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Ex-Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan is indicted on federal racketeering charges

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Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times
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Former Speaker of the House Michael Madigan parks in the garage at his Southwest Side home, Wednesday afternoon, March 2, 2022.

Former Illinois House Speaker and ex-Democratic Party boss Michael Madigan was indicted Wednesday in federal court with racketeering and taking bribes, according to the unsealed indictment.

The prosecution of Madigan — who set a national record by serving as House speaker for 36 years — represented the most significant corruption case in the notoriously toxic world of Chicago and Illinois politics since the conviction a decade ago of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

In bringing the long-anticipated case, federal prosecutors targeted a Chicago legend who rose from the Southwest Side’s Democratic ward politics to become the most influential figure at the Illinois Capitol for decades.

Federal prosecutors filed 22 criminal counts against 79-year-old Madigan, accusing him of leading a criminal effort they described in court documents as “The Madigan Enterprise.” It allegedly existed to “enhance Madigan’s political power and financial well-being” and to take care of loyalists who helped keep him in power, by generating “income for members and associates of the enterprise through illegal activities.”

Those crimes, prosecutors said, included “soliciting and receiving bribes and unlawful personal financial advantages” and “using threats, intimidation, and extortion to solicit benefits from private parties.”

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Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times
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Former Speaker of the House Michael Madigan parks in the garage at his Southwest Side home, Wednesday afternoon, March 2, 2022.

In reality, those Madigan allies on the electric utility’s payroll “performed little or no work for ComEd,” while the company benefited handsomely from legislation that was passed by lawmakers controlled by Madigan, according to the indictment.

In a statement Wednesday, Madigan denied wrongdoing, as he has done repeatedly throughout the years-long probe that led to the indictment.

“I was never involved in any criminal activity,” he said. “I adamantly deny these accusations and look back proudly on my time as an elected official.”

Madigan accused the office of John Lausch, the top federal prosecutor in Chicago, of “attempting to criminalize a routine constituent service: job recommendations.

“That is not illegal, and these other charges are equally unfounded,” he added.

Madigan’s lawyers, Sheldon Zenner and Gil Soffer, said federal law-enforcement authorities had engaged in “overreach in charging him” and predicted he would beat the charges in court.

Madigan’s first court appearance is scheduled for next Wednesday. He already had spent nearly $5 million in campaign funds on legal fees since the start of the investigation, state records show.

Soon after the indictment was released Wednesday, the office of Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker told WBEZ that federal prosecutors had recently interviewed the governor about Madigan at his home for about an hour.

That revelation came as authorities alleged Madigan promised to help land a state job for Danny Solis, the former Chicago alderman whose cooperation with the government has won him leniency for his own misdeeds in public office.

Solis could prove to be one of the most consequential federal moles in the long history of crooked local and state officials becoming government cooperators. Secret recordings generated by Solis have also helped prosecutors build their pending corruption case against 14th Ward Ald. Ed Burke.

In Madigan’s case, prosecutors alleged that the speaker promised to help Solis get a high-paying state board appointment in 2018, soon after Pritzker was elected. Solis never got any such state post, although authorities said Madigan met with Pritzker to discuss board appointments.

Pritzker spokeswoman Emily Bittner said, “Federal law enforcement informed the Governor that he was only a witness, and the Governor agreed to their request to speak to them about his experiences with and knowledge of Mike Madigan.”

Bittner said the investigators met with Pritzker late last month, and that the first-term governor answered their questions voluntarily.

She said Pritzker “does not recall” Madigan asking him to help Solis.

The governor was not accused of any wrongdoing, Lausch said.

Lausch, a veteran U.S. attorney, leveled the charges against Madigan more than a year after he lost his speaker’s gavel and gave up his seat in Springfield, where he was a state representative for 50 years.

At a news conference Wednesday in downtown Chicago, Lausch sought to place the Madigan case in the context of Illinois’ reputation for being one of the most corrupt states.

