How Two Ex-ComEd Execs Helped Madigan Maintain Political Power
Two former top Commonwealth Edison executives now facing scrutiny from federal investigators helped Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan defend a cornerstone of his political power in 2016.
That’s when former ComEd CEO Frank Clark and the utility’s one-time top lobbyist, John Hooker, were the lead plaintiffs in a lawsuit that quashed a proposed constitutional amendment to change who draws legislative boundaries in Illinois. A citizens’ group wanted the redistricting process in the hands of an independent body instead of politicians like Madigan, who also chairs the Democratic Party of Illinois.
But Hooker and Clark’s legal victory struck the question from the 2016 ballot — before voters ever got a chance to weigh in. That cemented the speaker’s power to influence who wins elections.
WBEZ has learned Clark’s name appeared on documents agents used in May to raid the offices of the City Club of Chicago, according to a source with knowledge of the investigation. The source requested anonymity because they aren’t authorized to speak publicly about an ongoing legal matter. Agents also sought information about Hooker during the search of the non-profit civic group’s downtown office.
Federal authorities are now investigating ComEd’s lobbying practices and whether the electric utility hired politically connected contractors and employees — some with ties to Madigan — in exchange for government favors, including rate increases.
Neither ComEd nor Madigan’s names appear anywhere on the 2016 lawsuit. But three years later, revelations from the sprawling federal corruption probe cast the case and its players in a new light: It illustrates how two plaintiffs with close ties to the utility worked with Madigan’s top lawyer to neutralize a threat the the speaker’s power.
“The link to ComEd is very, very strong,” said Cindi Canary, senior adviser to the Support Independent Maps group, which proposed the redistricting changes.
Hooker worked for ComEd for more than four decades. Clark was ComEd’s chairman and CEO from 2005 to 2012.
Their attorney in 2016 was Michael Kasper, who’s long represented both the speaker and the Democratic Party of Illinois. At the time, Kasper was also a ComEd lobbyist.
Casting a key vote in the decision that killed the citizens’ remap plan was Supreme Court Justice Ann Burke, who is married to now-indicted Chicago Ald. Ed Burke, 14th Ward. During 2016, her husband’s law firm, Klafter & Burke, was getting paid by ComEd to appeal the company’s property taxes.
There’s no evidence the lawsuit is a part of the federal investigation into ComEd’s lobbying practices. Nobody has been charged with wrongdoing.
Kasper and a Madigan spokeswoman declined to comment for this story. Neither Clark nor Hooker returned WBEZ’s calls seeking comment.
Their legal victory came as ComEd’s parent company, Exelon, was seeking a major bailout from state lawmakers to save its failing nuclear power plants.
“I don’t see any particular reason why ComEd has an interest in redistricting except for the fact that they, too, probably support the incumbents,” Canary said. “The devil you know is always better than the devil you don’t. But to go in at that kind of level and kind of be behind the campaign is really a stunning thing unless they were doing it in support of other activity.”
In a statement, a ComEd spokeswoman said that the utility had no involvement in the lawsuit.
Madigan: Hooker was known “for his honesty, integrity”
When John Hooker retired from his executive position at ComEd in 2012, Madigan sponsored a resolution in his honor.
The speaker called him “one of the most respected policy advocates in Springfield, known by all for his honesty, integrity, ability to work with all sides of an issue, and an unending personal dedication to make Illinois a better place for all.”
Hooker had been the executive vice president of legislative and external affairs, earning $2.8 million in salary and benefits, according to federal documents. In 2015, then-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed him to lead the Chicago Housing Authority. Hooker resigned from that position in July when his term ended.
But he continued lobbying for ComEd at the Illinois state capitol until October of this year. That’s after ComEd disclosed to its investors that federal investigators had twice subpoenaed the company related to its lobbying activities in Illinois.
Along with Hooker and Clark, the feds also sought information on Madigan and former Exelon CEO Anne Pramaggiore when they searched the City Club in mid-May. That same day, agents also visited three other Madigan allies, and WBEZ and the Better Government Association have reported they were looking for information on the speaker in least one those raids.
Hooker has also made $119,200 in political donations through a company he manages with his wife. All told, he’s given more than $21,000 to Madigan-controlled campaign funds.
