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State Rep. Bob Rita during a public opening of BetRivers Sportsbook, the first brick-and-mortar sportsbook approved by the Illinois Gaming Board at Rivers Casino in Des Plaines.

State Rep. Bob Rita during a public opening of BetRivers Sportsbook, the first brick-and-mortar sportsbook approved by the Illinois Gaming Board at Rivers Casino in Des Plaines.

Ashlee Rezin

Madigan ruled ‘through fear and intimidation,’ ComEd bribery trial jurors told

A veteran Democratic state lawmaker who sponsored major gaming legislation in the Illinois House of Representatives told a federal jury Monday that former Speaker Michael Madigan once ruled that chamber “through fear and intimidation.”

When asked what Madigan valued most in other legislators, state Rep. Robert “Bob” Rita answered, “loyalty.”

And before the trial of four former political power players broke for the day, the Blue Island Democrat cited the case of a fellow Democrat who dared side with Republicans — only to have Madigan’s organization turn on him in an election.

Rita took the stand only 40 minutes before testimony ended for the day. He’s expected to resume his testimony Tuesday and further explain his comments about Madigan.

Rita’s testimony came during the trial of Madigan confidant Michael McClain, former ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore, ex-ComEd lobbyist John Hooker and onetime City Club President Jay Doherty. The four are accused of arranging for jobs, contracts and money for Madigan’s associates while legislation crucial to ComEd moved through Springfield.

Madigan resigned from the legislature in 2021 and faces a separate racketeering indictment. His trial is set for April 2024.

Like former state Rep. Lou Lang, who took the stand last week, Rita’s testimony is expected to further underscore the notion that McClain acted as an agent for Madigan and passed along the speaker’s demands. When asked who, besides Madigan’s senior staff, had a close relationship with Madigan, Rita named McClain, who served in the legislature decades ago.

Rita called McClain a “former member of the House and a lobbyist and a friend [of Madigan’s].”

He also explained to jurors how, after onetime Democratic state Rep. Ken Dunkin sided with Republicans on key votes, the Madigan-led Democratic Party of Illinois successfully ran a candidate against him, forcing him out of office.

Rita has been known as a fixer of sorts in Springfield for taking on tough issues and getting them over the finish line. That was certainly the case in 2020, when he helped shepherd the measure that cleared the way for a Chicago casino — a feat decades in the making.

Rita is now an assistant majority leader in the Illinois House.

Federal prosecutors planned to have Rita testify about McClain’s role in the gaming legislation. They alleged in a court filing that Rita met with the speaker in his office in 2013, where Madigan told Rita that Rita would sponsor a major gaming bill. When the meeting ended, Madigan walked Rita out of his office and McClain was standing near the doorway.

Madigan pointed to McClain and said “he will guide you,” according to the feds.

U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber barred prosecutors Monday from getting into the topic of gaming at the request of defense attorneys, though. Rita is also likely to testify about the influence that McClain — a ComEd lobbyist —Â had on the passage of another bill Rita sponsored: the Future Energy Jobs Act, or FEJA.

FEJA is one of the key pieces of legislation at issue in the trial.

Rita’s testimony capped a broader day of testimony Monday, in which jurors also heard recordings of Madigan complaining about former Senate President John Cullerton, and a ComEd executive discussing how FEJA and other legislation turned the utility’s finances around.

In a recorded phone call from Sept. 5, 2018, McClain discussed with Madigan a “stupid Cullerton move,” which apparently involved anti-Madigan political ads from Senate Democrats. It happened two months before the election in which Democrat J.B. Pritzker successfully challenged then-Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican.

“This is a general election,” Madigan complained. “This is the time to be against the Republicans.”

McClain told him on the recording that “you’re more of [a] street fighter than anybody knows, except for maybe guys like me. And if you want to put the squeeze on the guy, you could hurt him pretty badly.”

“Yeah. Yeah, alright. I’ll think about it,” Madigan told him.

Scott Vogt, vice president of strategy and energy policy for ComEd, also testified Monday. He explained that ComEd’s finances had been in “dire” shape prior to the passage of the Energy Infrastructure and Modernization Act in 2011, as well as FEJA in 2016. The bills helped ComEd more reliably predict the rates they could charge customers.

Vogt estimated the value of FEJA to ComEd at $1.8 billion, and he said the bills helped take ComEd from a low point of earnings in 2006 or 2007 to “highest earnings on record in 2022.”

Vogt also told jurors he was generally familiar with the faces of ComEd’s many lobbyists in Springfield. But then prosecutors showed him photos of four Madigan associates paid by ComEd through a third-party firm, supposedly as lobbyists.

Asked if he’d seen them before, Vogt repeatedly said, “not that I recall.”

Contributing: Tina Sfondeles and WBEZ political reporter Dave McKinney

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