WBEZ News

Emails Show ComEd Lobbyist’s Deep Impact In Madigan’s Inner Circle

Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

Dave McKinney, Tony Arnold, Dan Mihalopoulos, Alex Keefe

Emails obtained by WBEZ show Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan’s longtime top aide discussed placing political loyalists at Commonwealth Edison, the state-regulated electric company whose hiring and lobbying activities are under federal investigation.

The interest by the speaker’s organization in potential jobs for ex-Madigan staffers at Illinois’ biggest power utility came around the time ComEd and its parent, Exelon, had the speaker himself and senior aides on their side in lobbying efforts that brought big legislative gains.

Now, federal agents in Chicago are investigating whether ComEd made politically connected hires — some with ties to Madigan — in exchange for favorable government actions in Springfield.

The nearly 1,200 pages of emails released after weeks of stonewalling by the speaker’s office show former Madigan chief of staff Tim Mapes inquiring about jobs for people at ComEd.

And the emails also demonstrate how former ComEd and Exelon lobbyist Michael McClain — a close friend and confidant of Madigan — functioned both as a conduit for those job questions and essentially as a full-time staffer in the speaker’s government office. McClain was copied on hundreds of pages of state emails with legislative aides regarding sensitive internal political and policy discussions.

When he wasn’t acting as Madigan’s legislative consigliere, McClain was messaging back and forth with senior staffers in the speaker’s office about an array of legislative needs sought by his extensive stable of lobbying clients. There appeared to be no line between McClain’s friendship with the speaker and his official role as a hired gun for special interests at the Illinois Capitol.

“Number one client”

In one newly unearthed email, Mapes appeared to joke with McClain about his dual roles, telling the lobbyist that Madigan truly was his “number one client.”

Other emails showed McClain having such standing within the speaker’s inner circle that he was allowed to offer edits on Madigan’s inaugural addresses.

And in 2016, McClain requested that Mapes ask the speaker to write a glowing letter for an awards ceremony recognizing the McClain family’s efforts toward Catholic education.

“He, Shirley and the family are just too intertwined with the McClains for me not to make this request,” McClain wrote, referring to Madigan’s wife.

But Madigan himself did not appear as a sender or recipient on any of the emails produced by his office in response to WBEZ’s request under the state’s open records law. The speaker’s aides said they have no record of Madigan communicating with McClain using email.

In text messages Thursday night, McClain declined to comment on the newly released emails.

Last month, McClain told WBEZ that federal prosecutors have asked him to cooperate with their investigation, but intimated that he had rejected those requests.

Mapes — who was fired over harassment and bullying allegations in 2018 — did not return a phone message. In addition to being Madigan’s chief of staff for 26 years, Mapes was executive director of the Democratic Party of Illinois, where the speaker serves as chairman.

Madigan’s spokesman, Steve Brown, also did not reply to WBEZ’s multiple phone and email messages seeking comment Thursday.

The speaker has said he has done nothing wrong and did not believe he was a target of any probe.

Neither Madigan, Mapes nor McClain have been charged with wrongdoing. They and three other men with close ties to the speaker were named in federal subpoenas served last week in the southwest suburbs of Bridgeview and Merrionette Park.

ComEd job for Madigan operative

WBEZ revealed in October that federal investigators were looking into alleged clout hiring practices at ComEd. But the emails released this week illustrate publicly for the first time that there was a direct line from the speaker’s government office to those doing the hiring at the utility company.

Emails about the 2015 hire of one former Madigan staffer and political operative by ComEd showed communication involving Mapes, McClain and the company’s top in-house lobbyist at the time, Fidel Marquez, Jr.

Marquez emailed McClain in January 2015 to notify him that the Madigan loyalist, Lizbeth Ramirez, had been brought on as ComEd’s principal legislative liaison.

Marquez attached a one-word message to the forwarded email about Ramirez’s hire: “Finally …”

A little more than an hour later, McClain passed on that email to Mapes.

Ramirez had worked in Madigan’s office as a program specialist, according to Negocios Now, a Chicago business website. She also was a political operative for the speaker’s organization for years, helping his endorsed candidates in legislative races across Illinois.

State campaign finance records show Ramirez was paid more than $65,000 for her work as a Democratic campaign worker, including payments from the Madigan-led state Democrats and the speaker’s personal political fund.

Marquez abruptly retired from ComEd in October, amid disclosures of federal subpoenas to the company for documents about its lobbying in Illinois. He’s now facing scrutiny as part of the feds’ criminal investigation into ComEd.

“This is no 8-5 p.m., job”

In another instance, in 2013, Mapes asked McClain to check on the status of the application from a former House Democratic staffer who had interviewed for a job at ComEd and had contacted Mapes for his help. McClain reported back that the woman had had a “good interview” and asked whether Mapes wanted him to forward the woman’s inquiry to the ComEd executive in charge of hiring.

