The federal judge presiding over the ComEd bribery trial reversed course Tuesday and ruled that secret recordings made of former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and his allies may be released to the media after they are played for jurors.
That means people across Illinois will finally have an opportunity to hear the evidence at the core of the federal corruption investigation that ended Madigan’s record-breaking tenure as the leader of the Illinois House of Representatives and landed him under indictment.
U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber changed his mind after the Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ intervened in the case, seeking the release of the recordings once they are admitted and published at trial — a standard practice in Chicago’s federal court.
The decision kicked off the trial’s first day, the bulk of which was spent by the judge questioning 95 potential jurors. Though no member of the jury had been seated by the end of the day Tuesday, they will likely be chosen Wednesday morning.
Once a jury is seated, jurors will hear opening statements from prosecutors and defense attorneys for Madigan confidant Michael McClain, ex-ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore, former ComEd lobbyist John Hooker and onetime City Club President Jay Doherty.
The four are accused of arranging for jobs, contracts and money for Madigan’s associates in an illegal bid to sway him as legislation crucial to ComEd’s bottom line moved through Springfield. They also gathered for the first time Tuesday in the 17th-floor trial courtroom at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse, listening quietly to answers from the jurors.
Leinenweber ruled last week that secret recordings of Madigan and his allies, which form the backbone of the case, would not be widely released to the public through the media. The judge said that could “sensationalize the trial more than we want.”
But attorneys Brian Saucier, Steven Mandell and Lyndsey Wajert argued in a motion on behalf of the Sun-Times and WBEZ that “this is a historically important case involving allegations of public corruption implicating one of the most politically powerful individuals to ever hold office in Illinois.”
In fact, Madigan was forced to give up leadership of the Illinois House just two months after the indictment that triggered the trial now getting underway. He faces a separate indictment for racketeering, and his trial is set for April 2024.
“The recordings allegedly contain discussions of bribery and corruption in veiled and coded language,” the attorneys wrote. “The words used may have meaning imbued to them through tone and inflection that can only be deciphered by listening to the recordings.”
The Chicago Tribune joined WBEZ and the Sun-Times in challenging the judge’s ruling. McClain attorney Patrick Cotter objected, telling the judge the argument was over “ratings,” and that the media wanted information in “the most entertaining form possible.”
Ultimately, Leinenweber sided with the media. Then he turned to the business of questioning potential jurors, who were asked whether they had refrained from reading up on the case in media reports — and whether they could be fair.
They were also asked if they could remain impartial on topics involving lobbying, Madigan and ComEd. However, the jurors answered many of those questions privately to the judge and the lawyers in the case, and out of earshot of the public.