“Unfortunately, this type of criminal conduct drastically undermines the public’s confidence in our government,” Lausch said. “Every time that this office brings another corruption case … I think we all shake our heads sometimes when we think there’s another corruption case that’s happening, and that’s why I’ve defined our problem as a very stubborn one.”

‘Campaign work for Madigan’ was all that allegedly mattered

At the heart of the federal case against Madigan is the ComEd bribery scheme. Charged together with Madigan was Michael McClain, a close Madigan confidante who also was a longtime top lobbyist in Springfield for ComEd.

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Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
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Michael McClain, a powerful former Springfield lobbyist and close friend of House Speaker Michael Madigan, talks on his cellphone at 300 N. LaSalle St. on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020.

Prosecutors had previously charged McClain and he has denied the allegations.

Wednesday’s new charges appear intended to ramp up the pressure on him to testify against his friend and benefactor of nearly half a century.

In the indictment, Madigan is accused of taking “official action to assist ComEd with respect to the passage of legislation favorable to ComEd and its business and to defeat legislation unfavorable to ComEd and its business.”

In return, ComEd allegedly let Madigan dictate hires ranging from interns to a law firm used by the company – and even a seat on the giant, publicly traded company’s board.

Prosecutors said Wednesday the efforts at corporate favoritism were so extensive that ComEd waived a minimum grade-point average requirement for interns in cases where applicants from Madigan’s own ward did not meet the basic standard.

The freshly unsealed indictment also features long lists of payments to Madigan’s cronies who were consultants for ComEd – but effectively were ghost payrollers.

According to the court records, Madigan met with one of his allies who was paid by ComEd in 2018, and that unidentified consultant “expressed concern to Madigan” because he was doing no work for those payments.

Prosecutors say Madigan replied that the ally had no need to worry because that individual’s “campaign work for Madigan” was more important than the consulting job for ComEd.

Madigan to Solis: ‘Leave it in my hands’

The new indictment also detailed how Madigan allegedly vowed to aid Solis – the longtime chairman of the powerful City Council Zoning Committee – in his quest for a high-paying state board appointment after he retired as alderman.

“Just leave it in my hands,” Madigan allegedly told Solis, according to the indictment.

In return, prosecutors say, Madigan asked Solis to help drum up business for an unnamed relative of the then-speaker – and for Madigan’s own private law firm in Chicago, which long has specialized in the lucrative business of filing property-tax appeals for major real-estate interests.

Solis and Madigan allegedly met in November 2018, with Madigan asking Solis, “Do you wanna go forward now on one of those state appointments?”

Authorities say Madigan told Solis he would be meeting with Pritzker but would not put Solis’ desire for a paid board post with the state government in writing: “I can just verbally tell him.”

Solis sent Madigan’s office his resume and Madigan did indeed meet with Pritzker “on or about December 4, 2018,” weeks after Pritzker won the general election but before he took the oath of office in Springfield. According to court documents, the purpose of the meeting between Pritzker and Madigan was “to discuss, among other things, the composition of the State boards.”

Asked about that part of the case against Madigan, Lausch said, “There is no allegation in this indictment against the governor or his staff.”

And Lausch added, “There’s no allegation… that the state board position was actually given.”

In 2020, WBEZ reported that Pritzker went on to hire 35 people whose names appeared on lists of job recommendations sent to the governor’s staff from Madigan’s office. Solis’ name did not appear on those lists obtained by the station.

According to court records in the Burke case, Solis admitted in 2019 “that he solicited campaign contributions from a real estate developer in exchange for taking official actions as the Zoning Committee Chairman.” But he could avoid prosecution entirely for his help to investigators.

The root of Madigan’s political demise

The federal prosecutors’ interest in Madigan and ComEd burst into public view in 2019. That was when WBEZ and the Better Government Association first reported that federal agents searched the home of former Chicago Ald. Michael Zalewski for documents about Madigan and sent a subpoena to ComEd.

