A federal judge in Chicago pressured prosecutors Wednesday to act promptly if they are going to file additional corruption charges against former Commonwealth Edison executives and lobbyists.
The exchange in open court occurred during a run-of-the-mill hearing before U.S. District Court Judge Harry Leinenweber concerning the high-profile corruption case that has rocked the Illinois statehouse and drove the state’s most powerful politician, former Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, out of power.
Last year federal prosecutors in Chicago charged four defendants — former ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore, and former ComEd lobbyists Michael McClain, John Hooker and Jay Doherty — in a years-long scheme to bribe Madigan to win his support for legislation that benefited the utility company.
All four defendants have pleaded not guilty. Madigan has not been charged and denies any wrongdoing.
On Wednesday morning, Leinenweber sought to set a date on which the trial could begin, acknowledging that the pandemic has created a backlog of cases and trials while the courthouse was largely closed.
In response, McClain’s defense attorney, Patrick Cotter, said the office of U.S. Attorney John Lausch has “intimated” that the prosecutors may file a superseding indictment and that as a result, no trial date should be set until that is filed.
A grand jury must still return a superseding indictment. It gives prosecutors the ability to bring additional or different charges against those they have already indicted. The feds also could choose to charge new defendants with crimes in the existing case.
Cotter’s comment prompted Michael Monico, the attorney representing Hooker, to allege that Lausch’s office is “on the brink” of a superseding indictment and demanded to know when prosecutors will let the defense attorneys know what their strategy is.
Neither Cotter nor Monico disclosed why they think the feds could soon bring additional charges. When asked to elaborate on his comment by a WBEZ reporter, Cotter responded saying he does not expect to talk to the media until after trial.
Sarah Streicker, a prosecutor for the Department of Justice, would not confirm or deny Cotter’s assertion and would only state that the government is not prepared to discuss the matter in court. She also emphasized to the judge that defense attorneys are not entitled to know what the government plans to do.
Leinenweber also asked prosecutors to have a decision made as soon as possible — “well before” the next court hearing in August.
In their 50-page indictment last year, federal prosecutors said McClain and Madigan “sought to obtain from ComEd jobs, vendor contracts and subcontracts, as well as monetary payments for various associates of [Madigan].” Prosecutors alleged the beneficiaries of the misconduct included Madigan’s “political allies” and campaign workers, such as precinct captains from Madigan’s 13th Ward Democratic operation on Chicago’s Southwest Side.
ComEd already admitted that it engaged in the misconduct and agreed to pay a $200 million fine. The company faces a bribery charge, but that will be dropped in three years as long as ComEd pays the fine and complies with regulations, per an agreement the utility company signed with the feds.
The indictment prompted 19 House Democrats in Springfield to withhold their support from Madigan to be reelected speaker, denying him the gavel he has held longer than any other speaker in U.S. history. Madigan resigned his seat in the House of Representatives shortly thereafter.
State legislators are now debating what additional checks and balances should be put in place over public utilities, including whether to give restitution payouts to ComEd customers.
Earlier this year, Democratic Illinois U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth successfully lobbied President Joe Biden’s administration to let Lausch stay on as Chicago’s top prosecutor a while longer until a successor is confirmed by the Senate.
Throughout the sprawling corruption probe that has ensnared several former lawmakers and statehouse lobbyists, federal prosecutors have been known to release high-profile indictments at key times in the legislative calendar. The legislative session is scheduled to wrap up its session by the end of the month.
WBEZ’s Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics. Follow him @tonyjarnold.