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Madigan, ComEd bribery cases could be upended by U.S. Supreme Court ruling, defense attorneys say

A defense attorney predicted one of Chicago’s high-stakes public corruption cases, the ComEd bribery case, will get a new trial. Michael Madigan’s trial is set for October but could be delayed.

SHARE Madigan, ComEd bribery cases could be upended by U.S. Supreme Court ruling, defense attorneys say
Former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan leaves the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in Chicago early this year.

Former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan leaves the Dirksen Federal Courthouse earlier this year.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling threatened Wednesday to roil major public corruption cases in Chicago, prompting bold predictions from defense attorneys amid what seems to be an ongoing reversal of fortunes for federal prosecutors.

The Supreme Court found that a crucial federal bribery law aimed at state and local officials does not also criminalize after-the-fact rewards known as “gratuities.” Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who authored the majority opinion, accused prosecutors of trying to turn the law into “a vague and unfair trap for 19 million state and local officials.”

The 6-3 ruling came in the appeal of former Portage, Indiana, Mayor James Snyder and has threatened corruption cases in Chicago for months, including the case against ex-Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan. Now, defense attorneys for four Madigan allies convicted last year of a lengthy conspiracy to bribe Madigan to benefit ComEd say the high court’s decision is very good news for their clients.

“I believe ComEd is going to trial again,” said defense attorney Gabrielle Sansonetti.

Sansonetti represents former City Club President Jay Doherty, one of the defendants in last year’s ComEd bribery trial. Convicted in that case along with Doherty were Madigan confidant Michael McClain, former ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore and former ComEd lobbyist John Hooker.

Pramaggiore’s attorney, Scott Lassar, said the Supreme Court ruling makes clear that “what Anne Pramaggiore was charged with is not a crime.”

“I don’t think the entire case would be dismissed,” Lassar said. “But we will argue — I think successfully — that all of the convictions have to be reversed. And so, if that’s the case, the government would have to make a choice about whether they want to retry the case.”

Patrick Cotter, McClain’s attorney, said he believes the ruling “does radically change what the U.S. attorney’s office for the Northern District of Illinois can argue is a crime.”

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment.

What really happens next will be up to U.S. District Judge Manish Shah, who inherited the ComEd bribery case after the death of U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber this month. The ruling also raises questions about whether adjustments can be made in the Madigan case in time for his trial in October. That case is overseen by U.S. District Judge John Blakey.

Shah on Wednesday scheduled a July 9 status hearing in the ComEd bribery case. New motions addressing the Supreme Court’s ruling are due July 8 in the Madigan case.

The ComEd defendants (left to right): Former ComEd lobbyist John Hooker; former City Club President Jay Doherty; former ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore; Michael McClain, longtime confidant to former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. 

The ComEd defendants in 2023 (left to right): Former ComEd lobbyist John Hooker; former City Club President Jay Doherty; Former ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore; Michael McClain, a longtime confidant to former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Pat Nabong; Ashlee Rezin; Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times-file

Nancy DePodesta, a former federal prosecutor who is now a partner in the white collar practice group at the Taft law firm, said the ruling “has the potential to significantly impact the landscape going forward.”

“Having said that, there are other statutes … that the government can use to prosecute corruption,” DePodesta added.

She also believes it’s possible for lawyers to make the necessary adjustments to bring the Madigan case to trial in three months.

The ruling has been anticipated since December, so she said “I don’t think that either side can be necessarily surprised.”

Federal prosecutors in Chicago scored a series of victories in 2023, when nine people were convicted amid five trials resulting from public corruption investigations. That all followed a series of bombshell indictments leveled against powerful politicians such as Madigan in the years before.

But the high court’s ruling Wednesday comes two days after a judge’s decision to hand a relatively light two-year prison sentence to former Ald. Edward M. Burke. Prosecutors originally asked U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall to put him away for a decade, but she wound up raising questions about the deal prosecutors struck with notorious government mole Danny Solis.

Ald. Edward M. Burke and Ald. Danny Solis at a City Council meeting in 2016.

Ald. Edward M. Burke and Ald. Danny Solis at a City Council meeting in 2016.

Sun-Times files

Solis, a former longtime member of the City Council, agreed to secretly record Burke and Madigan for the FBI after agents confronted him with evidence of his own wrongdoing. If he holds up his end of an agreement with prosecutors, he will likely avoid a conviction.

Kendall called that an “uncomfortable” fact when decrying public corruption.

Burke’s lawyers tried this month to delay his sentencing because the Supreme Court had yet to hand down its highly anticipated Snyder decision. But Kendall insisted the sentencing should move forward, ruling that it would “have little or no impact on the sentencing requiring such a delay.” Prosecutors noted that only two counts in Burke’s case would be implicated.

Madigan’s attorneys did not comment on Wednesday.

But they have previously said seven of the 23 counts he faces in his indictment are tied to the law in question. It’s also involved in five of the counts in the ComEd bribery case.

The corruption conviction of Snyder gave the Supreme Court the opportunity to study a law known as the “federal program bribery” statute. It applies to any state or local government agent who “corruptly solicits … anything of value … intending to be influenced or rewarded in connection with any business” worth $5,000 or more.

The central question proposed to the court was whether, in addition to bribery, the law also criminalizes something called a “gratuity.” A gratuity is a reward given corruptly — but without a quid pro quo — for an official act that has usually already happened.

Snyder accepted $13,000 from a trucking company after he helped engineer contracts with his city in the company’s favor. A jury later convicted him of “corrupt solicitation.” Snyder’s attorneys say he did not approach the company for money “until after Portage awarded the contracts,” so there was no quid pro quo.

During oral arguments in April, the Supreme Court justices grilled a government lawyer about the definition of a key word in the statute: “corruptly.”

In the opinion Wednesday, Kavanaugh wrote that the government “does not identify any remotely clear lines separating an innocuous or obviously benign gratuity from a criminal gratuity.”

Brett Kavanaugh

Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh

AP file photo

“How are state legislators, city council members, school board officials, building code inspectors, probation officers, human resource directors, police officers, librarians, snow plow drivers, court clerks, prison guards, high school basketball coaches, mayors, zoning board members, animal control officers, social workers, firefighters, city planners and the entire army of 19 million state and local officials to know what is acceptable and what is criminalized by the Federal Government?” Kavanaugh wrote. “They cannot.”

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson dissented, calling Snyder’s reading of the bribery statute “absurd and atextual” and “one only today’s Court could love.” She was joined in her dissent by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

“Nothing about the facts of this case even remotely implicates a reasonable concern about the criminalization of innocuous conduct on the part of an unwary official,” Jackson wrote.

“Whatever ‘corruptly’ means,” she wrote, “Snyder’s behavior clearly fits the bill.”

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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a key statute at play in Michael Madigan’s case criminalizes bribery among state and local officials, but not after-the-fact rewards known as “gratuities.”