Chicago’s Deal With ComEd Faces Renewed Scrutiny After Bribery Charge

Lori Lightfoot
Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks during a news conference Friday, March 20, 2020, in Chicago. Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press
Lori Lightfoot
Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks during a news conference Friday, March 20, 2020, in Chicago. Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press

Chicago’s Deal With ComEd Faces Renewed Scrutiny After Bribery Charge

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot is renewing a demand for Commonwealth Edison executives to testify before City Council after federal prosecutors charged the company with bribery.

ComEd agreed to a $200 million fine in an explosive court filing that outlined how the company steered jobs and other benefits to Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan’s political allies. In exchange, ComEd sought to win favorable government actions in Springfield — including electricity rate hikes — from state officials who regulate it.

“We need to understand what their conduct has been … to make sure that we’re doing business with an honest vendor,” Lightfoot said Friday.

The mayor said she expects ComEd officials to testify before the City Council’s Committee on Environmental Protection and Energy on July 30. The agenda lists a single item: ComEd Annual Franchise Report and Summer Preparation Hearing.

The hearing is required annually under the terms of the city’s 30-year franchise agreement with ComEd. That agreement is set to expire at the end of this year and city officials have been meeting with ComEd staff in person or over the phone every week since last July to reach a new deal, according to the mayor’s office.

But a group of aldermen and activists are pushing to cut out ComEd. They want Chicago to run its own electric utility, much like it does with the city’s water and sewer system, instead of letting the private utility operate in the city.

Advocates with the Democratize ComEd campaign argue a public utility could invest more in clean and renewable energy, implement a progressive rate structure and generate revenue for the city.

But in order for the city to run its own electric utility, it would need to purchase all of the infrastructure currently owned by ComEd. The company told WBEZ earlier this year the cost of acquisition would “approach $10 billion.” But in 2019, a ComEd executive pegged the total closer to $5 billion during an interview on WTTW.

“It will be a logistical effort to transfer the employees, transfer the infrastructure … but it’ll be worth it in the long run,” said Matthew Cason, co-chair of the Democratize ComEd campaign. “This is an investment in Chicago’s future. It’s not just about what will this do for us tomorrow or next week or next year even. This will put our power in our hands for the years and ultimately centuries to come.”

Ald. Daniel La Spata, 1st Ward, is leading the charge for a public electric utility in City Hall and has sponsored an ordinance that would extend ComEd’s franchise agreement for one more year. The idea is to give city officials ample time to debate whether Chicago should sign another deal with ComEd.

A study on the feasibility and cost of acquiring and running the system as a public utility — a process known as municipalization — was delayed due to the pandemic, according to the mayor’s office. It is expected to be released later this summer, but may not be ready in time for the environment committee’s July 30th meeting with ComEd, according to a spokesperson for Ald. George Cardenas, 12th Ward, who chairs the committee.

Lightfoot said Friday morning that she wants to see the results of the study to understand all of the city’s options.

“Can the Chicago City government take on the responsibility of generation and provision of electricity? That’s an enormous and costly undertaking,” Lightfoot said, adding that it’s “not within our wheelhouse.” Lightfoot has previously cast doubt on whether City Hall could afford to municipalize ComEd.

But LaSpata said the federal bribery charge against ComEd should be yet another incentive to consider municipalization, no matter the cost.

“I don’t think anyone is fooling themselves that moving from a corporate to a democratic utility is an easy or quick transition, but I do believe … that transition is in the best interest of Chicagoans,” LaSpata said.

He urged Lightfoot to release the feasibility study — even if it’s still a draft — before the July 30 committee meeting.

Becky Vevea covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her @beckyvevea.