The federal activity at Zalewski’s home on the Southwest Side was one of a series of raids across the state targeting Madigan allies in May 2019. Zalewski, who has not been charged, was among several Madigan cronies who benefited from the allegedly fake subcontracting arrangement with ComEd.

In October 2019, WBEZ revealed that federal prosecutors suspected ComEd gave consulting deals to Madigan allies in exchange for favorable actions in Springfield, including electricity-rate increases. At the same time, WBEZ reported agents had searched the offices of the City Club of Chicago, a civic organization, and were probing the role that the group’s then-president, ComEd lobbyist Jay Doherty, had played in the clout hiring process.

Doherty has since been charged with serving as a pass-through for the consulting payments to the Madigan allies, and his name also figures prominently in the newly unsealed charges against Madigan.

But the strongest link between Madigan and ComEd was McClain, a former legislator from Quincy, in western Illinois. McClain was both the power company’s top lobbyist at the Illinois Capitol and a close Madigan confidante since the 1970s.

In an interview with WBEZ in January 2020, McClain acknowledged that the feds had asked him to cooperate in their investigation of Madigan and ComEd, but McClain indicated he would not do so.

The coronavirus pandemic appeared to slow the investigation — and Madigan remained firmly in control in Springfield — until the feds and ComEd announced a settlement of the investigation into the utility giant in July 2020.

A high-stakes scandal

Under what’s known as a “deferred prosecution agreement,” ComEd admitted to the long-running bribery scheme in Springfield, agreed to pay a $200 million fine to the U.S. government and promised to cooperate in the ongoing corruption probe. As long as ComEd complies with regulations for three years, the feds will drop the bribery charge against the company.

ComEd admitted it had hired Madigan allies to try to win favor with the speaker in an illicit scheme that spanned from 2011 to 2019. In addition to hiring the speaker’s friends as consultants, the power company acknowledged making the board appointment based on clout and filling the internships from the ranks of Madigan’s ward organization.

The crony ghost consulting deals cost ComEd about $1.3 million. But the return on the investment in the scheme exceeded $150 million, according to court records.

And the true cost to the public may have been far greater than that figure. A WBEZ analysis found the amount paid for electricity delivery by ComEd’s roughly 4 million customers across northern Illinois spiked sharply after Madigan and other state elected officials approved legislation favorable to the utility.

In response to ComEd’s admissions in federal court, Madigan said he was not aware of any efforts to curry favor with him and that the power company’s executives were mistaken if they felt they had any sway over his decisions affecting their fortunes.

“To the extent that anyone at ComEd or [corporate parent] 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 said in a statement in 2020. “If they even harbored the thought that they could bribe or influence me, they would have failed miserably. I take offense at any notion otherwise.”

As with his arguments against the newly filed federal case, Madigan said in 2020, “I believe that it is part of my duties as a community and political leader to help good people find work.”

Madigan’s Springfield power outage

But some other top Democrats grew restive when they suffered losses in some races in the 2020 election. Pritzker called for Madigan to quit as party chairman after voters rejected an attempt to institute a graduated income tax, one of the governor’s signature policy proposals.

And Madigan lost his once-firm hold on the speaker’s gavel after the feds also brought charges against McClain and other former ComEd lobbyists and executives in November 2020.

By late 2020, it was becoming obvious Madigan lacked the votes to win another term as speaker, with an increasingly vocal minority of House Democrats citing the ComEd scandal in their calls for a change in leadership.

In January 2021, Madigan dropped his candidacy for another term as speaker after a final, vain push to hold onto his main source of power. A longtime ally, Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch of Hillside, succeeded Madigan and became the state’s first Black speaker.

Welch had staunchly defended Madigan amid the federal probe and abruptly shut down a House special investigative committee probe into the scandal without taking any action against him, despite furious protests from Springfield Republicans who accused Welch of shielding Madigan.

