Updated: 12:45 a.m., 11/6/2019
Fifteen of the 23 firms that worked for Commonwealth Edison in Springfield this year deployed lobbyists with direct ties to powerful Illinois House Speaker and state Democratic boss Michael Madigan, a WBEZ investigation has found.
For a generation, it’s been common practice for powerful private interests to hire Springfield lobbyists who previously worked for Madigan or were loyal House Democrats under his reign. Madigan heads the state’s Democratic Party and is the longest-serving House speaker in the country’s history.
But the connections between Madigan and the utility have come under greater scrutiny in recent months, as an ongoing federal criminal probe delves into the giant power company’s lobbying of the Illinois state officials who regulate it.
WBEZ was the first to report last month that federal agents are investigating allegations that ComEd hired multiple politically connected consultants who did little or no work in exchange for electricity-rate increases.
As part of that investigation, the feds have sought information about Madigan on several fronts. In mid-May, authorities raided the homes of three men with close Madigan ties and the City Club of Chicago, a prominent public affairs speaking forum. In at least two of those raids, agents sought information on Madigan, WBEZ has learned.
As more news of the federal probe has emerged, state lobbyist disclosure records show ComEd — which has a monopoly on providing power to more than 4 million customers across northern Illinois — has recently parted ways with some of its lobbyists who have the coziest connections to Madigan.
Still, many Madigan-linked companies remain registered as lobbyists for ComEd, according to records submitted to the Illinois Secretary of State’s office.
WBEZ’s investigation found that the ranks of ComEd lobbyists in 2019 have included:
Eight former aides to Madigan.
Two lawyers who have continued to work for Madigan even as they lobbied for ComEd.
Five retired legislators who used to serve in the Illinois General Assembly as part of the House Democratic caucus, which Madigan has led almost continuously since 1983.
ComEd spokeswoman Jean Medina declined to answer when asked whether Madigan had influenced any of the utility’s lobbyist hires. But in a statement to WBEZ, she said Tuesday that many companies prefer lobbyists with experience as legislators or aides to Springfield leaders.
“We work to educate state and local officials about sound policies that we believe are in the best interests of the customers and communities we serve, and this includes engaging consultants who are experienced and knowledgeable about policymaking in Illinois,” Medina said.
Madigan’s spokesman did not respond to WBEZ’s requests to comment on this story. Last week, Madigan told reporters he does not believe he is a target of the federal investigation.
Nobody has been charged in the probe.
Madigan’s “longest-serving political director”
One recent departure from this vast army of ComEd lobbyists was Heather Wier Vaught. She’s the former high-ranking Madigan aide who was reenlisted last year as an outside counsel to help the speaker deal with the fallout from sexual harassment allegations that rocked his office.
Wier Vaught informed officials that she stopped working for ComEd on Aug. 2, state lobbyist-disclosure records show.
She began as a lawyer for the Illinois House and left in 2016 as “counsel to the speaker,” according to her online resume.
Wier Vaught declined to comment.
Will Cousineau, another trusted Madigan aide, lobbied ComEd together with colleagues from the Cornerstone Government Affairs firm.
Cornerstone reported that it had stopped representing ComEd in the Illinois Capitol on Oct. 25.
In his bio on Cornerstone’s website, the firm said Cousineau joined its Springfield office in June 2017 “after nearly 18 years working for Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan, including eight years as political director for the speaker and the Democratic Party of Illinois.”
That made him “the longest-serving political director” for Madigan, and he also was a “senior advisor” in the speaker’s office.
“Will was involved in the major initiatives that moved through the legislature over the past 10 years, including such legislation concerning utilities, conceal and carry, financial institutions and civil laws,” according to his bio.
Cousineau did not return calls.
Another recent lobbyist to depart was ex-state Rep. John Bradley. ComEd cut its ties with the former Democratic House member on Tuesday, state records show. Bradley served under Madigan from June 2003 to 2017, and even rose to serve in House leadership as assistant majority leader.
Bradley did not respond to WBEZ’s requests for comment.
Medina, the ComEd spokeswoman, did not reply to questions about the departures of Wier Vaught, Cousineau or Bradley.
