime ComEd lobbyist who was testifying in his own defense. “It’s a crazy idea, isn’t it?”
“It’s a bad idea,” Hooker agreed.
Prosecutors, however, have alleged it’s not crazy at all. In fact, the indictment alleged getting jobs for people was a key way Madigan managed to hold on to power for so long.
When the old political machine that depended on blue collar patronage jobs such as meter readers broke down, Madigan simply evolved, prosecutors say, creating a new system that set up an ever-growing list of former political allies with lucrative lobbying and consulting gigs.
That modern-day patronage system was laid bare in the six weeks of testimony, reflecting not only Madigan’s vaunted political operation but also the machinations of Illinois politics on a much larger scale, including the cozy relationships between lobbyists, politicians and clout-heavy public utilities that depend on action in Springfield, where Madigan controlled the fate of virtually every piece of legislation.
To prove their case, prosecutors have tried to show that the ComEd Four defendants corrupted that process by providing a stream of benefits to Madigan and his cronies in exchange for what they hoped would be the speaker’s favorable treatment of their ambitious legislative agenda in Springfield.
Defense attorneys have argued repeatedly — and will surely again Monday — that none of the jobs and other benefits allegedly bestowed upon Madigan can be directly tied to anything the speaker did for ComEd in the General Assembly.
In deliberating the case, jurors will have to sift through a mountain of evidence, including dozens of wiretapped phone calls and secretly recorded videos, hundreds of emails and internal documents, and the live testimony of some 50 witnesses, including current and former state legislators, ComEd executives, and Madigan insiders such as former political staffer Will Cousineau and legendary 13th Ward precinct captain Ed Moody.
Also key to their decision will be the testimony of two of the four defendants, former ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore and Hooker, who spent years as ComEd’s top internal lobbyist.
One person, however, has been a sort of elephant in the courtroom: Madigan himself.
While Madigan and McClain were indicted in March 2022 on separate racketeering charges related to the ComEd scheme and other alleged corrupt acts, the ComEd Four jury knows nothing about that case, which is scheduled for trial next April.
The indictment came a year after Madigan lost his speakership in 2021, when his own Democratic caucus refused to back him as the burgeoning ComEd scandal became a political albatross. He then gave up his House seat.
Along with hearing the speaker’s voice on numerous wiretapped phone calls, Madigan’s image has also shown up in a variety of ways, including a less-than-flattering driver’s license photo, a bizarre, ComEd-created cartoon of him with a crown on his head, and a decades-old photo of him with Moody and his twin brother, Fred.
Whether Madigan’s physical absence at the defense table will play at all into the jury’s deliberations remains to be seen, but it has meant that the jurors heard the speaker accused of a lengthy list of questionable acts without him being there to defend himself.
Charged in the ComEd Four case are Michael McClain, 75, a Madigan confidant and longtime ComEd lobbyist; Pramaggiore, 64, a lawyer and onetime rising star in Chicago’s corporate world; Jay Doherty, 69, a longtime ComEd contract lobbyist and ex-president of the City Club of Chicago; and Hooker, 74, who over a 44-year career worked his way from the utility’s mailroom to become its point man in Springfield.
The indictment alleged the four conspired to funnel $1.3 million in payments to ghost “subcontractors,” largely through Doherty’s company, who were actually Madigan’s cronies as part of an elaborate scheme to get the speaker to look favorably at the company’s legislative agenda.
In addition to paying the subcontractors, the utility also hired a clouted law firm run by political operative Victor Reyes, distributed numerous college internships within Madigan’s 13th Ward fiefdom, and blatantly backed former McPier chief Juan Ochoa, the friend of a Madigan ally, for a seat on the utility’s board of directors, the indictment alleged.
In return, prosecutors say, Madigan used his influence over the General Assembly to help ComEd score a series of huge legislative victories that not only rescued the company from financial instability but led to record-breaking, billion-dollar profits.
Among them was the 2011 smart grid bill that set a built-in formula for the rates ComEd could charge customers, avoiding battles with the Illinois Commerce Commission, according to the charges. ComEd also leaned on Madigan’s office to help pass the Future Energy Jobs Act in 2016, which kept the formula rate in place and also rescued two nuclear plants run by an affiliated company, Exelon Generation.
Closing arguments are set to begin around 9:30 a.m. Monday in U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber’s 17th floor courtroom.
At jury instruction conference Thursday, Leinenweber gave prosecutors three hours total to argue their case, including remarks in rebuttal that are the last arguments the jury hears before starting deliberations.
Each of the four defendants will have an hour and a half, though they can trade time with each other, the judge said.
Under the governing case law, prosecutors do not have to show a specific quid pro quo existed between Madigan and the four defendants, only that there was a corrupt intent to provide the stream of benefits to Madigan in order to win his influence over legislative acts.
After testimony wrapped last week, lawyers for the defendants argued strenuously for instructions to be provided to the jury that would require a more specific nexus between the ComEd legislation and Madigan’s actions.
But Leinenweber stuck largely to his previous rulings that the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals requires only that the defendants passed gratuities or rewards to the speak in the hope they would influence Madigan in some official capacity.
“The difference between the regular lobbying and corrupt lobbying is not only the intent to influence, as focused on by defendants, but the action which intends to provide ‘something of value,’ either given or offered, in order to influence the official,” the judge wrote in a ruling last year.
Leinenweber on Thursday acknowledged that the issue of when a gratuity or reward for a public official becomes a bribe is in flux in the federal courts nationwide. But for this trial, the prevailing law is what the appellate court in Chicago has held, he said.