In a statement Wednesday after Madigan was charged, Welch again sought to defend his handling of that probe at the Illinois Capitol.

“As Chair of the Special Investigating Committee, I made it clear that this matter needed to be handled in a court of law, completely separate from the legislature,” Welch said. “As is evident by this federal indictment, the full weight of the justice system was needed to ensure all charges are investigated properly and thoroughly.”

Welch also said the speaker’s office has “fully cooperated” with the investigation of Madigan on his watch and would continue to do so.

After quitting as speaker, Madigan then gave up his seat representing the Chicago’s Southwest Side and suburbs, which he had held for half a century, and stepped down as chairman of the state Democratic Party.

Madigan remains a state central committeeman from the 3rd Congressional District, a post that current Democratic Party of Illinois Chair Robin Kelly said Wednesday he should also resign.

Virtually unparalleled clout for decades

For generations, Madigan’s power over Illinois politics was virtually without match. Except for a two-year period when the Republicans had a majority in the state House, he was speaker from 1983 until his lost the gavel last year.

As head of the Illinois Democrats, Madigan routinely sent his political workers across the state to help allies and punish rivals at election time, solidifying the party’s majority in the state Capitol. The Madigan-supported candidates reflexively voted as he directed them, and some would shunt reporters to Madigan’s staff when asked to comment on their own positions.

Many of Madigan’s most capable and trusted proteges doubled as House aides and Democratic campaign operatives, later cashing in on their experience and connections to Madigan by becoming lobbyists for ComEd and other clients with high stakes in decisions made in Springfield.

Madigan’s success earned the bitter resentment of generations of Illinois Republicans, including Bruce Rauner, who engaged in a lengthy budget stalemate with Madigan during his sole term in the governor’s mansion.

On Wednesday, state GOP Chairman Don Tracy said in a statement that “Illinois is a diminished state and a laughing stock for the rest of the nation because Mike Madigan cares more about holding on to power than serving the interests of its citizens.”

And Tracy also said, “For many years, Illinois Democrats across the state – from Gov. JB Pritzker on down – supported, enabled and kissed the ring of Mike Madigan as he built a corrupt state government.”

Critics from both parties said Madigan was at fault in large part for the state’s critically weakened finances, including its swelling pension debt. But Democrats long hailed Madigan for strongly supporting organized labor, pushing progressive measures through Springfield and helping elect a diverse array of candidates.

In 2002, Madigan used his clout to propel his daughter Lisa into the Illinois attorney general’s office. Lisa Madigan went on to serve four terms as the state’s top law enforcement official, but she said she gave up her ambition to run for governor because of her father’s insistence on remaining as speaker.

While he was one of the most powerful politicians in the state, Madigan also earned what must have been a healthy income from his private law practice, which specializes in appealing the property tax assessments of some of the biggest real estate investors in Chicago.

The firm of Madigan & Getzendanner had a long list of clients, even during the eight years when a key ally of the speaker — former Cook County Democratic Chairman Joe Berrios — was the county’s assessor, with the power to alter the tax bills of property owners upon appeals from Madigan and other lawyers.

It’s not publicly known exactly how much Madigan profited from that private business, though, because he refused to release his personal income tax returns, unlike most governors, Chicago mayors and presidential candidates.

What was abundantly clear, though, was that Madigan’s unparalleled power made him a fundraising machine with few peers. And if he fights the federal case as aggressively as he’s suggested, Madigan can tap those deep campaign funds to pay his legal bills.One of Madigan’s campaign firms already has spent more than $4.8 million on legal fees since January 2020, with the vast majority of those fees going toward the Chicago-based law firm of Katten Muchin Rosenman.

WBEZ City Hall reporter Mariah Woelfel contributed.

Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Dave McKinney and Tony Arnold cover state politics. Follow them @dmihalopoulos, @davemckinney and @tonyjarnold.