A Cook County Circuit Court judge shot down a consumer-advocacy group’s attempt to halt a class-action lawsuit against scandal-scarred Commonwealth Edison.
The Citizens Utility Board — the group created to protect consumers of ComEd and other utilities in Illinois — had asked the judge to suspend the case against the giant power company. CUB wants the dispute to be decided instead in federal court, where it has filed its own lawsuit against ComEd.
In the wake of ComEd’s admissions in a Springfield bribery scandal, the lawyers in the Circuit Court suit alleged that the electric company “unjustly enriched itself by overcharging its 4 million customers in Illinois for years,” and they’re seeking to get money back for consumers.
Former Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn and other lawyers are representing CUB in its federal lawsuit against ComEd.
But Sanjay Tailor, the judge in the Cook County case, denied CUB’s motion to “stay proceedings” on Nov. 23, according to court records, saying he would not decide the merits of the case at this juncture.
“What CUB would have the Court do is essentially undertake a comparison of the merits of the claims of this case with the merits of the claims in the Federal Court proceedings, effectively prejudge this and the Federal case,” Tailor said, according to a court transcript. “And that is an approach that I don’t believe has any precedent and would really be wholly impractical.”
The judge also said, “It’s really a dispute of strategy, and I get that. But I don’t think that that’s a basis to stay this action.”
Taylor allowed CUB to intervene in the litigation, but the judge’s ruling against CUB’s motion to suspend the case was good for the public, said a lawyer for the ComEd consumers who are plaintiffs in the suit.
“We realized state court was the better path,” said the lawyer, Stephan Blandin. “We decided the state court action provides us with the quickest and most complete path of recovery on behalf of the citizens of the state who use ComEd.”
Blandin said the ongoing corruption investigation swirling around ComEd likely would delay the federal civil case on behalf of consumers.
A lawyer for CUB said Friday the group still believes the federal case is “much stronger” and is more likely to “provide ratepayers with significantly larger recoveries against ComEd.”
In July, ComEd admitted to bribing Illinois politicians as it won electricity-rate increases and other lucrative legislation in Springfield during the past decade. According to federal court records, the corruption was designed to influence “Public Official A” — a clear reference to Michael Madigan, the powerful Democratic House speaker for nearly four decades.
Although Madigan has not been charged and denies wrongdoing in the ongoing federal probe, he lacked the votes to keep his legislative leadership position and stepped down as speaker last week. He continues to be chairman of Democratic Party of Illinois and a state representative from Chicago’s Southwest Side.
During the time of the corruption scheme in Springfield, electricity-delivery rates paid by ComEd consumers have increased sharply, state records show. Legislators have not repealed the two major pieces of legislation cited in the federal criminal case.
“The longer this goes on, the more Commonwealth Edison profits,” Blandin said. “You have nine years of record profits that Edison has made as a result of this admitted bribery.”
But ComEd executives say the public has not been harmed by the scandal. In court records in the Cook County case, lawyers for the power company are seeking to have the class-action suit dismissed.
“Plaintiffs suffered no actual damage because they received value for what they paid,” wrote the ComEd lawyers, from the Chicago law firm of Jenner & Block LLP. “Plaintiffs may have preferred a different balance between cost and quality of electric service, but that is a public policy disagreement, not consumer fraud.”
The utility’s lawyers pointed out that all the electricity-delivery rate increases ultimately won by ComEd had the approval of the Illinois Commerce Commission, the state agency that oversees the power company.
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team.