“I know there is substantial dispute among the circuits, but not the 7th Circuit,” Leinenweber said. “We are living in the 7th. …Eventually it’s going to probably get to the Supreme Court, and either you’re right or you’re wrong.”
“Well, except for at the same time, somebody’s life is waiting for that,” said attorney Gabrielle Sansonetti, who represents Doherty. “So it’s important.”
Winning a public corruption trial at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse has long been an uphill battle for defense attorneys, and the ComEd Four case is no different.
In cross examination and through testimony of their own witnesses, the defense has attempted to show that passing major utility legislation was never as simple as reaching out to Madigan and asking him to snap his fingers, no matter how powerful he may have been.
In fact, it often took years of wrangling to pass such landmark bills, with Madigan’s office pushing back on specifics that ultimately cost the utility millions of dollars and insisting on “sunset provisions” that forced ComEd to come back to the legislature every few years.
While the jury heard hours and hours of testimony about ComEd’s efforts in the legislature, there were several key aspects of the bribery probe that were kept out of the courtroom.
For one, Leinenweber barred any mention that ComEd already admitted in court that it showered Madigan with favors in hopes of winning his support for their legislative goals.
As part of a deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. attorney’s office, the company agreed to pay a record $200 million fine and cooperate with the investigation in exchange for prosecutors dropping a bribery charge in three years.
Another win for the defense came when the judge disallowed specifics about Pramaggiore’s multimillion-dollar compensation package at ComEd, including the actual size of her bonus that came soon after her prominent legislative victory in 2016.
Hooker’s defense team, led by attorney Michael Monico, kept out any mention that Hooker headed a group that went to court to halt attempts to diminish the power of Madigan and other political leaders over how legislative district boundaries are redrawn once a decade.
The matter may have given prosecutors a chance to explore a closer relationship between Hooker and Madigan, but the judge ruled that redistricting litigation was too far afield of the ComEd Four charges and barred the issue from being brought up in the trial.
Leinenweber also kept out one potentially damaging recording — a wiretapped call where Madigan allegedly told McClain that their friends who’d been showered with do-nothing ComEd contracts had “made out like bandits.”
The most crucial evidence presented by prosecutors came from the defendants’ own mouths, through some 100 recorded wiretapped conversations and secretly recorded meetings played for jurors, including many in which the defendants talk with startling candor about their mutual interest in keeping Madigan happy.
The testimony also featured an only-in-Illinois cast of characters who allegedly benefited from Madigan’s political machine.
The jury heard from a sitting legislator, state Rep. Bob Rita, D-Blue Island, who testified memorably last month that Madigan ruled his fellow Democrats “through fear and intimidation.”
Legendary 13th Ward precinct captain Edward Moody, meanwhile, testified for prosecutors that the speaker got him a $45,000-a-year contract with McClain but made it clear the deal would disappear if he stopped working on campaigns.
And Ochoa, a onetime nemesis of Madigan, told the jury he used his clout with then-U.S. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez to win the speaker’s recommendation for a coveted spot on ComEd’s board.
Despite the speaker’s reputation as a careful tactician who rarely talked business over the phone, one recording of Madigan from May 2018 provided jurors with a behind-the-scenes conversation in which he gently flexed his political muscle to get what he wanted.
Madigan told McClain to “go forward with Ochoa” despite substantial pushback from a top ComEd official, including concerns about Ochoa’s financial matters.
“If the only complaint about him is that he suffers from bankruptcy twice, so did Harry Truman,” Madigan quipped.
Shortly after that conversation, McClain called Pramaggiore to tell her Madigan “would appreciate it if you would keep pressing.”
“OK, got it,” Pramaggiore replied. “I will keep pressing.”
ComEd executive Fidel Marquez, who secretly worked with federal authorities to wire up on defendants, testified about recorded meetings he had with the defendants where they discussed how to let incoming ComEd CEO Joe Dominguez know about the subcontractor arrangement with Doherty.
In a video-recorded meeting from early 2019, Doherty gave Marquez a blunt explanation of what the Madigan-backed subcontractors actually did for the utility.
“Well, not much, to answer the question,” Doherty said. “They keep their mouth shut, and you know. But do they do anything for me on a day-to-day basis? No.”
In her testimony, Pramaggiore demonstrated that, no matter how practiced at public speaking or schooled in college theater classes, there is danger when a defendant takes the witness stand — even when one hires former U.S. Attorney Scott Lassar.
Pramaggiore tripped trying to put a positive spin on her responses to a barrage of pointed questions from Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Streicker, who pressed Pramaggiore to explain whether she remembered a call in which she was recorded talking to Marquez about subcontracts.
“No, and I think I shared that with you when I came in for the interview,” Pramaggiore said, a comment that gave prosecutors an opening to reveal more to the jury.
In the end, jurors heard she had agreed to be interviewed by investigators with her attorneys present in September 2019 but the interview ended abruptly once the feds revealed they had recordings of her conversations.
More than once, McClain was referred to on the witness stand as a “double agent.” And an FBI wiretap on McClain’s phone revealed his basic philosophy that loyalty to Madigan outranked his loyalty to ComEd and other companies that paid him. It was advice he gave to Cousineau, a former political director on Madigan’s House staff who later became a contract lobbyist for ComEd.
“As long as we remember who our real client is,” McClain said, referring to Madigan, “it’s not easy, but it mollifies it.”
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But it may be one of McClain’s calls with Hooker about ComEd money going to Madigan allies that will be reviewed closely as jurors search for their verdict.
“We had to hire these guys because Mike Madigan came to us,” McClain said. “That’s how simple it is. So if you want to make a federal court suit over it, OK. But that’s how simple it is.”