Shortly before last Christmas, consummate Springfield insider Michael McClain sent an email to what he called the “Magic Lobbyist List.”
In the message, McClain told the members of the group that he and “A Friend of ours” had reviewed the list and winnowed down the roster of lobbyists who would continue to enjoy this favored status.
“There are now a little less than two dozen on the list,” McClain wrote in the email, which WBEZ obtained. “So, I would ask what has been asked in the past.”
McClain then directed the remaining members of the list to help him arrange for any new, potential clients in Springfield to hire the right lobbyists for the upcoming, 2019 legislative session at the Illinois Capitol.
Sources told WBEZ that the “Friend” with a capital F that McClain referred to in the email was Michael Madigan, the longtime speaker of the state House and chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois.
“Without a doubt, everybody who received that message knows that friend is Mike Madigan,” said a Democratic source familiar with the message, who requested anonymity for fear of suffering professional retribution from Madigan. “You would not be getting the email if you didn’t understand that.”
In sending the email on Dec. 9, 2018, McClain prevented the list of recipients from being able to see the names or email addresses of others who also were getting the message.
But the so-called magic list is a group of “chosen lobbyists,” many of whom used to work for Madigan and went on to represent clients with major interests in decisions made by the state’s elected leaders, the Democratic source said this week.
“Mike Madigan wanted to make sure he had somebody as the lead consultant for as many monied interests in Springfield as possible,” the source said. “They wanted to make sure their people were the lead on every big issue.”
For years, McClain himself was the main Springfield lobbyist for one of the most important players at the state Capitol: Commonwealth Edison, the state-regulated electric utility.
At the same time, McClain was a trusted advisor and one of the closest friends of Madigan, the famously reserved politician from Chicago’s Southwest Side who has become the longest-serving House speaker in the country’s history.
Even after announcing his retirement from ComEd three years ago, McClain resumed making about $15,000 a month as a political consultant to the power company, WBEZ has reported.
That arrangement only ended earlier this year, around the time federal investigators raided McClain’s home in Quincy in mid-May. On the same day, authorities also served search warrants on several others with close ties to Madigan or ComEd.
WBEZ was the first media outlet to report in October that the ongoing, wide-ranging federal probe is looking into allegations ComEd hired multiple politically connected consultants — including some with ties to Madigan — in exchange for favorable official actions in Springfield, including support for electric rate increases.
And on Thursday, the Chicago Tribune reported that McClain played a central role in arranging payments from current and former ComEd lobbyists to ex-Madigan aide Kevin Quinn, who was fired after being accused of sexual harassment last year by a campaign worker.
But the group email about the magic lobbyist list and interviews with Democratic insiders indicate McClain worked alongside Madigan in a much broader effort to arrange for trusted lobbyist allies to enrich themselves by representing powerful private interests in Springfield.
The email also offers the first evidence suggesting the speaker himself had a role in connecting lobbyists with clients whose fortunes rely heavily on his favor.
A spokesman for Madigan did not return repeated phone and email messages about the McClain email.
McClain did not return WBEZ’s repeated phone and email messages, nor did he respond to messages left at his home in Quincy and at a condo he owns in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood. His lawyer also did not return calls.
And a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago, which is leading the investigation into ComEd, declined to comment on the email.
“He was deputized”
A source who works for ComEd said McClain had long acted as a conduit between top executives at the electric company and Madigan. But the source added that McClain also served as a “clearinghouse” for other companies that wanted to know which lobbyists they should hire to please Madigan.
“He met one-on-one with Madigan,” said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. “Madigan told him what to do and he went out and did it. That’s how [McClain] made his money, because he was a loyal Madigan guy. If you want something from Madigan, you don’t ask Madigan. You ask Mike McClain. He was deputized.”
In the case of ComEd, the source said McClain communicated directly with Anne Pramaggiore, who was a top executive at the utility and at ComEd’s parent company, Exelon.
“McClain would tell Pramaggiore, ‘We want this,’” the source said. “It was implied that ‘we’ was Madigan.”
Another state political source said McClain met on Feb. 28 with Pramaggiore and John Hooker, a former ComEd executive-turned-lobbyist, at Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab, an expensive restaurant in Chicago’s River North neighborhood.
As the investigation intensified in October, Pramaggiore — who was CEO of ComEd from 2012 to 2018 — stepped down from her lucrative job as a top executive of Exelon.
Pramaggiore had organized a party in McClain’s honor in late 2016, shortly after he announced his retirement as a lobbyist, said one source who attended the event and asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about it.
Within a couple months, though, McClain returned to the utility’s payroll. Records show he was paid a total of $361,000 by ComEd in 2017 and 2018.
The source said the private company event for McClain was attended by about 50 people at the now-shuttered Montgomery Club, a swanky venue in River North that Crain’s Chicago Business once characterized as “Gatsby-esque.”
The party was part of a larger celebration to commemorate passage of Exelon and ComEd’s top Springfield priority in 2016, legislation known as the Future Energy Jobs Act. It guaranteed a ratepayer-subsidized windfall for the utilities.
The measure funneled up to $235 million per year to Exelon for 10 years to prop up the company’s money-losing nuclear power plants in downstate Clinton and Cordova. Those increases added on average of about 35 cents more per month to the bills sent to ComEd’s more than 4 million customers across northern Illinois, according to estimates by the Citizens Utility Board.