Mapes responded that before he would “offer further comments,” he wanted to know more about the job, its responsibilities and rate of pay. McClain then provided those details, saying the position would pay an annual salary of as much as $140,000, not counting potential bonuses.

“This is no 8-5 p.m., job,” McClain wrote to Mapes. “Demanding. Frustrating. Rewarding. Full-time. Does this help?”

It’s not clear whether the woman got the job.

A different ComEd job applicant who was also a former House Democratic staffer contacted Mapes in 2014. Mapes then reached out to McClain to inquire about her application. McClain responded that a different ComEd executive was “impressed” by her, though again, it’s not known whether the woman got hired.

ComEd spokeswoman Jean Medina declined to comment on the newly released emails mentioning the company, saying only that executives are cooperating with federal investigators.

Last week, Exelon disclosed to investors that the company and ComEd face potential criminal and civil penalties. Besides the criminal probe by agents in Chicago, ComEd is being investigated by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

“I love you”

Madigan aides not only discussed ComEd jobs for loyalists. The emails show the speaker and his top staffers were taking good care of the electric company in Springfield.

In the spring of 2014, Madigan took the lead on a resolution on behalf of Exelon that warned of “dire consequences” if the company’s money-losing nuclear power plants were to shut down.

Emails between Madigan’s top advisers and McClain show how they worked in tandem to silence dissent on the pro-bailout resolution by hand-picking the lawmakers who would get to vote on it in a legislative committee.

Ahead of the vote, Exelon had identified at least six Democratic members of the committee who were likely to vote against the company’s interests. In response, Will Cousineau, a high-ranking member of the speaker’s staff, suggested a plan to remove opponents from the committee for this one vote.

The next day the opponents Exelon had identified were substituted from the committee — and the resolution passed 16 to 0. Cousineau’s tactic delighted McClain so much, he wrote him, “I love you.”

Two years after that resolution was unanimously approved by the House Environment Committee, Exelon won legislative approval for a multi-billion-dollar ratepayer bailout.

Cousineau later left Madigan’s staff and became a lobbyist. His clients included ComEd.

“Pretty good batting average”

In other email exchanges, McClain advised top Madigan aides on both major and routine challenges facing the speaker.

During the 2014 patronage hiring scandal at Metra, which centered on Madigan loyalists, McClain took part in internal discussions with the speaker’s aides where they downplayed their influence at Metra and ridiculed the journalists who reported the story.

Mapes sent McClain and other key staffers documents showing political hires at the Chicago-area commuter rail agency. McClain made light of the high success rate Madigan had enjoyed in getting his choices hired by Metra.

“If I was looking for a job and it appears Mike Madigan is 16 for 16. That is a pretty good batting average. I would want to team up with him,” McClain replied to Mapes and two other Madigan aides.

McClain also provided extensive feedback to Madigan’s staff when the speaker was preparing his inaugural speeches in 2015 and 2017. He suggested nearly two dozen edits to the speaker’s prepared remarks in 2017.

In another exchange, McClain boasted of Madigan’s drawing power when the speaker made a rare speech at the City Club of Chicago in 2015. In an email to Mapes and four other Madigan staffers a few weeks before the speech, McClain bragged about how quickly tickets for the event got snapped up.

“Tickets sold out in 5 minutes…(tickets on sale at 9:01….sold out at 9:06),” McClain wrote.

McClain compared that to then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s appearance at the City Club five months earlier.

“It took Trump 11 minutes,” McClain wrote.

The City Club’s president at the time was Jay Doherty, another longtime ComEd lobbyist. Doherty stepped down last year, months after WBEZ reported that federal agents raided the City Club in May. The subpoena served at the City Club sought documents related to Madigan and ComEd executives.

“As few redactions as necessary”

Now, after decades of friendship and political loyalty, McClain has become a serious liability for Madigan due to his cavalier style of writing emails.

McClain is also under state and federal investigations for his authorship of a 2012 email WBEZ first obtained through an open-records request to Gov. JB Pritzker’s office. In the email to two top aides to then-Gov. Pat Quinn, McClain sought leniency for a state official facing disciplinary action because the worker “kept his mouth shut” about an unspecified “rape in Champaign.”

Roughly two weeks after WBEZ made its initial request for McClain emails from the speaker’s office, in January, Madigan’s legal team released more than 500 pages of records. But they didn’t disclose that they were withholding nearly 700 more relevant pages of emails.

After two weeks of prodding, the speaker’s office ultimately agreed to produce the remaining documents.

“I have consulted with the Speaker regarding your FOIA request concerns,” Madigan’s counsel, Justin Cox, wrote on Feb. 13, “and the Speaker directed me to turn over all responsive public records with as few redactions as necessary.”

Dave McKinney and Tony Arnold cover state politics for WBEZ. Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter. Alex Keefe is the Senior Editor of Government & Politics.