In July 2014, Hooker started lobbying for ComEd under contract for Michael McClain, a longtime friend and confidant of Madigan’s. The feds raided McClain’s home in Quincy, Ill. in May, and The Chicago Tribune has reported that agents wiretapped McClain’s phone. He has not responded to WBEZ’s repeated requests for comment.
When McClain announced his retirement in 2016, Hooker went on to lobby for ComEd under contract with a different partner: Michael Kasper, the Madigan-allied lawyer who would represent Hooker and Clark in the lawsuit to stop the Support Independent Maps constitutional amendment.
Hooker and Kasper cut ties in October amid the growing federal criminal investigation into ComEd’s lobbying activities.
A failed fight to reform redistricting
Canary’s reform group wanted to fundamentally change who has the power to draw the boundaries of legislative districts in Illinois. The group accomplished the heavy task of collecting 570,000 signatures to present the proposal to the voters on the 2016 ballot.
But Kasper argued the Illinois constitution does not allow for voters to decide the redistricting question through a referendum. The People’s Map – as the Hooker-Clark group was called – accused the organizers behind the reform effort of being a front for Republicans who wanted to limit minority representation in Springfield.
“All along I felt kinda sick because that certainly wasn’t anything I wanted to be a part of and I didn’t believe I was a part of it,” Canary said.
So Canary’s group hired its own legal gun to counter Kasper’s claims: Lori Lightfoot.
The future mayor of Chicago dismissed the claims of disenfranchisement as “absolute nonsense.” Lightfoot countered that the process allows powerful incumbents and legislative leaders in Springfield to draw districts to help their own members — all behind closed doors.
“It fundamentally elevates the protection of incumbents over everything else,” Lightfoot said on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight in 2016.
Lightfoot suggested Madigan was behind Hooker’s legal challenge, even though Madigan’s spokesman denied the speaker had a role in the lawsuit.
Since winning election to be Chicago’s mayor, Lightfoot has twice traveled to Springfield to try to get some of her priorities passed through the legislature. But she has yet to score a major victory.
In a recent statement, Lightfoot did not answer WBEZ’s questions about Clark and Hooker’s connections to ComEd and Madigan.
“I supported the Independent Map initiative and efforts to put it on the ballot in 2016 for the same reasons that I ran for Mayor of Chicago – because I fundamentally believe that government can best serve the people when they can trust that their elected representatives are doing all that they can to ensure fairness and transparency,” Lightfoot wrote in her statement. “Simply put, voters should choose their elected officials and not the other way around.”
Illinois Supreme Court Justice: “The whimper you hear is democracy stifled”
Lightfoot and the reformers lost round one of the legal fight to Hooker in Cook County court. With the 2016 election around the corner, she appealed directly to the Illinois Supreme Court to get a decision in time for voters to get a say in the matter.
The high court agreed to take the case, taking the unusual step of skipping oral arguments.
In a rare 4 to 3 decision, Democratic justices ruled in Hooker’s favor, knocking the redistricting reform proposal off the ballot. The three Republican justices who voted to put the amendment on the ballot were outraged.
“Today a muzzle has been placed on the people of this State, and their voices supplanted with judicial fiat,” Justice Robert Thomas wrote in his dissent from the majority. “The whimper you hear is democracy stifled. I join that muted chorus of dissent.”
When Justice Burke sided with the majority, ComEd was a client of her husband’s law firm. The utility company paid Klafter & Burke $204,000 in 2016, according to a state regulatory filing.
(If the Supreme Court decision had resulted in a tie, the lower court’s ruling would have stood in its place, effectively creating the same result.)
Earlier this year, Anne Burke was named chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court.
Back-to-back victories for Madigan, ComEd
The Supreme Court decision came down in August, three months before ComEd’s parent company, Exelon, scored a gigantic legislative victory in Springfield.
Exelon won a bailout for its struggling nuclear power plants. It was one of the few major pieces of legislation to pass both the Democratic-controlled legislature and to be signed by then-Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner as he and Madigan were in the middle of a bitter budget impasse.
Canary said that during the redistricting legal fight, she thought that Hooker was just a front for Madigan. Now, she thinks there was more behind the legal challenge.
“All the pieces seem to be coming together to say that there was actually a campaign – a much broader campaign to take down this initiative and to put a curb on citizen initiative power in Illinois,” Canary said. “I just know that the story’s a lot different in 2019 than it appeared to be in 2016 and that’s a question worth probing.”
Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.