A spokesman for Pramaggiore declined to comment for this story.
This year, ComEd has employed 23 lobbying firms in Springfield, and a WBEZ investigation found 15 of those companies had employed lobbyists who were Madigan aides or had served as Democratic House members under his leadership.
ComEd officials have said they are cooperating fully with the federal investigation but declined to describe what McClain did under his consulting deal.
“A Friend of ours and myself”
After announcing his retirement in late 2016, McClain told state officials he had shut down his home-based law firm and stopped registering as a lobbyist. He started the business and began lobbying more than 30 years ago, after he lost his Democratic reelection bid for an Illinois House seat in western Illinois.
McClain appeared to refer to his announced retirement in the email last year to the elite group of lobbyists.
“So, since I do not roam the halls like I use [sic] to, I do not have the same level of ‘on site’ engagement I use [sic] to have so I must rely on you somewhat,” he wrote.
McClain then said there had been more members of the most-favored-lobbyist list but some apparently were deemed unworthy of continuing to reap the benefits of that honor.
“A Friend of ours and myself have gone through the ‘magic list’ and frankly culled quite a few names from the list,” McClain told the surviving members of the group.
He asked them to do “what has been asked in the past” — to help him coordinate who would get lobbying deals with companies that needed their interests represented in Springfield.
“If you have a potential client come up to you and seek you as a lobbyist but you cannot for whatever reason please engage him/her and try to get him or her to consider a recommendation from you,” McClain wrote. “Please call me then and I will have a conversation with someone and get back to you asap.”
He concluded by referring to the 2019 legislative session, which would begin a few weeks after the message was sent. With a new, Democratic governor in office after JB Pritzker unseated Republican Bruce Rauner, the legislature passed landmark measures on a long list of important issues, including gambling expansion and marijuana legalization.
“I think you and I agree that there may be a lot of ‘big issues’ up this year also,” McClain wrote. “So, if you are putting a team together please consider calling me also. I hope you have a wonderful Christmas season.”
“Not just one company”
The Democratic source who has seen the email said assigning the members of the magic lobbyist list to deep-pocketed interests was vital to the success of Madigan’s political machine.
“The side of an issue that doesn’t hire their lobbyist from the magic list has no chance of getting what they want in Springfield,” the source said, noting Madigan’s well-known ability to stifle legislation.
“To feed this enterprise, it’s not just one company — it’s not even one industry,” the source added. “When any industries are regulated or need something from Springfield, those are the targets of the magic list.
“Everybody is working for the good of the speaker’s operation, not for the good of their clients and certainly not for the good of the taxpayers.”
Many lobbyists for ComEd and other major companies received an email in 2016 from Tim Mapes, who was treasurer of a Madigan-controlled political fund at that time. The email included what was described as a weekly update on the political activities of Rauner, the Republican governor who was locked in a bitter dispute with Madigan at the time.
The recipients of the email, which WBEZ has obtained, included several former Madigan aides and political operatives who have become prominent Springfield lobbyists, among them Liz Brown-Reeves, Shaw Decremer, Tom Cullen and Kristen Bauer.
The message from Mapes also was sent to McClain, Pramaggiore and Fidel Marquez, Jr., another high-ranking ComEd executive who stepped down last month.
A spokeswoman for the state Democratic Party declined to comment on the Mapes email.
In McClain’s hometown, the fruits of his clout are in open view. And he is widely hailed by Republicans and Democrats alike for using his ties to Madigan to improve Quincy, a struggling downstate community on the banks of the Mississippi River.
Although he has not been a lawmaker since his reelection loss in 1982, officials in Quincy largely credit McClain with bringing state funds for a downtown convention center and a four-story “senior and family resource center.”
“Mike and Mike”
The main room of the convention center is named after McClain’s father, who also was a Springfield legislator.
And McClain’s own name is on the activity room at the senior center, where a group of older ladies participated in a dance class one afternoon last week.
The retired executive director of the agency that runs the center, Lynn Niewohner, said Madigan had unexpectedly attended an event about 10 years ago when activists honored McClain.
“I know that Mike and Mike are friends, McClain and Madigan,” Niewohner said. “I’ve been around them. They’re great pals. We honored Mike [McClain] with a governor’s award for unique achievement. It’s something we can do each year to honor somebody that’s helped us — and Mike Madigan walked in.”
“Everybody fell over when Madigan walked in. But he did it because they’re friends and he wanted to be there for his pal, Mike McClain.”
Asked about the federal investigation, Niewohner said she did not believe McClain would do anything improper.
Former Quincy Mayor David Nuessen is a Republican who clashed repeatedly with McClain in campaigns, but he praised him last week and said he had not seen any evidence of wrongdoing by him.
“Mike McClain has a great reputation, notwithstanding this particular thing that’s going on,” he said. “Mike is recognized as making great contributions in the community.”
Nuessen added that McClain had vacationed with Madigan but many people in Quincy draw a clear distinction between them: “They like Mike McClain. But they don’t like Mike Madigan.”
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter at WBEZ. Dave McKinney covers state politics for WBEZ.