Gov. JB Pritzker on Monday staunchly defended the politically-connected head of the state agency that regulates the scandal-scarred Commonwealth Edison power company and other public utilities.
Pritzker’s appointee as chairwoman of the Illinois Commerce Commission is Carrie Zalewski — whose father-in-law, former 23rd Ward Ald. Michael Zalewski — profited from the broad and long-running bribery scheme ComEd has admitted to perpetrating in Illinois politics.
According to federal court records unsealed Friday, the giant electric company acknowledged steering consulting contracts to allies of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, in exchange for favorable government action in Springfield.
The feds said a former alderman they described as “Associate A” got a ComEd subcontract worth $5,000 a month after he retired from the Chicago City Council in May 2018, and Madigan allegedly brokered the “arrangement” with ComEd’s chief executive. Michael Zalewski left the Council in May 2018, and a source familiar with the ongoing federal investigation confirmed he is Associate A.
Madigan’s office had also repeatedly recommended Carrie Zalewski for a job at the ICC before Pritzker appointed her to the $136,800-a-year post in April 2019, less than three months after the governor took office, WBEZ has reported.
Pritzker said Monday she was doing “a good job as a public servant” in his administration.
“There has not been any allegation against her,” the governor said of Carrie Zalewski. “I think it would be unfair for us to hold against her something that has to do with someone else. Let’s look at her record.”
Late Friday, the ICC announced that it was calling ComEd executives “to appear at a public hearing to discuss ethics reforms … that the company says it has implemented.”
The spokeswoman for the ICC, Victoria Crawford, said Carrie Zalewski planned to participate in the meeting with ComEd executives, which is scheduled for July 29.
“The chairman is not planning to recuse herself because she has no conflicts, real or perceived,” Crawford said.
Crawford did not reply, though, when asked whether ICC officials had previously contacted ComEd executives about the federal probe, which burst into public view more than a year ago.
In July 2019, WBEZ and the Better Government Association reported that Michael Zalewski’s home was searched earlier that year by FBI agents seeking documents on Madigan and ComEd. And in October, WBEZ first reported authorities were probing allegations that ComEd hired multiple clout-heavy employees and consultants who did little or no work in exchange for approval for rate hikes and other favorable government actions.
Activists who want to end ComEd’s near-monopoly in northern Illinois suggested the ICC should have taken a more active role earlier in the Springfield scandal.
“I don’t know what they want to accomplish with these hearings,” said Emily Mikhail, spokeswoman for the Democratize ComEd campaign. “This has not been hidden behind closed doors. It’s interesting that this is when they’re choosing to get involved.”
Although Madigan has not been charged and denies wrongdoing, ComEd agreed to pay a $200 million fine as part of their agreement with federal prosecutors who brought the bribery case against the power company.
“The Commission will take action to ensure that ComEd is not paying the $200 million criminal penalty at the expense of Illinois’ electricity consumers,” the ICC said in its statement last week.
ICC officials have said they did not receive any federal subpoenas or search warrants from authorities investigating ComEd’s efforts to gain influence in state government.
Pritzker noted Monday that Carrie Zalewski has worked for the state “for many years now.”
Carrie Zalewski’s husband is state Rep. Michael J. Zalewski, who is a member of Madigan’s Democratic caucus in the Illinois House.
Madigan recommended Carrie Zalewski for the ICC in December 2018 and in a series of other emails between the speaker’s chief of staff, Jessica Basham, and top Pritzker aides Anne Caprara and Nikki Budzinski during the governor’s first months in office. Carrie Zalewski was one of 35 people who got hired after their names appeared on the clout lists from Madigan’s office to Pritzker’s aides, a WBEZ investigation in June found.
Pritzker named her as his pick for a five-year term as ICC chairwoman on April 15, 2019, and the state Senate confirmed her on May 31, 2019. That was days after her father-in-law’s home was raided but weeks before the federal search became known publicly.
Before joining the ICC, Carrie Zalewski was on the Illinois Pollution Control Board for nine years. She began there under then-Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, but stayed in the position after Quinn lost to Republican Bruce Rauner in 2014.
Records obtained by WBEZ show Madigan’s office played a role again in Carrie Zalewski’s retention of her state job then, despite the change in the governor’s office.
Emails between Madigan’s top aide at that time, Tim Mapes, and the speaker’s close confidante Mike McClain indicate Madigan took a “special interest” in urging Rauner to keep Carrie Zalewski at the pollution control board.
Mapes asked McClain to come up with a list of state board appointees whose jobs they wanted to preserve despite the election of Rauner.
“This is an MJM project,” Mapes wrote to McClain, in clear reference to the speaker’s initials.
Another Madigan aide, Basham, told Mapes the list should include “Z’s wife” at the pollution control board.
Carrie Zalewski appeared on the list that McClain composed.
In addition to informally advising Madigan, McClain was the top Springfield lobbyist for ComEd at the time. McClain’s home in Quincy was raided by the feds in May 2019, and he told WBEZ earlier this year that prosecutors had asked him to cooperate with their investigation. McClain would not say if he agreed to do so.
WBEZ reporter Tony Arnold contributed.
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter for WBEZ. Tony Arnold covers state politics.