On Monday, Jay Doherty, the City Club president, told the secretary of state’s office that he no longer was lobbying in Springfield for ComEd. He had been registered as a state-government lobbyist for the company since 2010. Neither Doherty nor his lawyer have returned messages.
WBEZ was first to report last week that ComEd also had cut ties with the lobbying firm co-owned by influential Chicago Ald. Gilbert Villegas on Oct. 3.
Although Villegas said he did not work for ComEd, one of the employees of his Stratagem Consulting firm who lobbied for the power company was Greg Willis, a former Madigan aide.
Top Democratic lawyer’s lobbying for ComEd
The spate of lobbyist departures came as the federal investigation into ComEd’s lobbying intensified and the company announced that it was losing chief executive Anne Pramaggiore and Fidel Marquez, Jr., the executive vice president in charge of governmental relations.
At the same time as the mid-May raid at the City Club, agents also executed search warrants at the homes of former ComEd lobbyist and Madigan confidante Michael McClain, longtime Madigan political operative Kevin Quinn and retired Chicago Ald. Michael Zalewski, a Madigan ally.
ComEd and its parent company, Exelon, first disclosed in July that they had received and complied with a federal subpoena for information about its lobbying activities in Illinois.
They got another subpoena a month ago from the office of U.S. Attorney John Lausch, the top federal prosecutor for the Northern District of Illinois. Executives said the second subpoena sought documents about their companies’ communications with state Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Chicago, and other, unnamed people and entities.
Sandoval’s office at the Illinois Capitol had been raided in September, with investigators searching for documents on a variety of topics, including ComEd, Exelon, four unnamed Exelon officials and “any issue supported by any of those businesses or individuals, including but not limited to rate increases.”
Then two weeks ago, Exelon disclosed that both it and ComEd are now also under investigation by the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, which is also looking into their lobbying activities.
But even as Wier Vaught, Cousineau and other lobbyists have parted ways with ComEd, another, even better connected player in Madigan’s world has continued to be listed as a registered lobbyist for the utility.
Chicago lawyer Michael Kasper still is both a Springfield lobbyist for ComEd and the general counsel and treasurer for the Madigan-led Democratic Party of Illinois, records show.
John Hooker, a lobbyist with decades-long ties to ComEd, represented the utility in Springfield as an employee of Kasper’s firm. But that relationship ended last month.
Former Madigan aides who have lobbied for ComEd this year include:
Liz Brown-Reeves. Like Cousineau and others, Brown-Reeves went into Springfield lobbying after nearly a decade as both a Democratic campaign operative and key Madigan staffer at the Illinois House, rising to be his legislative director.
Kristen Bauer. According to her lobbying firm’s website, “Prior to starting the firm, Kristen Bauer worked for the speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives for more than 12 years in various roles, including the critical Chicago Operations Manager and Regional Coordinator for Targeted Members of the House Democratic Caucus.”
Margaret Houlihan Smith, of the CapitolHall Partners lobbying firm, who was a legislative aide to Madigan in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Jacob Miller, who was a legal counsel to Madigan.
Travis Shea, who began lobbying in Springfield for Michael Best Strategies soon after he was accused of sexually harassing two women by another Madigan aide who filed a federal lawsuit last year. Shea left the firm in March.
None of them returned calls seeking comment.
“A referral-based business”
In addition to Bradley, the retired Democratic members of the Illinois House who have landed gigs as ComEd lobbyists are Annazette Collins, Kevin McCarthy, Donne Trotter and Howard Kenner.
Reached on Tuesday, Kenner told WBEZ he did not get his lobbying contract with ComEd through Madigan.
“I tried for a while to get him to recommend me, but he did not,” said Kenner, who was a state representative from Chicago for eight years.
He said someone else recommended him to ComEd, but he would not say who that was.
“In Springfield, it’s a referral-based business,” Kenner said of lobbying in state government. “People are interested in hiring or contracting with [lobbyists] who know the environment.
“When people need someone in Springfield, they don’t look in the Yellow Pages. They ask around.”
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter for WBEZ. Tony Arnold covers state politics for WBEZ. State politics reporter Dave McKinney contributed.
Editor’s note: In the interest of full disclosure, ComEd is a WBEZ underwriter.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Travis Shea no longer works with Michael Best Strategies.