Four months after Commonwealth Edison admitted to a long-running bribery scheme in Springfield, federal prosecutors on Wednesday issued criminal charges against four former ComEd executives and lobbyists.
The individuals charged in the new indictment in federal court in Chicago included the power company’s former chief executive, Anne Pramaggiore, and Michael McClain – a ComEd lobbyist from Quincy, Ill., who is a close confidante of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago.
In July, ComEd admitted to an illicit, eight-year effort to win Madigan’s favor for electricity rate increases and other lucrative state legislation, funneling consulting payments to a litany of the powerful speaker’s allies for doing little or no work for the state-regulated, public utility giant.
Madigan has not been charged with a crime and staunchly denied any wrongdoing in a statement released Thursday morning. But Wednesday’s indictment – particularly the case against McClain – brought the sprawling federal investigation another huge step closer to the man who has been one of the most powerful leaders in Illinois for four decades.
“If there was credible evidence that I had engaged in criminal misconduct, which I most certainly did not, I would be charged with a crime,” Madigan wrote. “But I have not, and with good reason because there is nothing wrong or illegal about making job recommendations, regardless of what people inside ComEd may have hoped to achieve from hiring some of the people who were recommended.”
Yet Wednesday’s indictment provided the strongest suggestion yet that Madigan was directly involved in pushing ComEd to hire people connected to him. Without mentioning him by name, prosecutors described the alleged role of “Public Official A” — a reference to Madigan made clear elsewhere in the document and in past filings in the investigation.
In the new, 50-page indictment, authorities wrote, “It was further part of the conspiracy that Public Official A and McClain sought to obtain from ComEd jobs, vendor contracts and subcontracts, as well as monetary payments for various associates of Public Official A.”
Prosecutors alleged the beneficiaries of the misconduct including Madigan’s “political allies” and campaign workers for the speaker, such as precinct captains from Madigan’s 13th Ward Democratic operation.
On Wednesday evening, McClain and Pramaggiore strongly denied that they had done anything wrong, and McClain’s lawyer alleged that the authorities were making unfair allegations against his client in their zeal to bring down Madigan.
In addition to McClain and Pramaggiore, the indictment also levels charges against longtime ComEd executive John Hooker and lobbyist Jay Doherty, who was best known in Illinois political circles for leading the City Club of Chicago, a major civic-affairs organization. Doherty’s attorney also said his client would plead not guilty to the charges.
In the new court filing Wednesday, the office of U.S. Attorney John Lausch – who’s the top federal prosecutor for northern Illinois – charged the four defendants with bribery conspiracy, bribery and willfully falsifying ComEd books and records.
Lausch’s office said the four were involved in the scheme “to corruptly influence and reward a high-level elected official of the State of Illinois to assist with the passage of legislation favorable to the electric utility company.”
ComEd’s current leaders have said they are cooperating with the federal investigation and have admitted that the company hired politically connected consultants as well as interns and a board member to curry favor with Madigan.
A spokesman for Lausch said the investigation is “ongoing” but declined to comment further on the indictment.
Major players in Illinois politics and business
Although not household names, all four of the new defendants in the corruption probe were major players in Illinois political and business circles before they became ensnared in the Springfield scandal.
McClain, 73, enjoyed a unique, dual role as both top lobbyist for ComEd and unofficial political adviser to Madigan. The two men served in the state House together decades ago, but after McClain lost his seat in western Illinois – despite big support from Madigan – he continued to be one of the most trusted members in the inner circle of the famously coy speaker.
McClain told WBEZ earlier this year that federal agents had tried to convince him to cooperate, and he implied at the time that he was not inclined to do so.
In a statement Wednesday, McClain’s lawyer, Patrick Cotter, alleged that the federal prosecutors here were conducting a “misguided investigation and misapplication of the law, driven by an obvious desire to find some way to criminally implicate a current elected official, who happens to be Mike McClain’s longtime friend.”
Cotter said McClain “absolutely denies” committing any crime and “will fight these charges as long as it takes.”
“The goal of these meritless charges is clear: to apply maximum pressure on Mike McClain, and others, to help the Government in its efforts against his friend,” Cotter said, in a clear reference to Madigan. “But Mike McClain cannot agree to allegations that are untrue, even to escape the crippling weight of the Government’s attacks.”
After McClain had announced his retirement as a ComEd lobbyist in 2016, Madigan gave him a warm and rare send-off, telling the Quincy Herald-Whig newspaper that McClain had shown “complete honesty and integrity” as both a legislator and lobbyist.
But even after his retirement announcement, McClain still worked for ComEd as a consultant, and now prosecutors say he continued in his pivotal role in the mutually beneficial relationship between Madigan and ComEd. In emails with Pramaggiore and other ComEd executives, McClain referred to Madigan as “our Friend,” with a capital F, and coordinated clout hires, the feds said.
Pramaggiore’s spokesman also released a statement Wednesday night defending her actions, calling the allegations against her “baseless innuendo and misinformation.”
“Anne Pramaggiore unequivocally rejects the government’s charges that she engaged in unlawful behavior,” the statement read. “She agrees with Commonwealth Edison that no one at the company committed a crime.”
The statement goes on to say that she and other Exelon executives considered many requests for candidates to hire to “bring appropriate and valuable services to the companies,” none of which were illegal.
“After enduring months of baseless innuendo and misinformation, Anne Pramaggiore welcomes a full and truthful accounting of the facts in this matter,” the spokesman said. “She is confident a review will reaffirm her unwavering adherence to the highest ethical standards and finally put to rest the damaging speculation that any actions she took constitute illegal activity.”
Pramaggiore was the chief executive of ComEd from 2012 to 2018, then becoming head of Exelon Utilities.
Hooker, 72, was ComEd’s top in-house lobbyist as executive vice president of legislative and external affairs from 2009 to 2012. But even after retiring from the company, he lobbied for ComEd as a contractor. In a statement, Hooker’s attorney called the indictment “a misuse of prosecutorial power” and said Hooker is not guilty of the charges against him.
“We believe the government has misinterpreted the law and seeks to criminalize conduct that has long been accepted as proper and lawful,” wrote Hooker’s attorney, Jacqueline Jacobson. “We believe that Mr. Hooker will be found not guilty. It is unfortunate that in its zeal to prosecute another, the government has run roughshod over the life of a distinguished and inspiring role model like Mr. Hooker.”
“Little or no legitimate work for ComEd”
Doherty, 67, was a lobbyist for ComEd from 2011 until 2019, when he was dropped amid the scandal. The probe also led to his resignation as head of the City Club, where many civic leaders – including Madigan and Pramaggiore – have appeared as keynote speakers at popular luncheons.
In the indictment, authorities allege Pramaggiore signed a “false and misleading document” to arrange for the renewal of a contract with Doherty’s lobbying firm at a high rate. But Doherty did not keep most of the money he got paid, authorities said, instead funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars to clout consultants, including two former Chicago aldermen and two 13th Ward precinct captains.
They were not named in the indictment, but sources said the two aldermen who got the plum contracts were Frank Olivo, who used to represent the 13th Ward in the Chicago City Council, and Michael Zalewski, a retired 23rd Ward alderman whose son is close Madigan ally in the Illinois House.
Prosecutors said Olivo, Zalewski and one of the Madigan precinct captains who got a deal with Doherty’s firm “in fact did little or no legitimate work for ComEd.”
ComEd has admitted to paying about $1.3 million to the Madigan allies who posed as consultants but the return on that investment was much higher. The electric utility and the feds say the benefits to ComEd from the bribery scheme in the state capitol had exceeded $150 million.
Doherty’s lawyer, Michael Gillespie, said Wednesday that Doherty was “extremely disappointed” by the indictment and “will not plead guilty because he is not guilty of the charges.”
In another part of Wednesday’s indictment, authorities allege that McClain called Madigan, again identified as “Public Official A,” on May 2, 2018 to advise him that Pramaggiore was getting pushback for appointing an individual to the ComEd board. McClain allegedly asked if it was possible the same person could get a different job for the same pay. The filing doesn’t say what Madigan allegedly said in response.
A year later, in February 2019, the filing alleges that Pramaggiore had a telephone call with then-ComEd executive Fidel Marquez, Jr. After being told that subcontractors associated with Doherty just “collect a check,” Pramaggiore allegedly advised Marquez not to make changes to the contract with Doherty’s lobbying firm because “we do not want to get caught up in a, you know, disruptive battle where…somebody gets their nose out of joint and we’re trying to move somebody off, and then we get forced to give ’em a five-year contract because we’re in the middle of needing to get something done in Springfield.”
Ghost consultants and rate hikes
The federal investigation has roiled Illinois politics since July 2019, when WBEZ and the Better Government Association disclosed that agents raided the home of Zalewski and sought information about Madigan, McClain and the power company. At the time, ComEd acknowledged receiving federal subpoenas from Lausch’s office about its efforts to gain influence in Springfield.
And in October 2019, Pramaggiore resigned as chief executive of ComEd’s parent company, Exelon Utilities.
Days after Pramaggiore quit, WBEZ first reported that federal investigators were focusing on allegations that ComEd hired ghost consultants with connections to Madigan in exchange for favorable Springfield legislation — including permission to raise the rates for delivering power to millions of homes and businesses in Illinois.
WBEZ also revealed at that time that the feds had raided the Michigan Avenue offices of the City Club, on suspicions Doherty was acting as a go-between for the consulting deals with Madigan allies.
The probe appeared to slow during the first months of the coronavirus pandemic earlier this year, but ComEd admitted to the bribery scheme on July 17, under what is known as a “deferred prosecution agreement” with the feds.
The arrangement meant that prosecutors filed a case against the power company but could eventually drop any charges — provided ComEd paid a $200 million fine to the U.S. government and continued to cooperate with the investigation.
Beyond the potential political implications, the court records suggest, the corruption had a big impact on ComEd’s roughly 4 million customers in Chicago and across northern Illinois. The agreement pointedly noted that ComEd won two huge legislative wins in Springfield during the time of the bribery scheme, in 2011 and 2016.
State regulatory records show those measures were worth billions of dollars to ComEd. A WBEZ analysis of those documents found the power company’s revenues from delivering electricity — and the profits it is able to make off customers in Illinois — rose sharply as a result of the legislation the utility got from Springfield politicians.
Madigan has defended himself by saying there was nothing wrong with recommending qualified people to work for ComEd and has said he was unaware ComEd was trying to influence him.
Scandal has fueled Madigan’s opposition
Wednesday’s developments come at a particularly sensitive time for Madigan as he battles for a potential 19th term as speaker. Madigan is the longest-serving House speaker in U.S. history, holding the gavel for all but two of the past nearly 38 years.
But the weight of the expanding federal probe has exposed Madigan to serious fault lines within the state Democratic establishment and his own caucus that have never run as deep or wide as they appear to be now.
Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker and U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth all have called on Madigan to step down as chairman of the state Democratic Party, and Duckworth has said he should relinquish his role as House speaker.
State Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, D-Oswego, has mounted a run for speaker, and 11 other House Democrats have gone on record saying they either will not cast votes for Madigan to remain in control of the House or believe it’s time for him to step aside.
At least two more members would have to emerge in order to deprive Madigan of the necessary 60 votes for the speaker’s gavel.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified one of the companies led by Anne Pramaggiore. She was the CEO of Exelon Utilities.