Publicly and privately on Thursday, top Illinois Democrats grappled with how to put a positive, election-year spin on federal prosecutors’ newly unsealed corruption case against their longtime leader, the former state House Speaker and party boss Michael Madigan.
Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker even appeared to celebrate the federal case, saying he thought Madigan’s indictment should help the state finally clean up its act.
But behind the scenes — in a memo titled “indictment talking points” — a dozen Illinois House Democrats got a starkly different, eye-opening missive urging them to express “misgivings” about the federal charges against Madigan and his close friend, former Commonwealth Edison lobbyist Michael McClain.
Democratic aides quickly said they had never approved — and in fact strongly disapproved of — the memo’s contents.
In the discredited document obtained by WBEZ, House Democrats were guided to say, “While I always stand with law enforcement, I unfortunately feel I must call into question certain aspects of the investigation process regarding Speaker Madigan’s case. From the start, he has faced unfair, partisan accusations; charges which appear to have influenced the indictments.”
In a clear reference to the Illinois Republicans, the memo goes on to state, “For years, our opponents across the aisle have focused their ire and prejudicial scrutiny on Speaker Madigan, to little effect. However, their constant accusations have finally had an impact; the federal government has buckled under their pressure.”
The memo came from the office of Madigan’s successor as House Speaker, Emanuel “Chris” Welch, and it also encouraged members to say, “Despite my misgivings regarding this case, I want to reiterate that Speaker Welch has my full support.”
But Welch’s aides say they instantly disavowed what was merely a draft memo from an inexperienced staffer, sent out without authorization.
“The communications department has never approved talking points that offered any defense of Michael Madigan and never would,” said Welch’s communications director, Sean Anderson.
“These talking points were erroneously made and distributed by brand-new, junior staff without management’s awareness, review or approval,” Anderson added. “The situation was immediately clarified, within minutes, that no members of our caucus should use them.”
On Friday, Anderson added that the office later emailed members to apologize for “the mistake” and to tell them the second, alternative set of talking points they also had received — which did not include criticism of the Madigan case and prosecutors — represented the “correct” version.
The errant memo surfaced as Democrats struggled with how best to shield themselves from Wednesday’s announcement of 22 counts of racketeering, bribery and other corruption charges against Madigan.
Now 79, Madigan had led the party with nearly unquestioned authority for decades, helping elect many Democrats who remained in office after he left Springfield a year ago, amid the spreading scandal involving ComEd.
In the indictment, prosecutors said Madigan helped further the giant utility’s interests in Springfield while the power company secretly shunted consulting payments to a list of the Southwest Side powerbroker’s cronies — even though they actually did little or no work for ComEd.
U.S. Attorney John Lausch also alleged investigators caught Madigan on secret recordings in 2018, in which the then-speaker promised to help land a paid state board job for a Chicago alderman who steered clients to Madigan’s law firm.
Madigan has denied wrongdoing, and he has vowed to fight the charges, with his initial appearance scheduled for Wednesday.
GOP leader says Democrats don’t take corruption seriously
Outside of the now-disavowed memo — and his defense lawyers, who’ve already been paid nearly $5 million — Madigan stood alone publicly.
Pritzker suggested he welcomed the case against Madigan, which comes near the end of his first term as governor.
“The era of corruption and self-dealing among Illinois politicians must end,” Pritzker told reporters. “The conduct alleged in this indictment is deplorable, and a stark violation of the public’s trust. Michael Madigan must be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”
Pritzker — who is up for reelection in November — defended Welch for once shutting down a special legislative committee that was investigating the ComEd scandal without taking any action against Madigan.
But House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, said Welch had stymied the GOP’s efforts to probe Madigan after ComEd admitted in 2020 that executives bribed their way to lucrative legislation at the Illinois Capitol.
In closing down that probe, Welch said the investigative committee was a “joke” that allowed the House Republicans to engage in “political theater.” Echoing Madigan’s own argument in his defense, Welch said at the time, “Making job recommendations is not illegal or unethical.”
This week, after the indictment, Welch again said he handled the investigative committee appropriately. In a statement, he said the justice system, and not a legislative probe, was the proper venue for investigating Madigan.
On Thursday, Durkin said that approach showed “the Democrats just don’t take corruption seriously.”
He urged voters to support his party in November because “it’s going to take a citizen-driven rally against those who drank from Madigan’s trough and still defend him.”
Asked about the disavowed memo from Welch’s staffer, Durkin laughed and said he was “amazed and blown away” that anybody could believe the House Republicans — who hold a superminority of seats — had impacted the decisions of federal law-enforcement authorities in Chicago.
But Madigan’s indictment provided a level of relief for some of the relatively few Democrats who questioned him during the height of his powers and suffered career repercussions for speaking up.
“Some pretty dark moments” for Madigan critic in recent years
State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, told WBEZ on Thursday that she was interviewed by federal investigators last March about “Madigan 101” and what it was like for a Democrat in Illinois to be publicly critical of him.
After the indictment, she said, “To be honest with you, I don’t know how I feel yet, in part because it’s just been years and years of holding it together.”
Last year, Cassidy and 18 other lawmakers refused to support Madigan’s reelection as speaker, effectively ending his national-record tenure as a legislative leader. Before that, she said, even hinting privately at opposing Madigan led some fellow Democrats to distance themselves from her.
“There were some pretty dark moments,” Cassidy said. “I remember at the beginning just talking about being frustrated and wanting to say something and people just recoiling, like I had something contagious.”
Similar sentiments came from Alaina Hampton, a former Madigan aide who left the organization after another operative sexually harassed her. In 2019, she settled a lawsuit against two Madigan-controlled political funds, his 13th Ward Democrats and the state party he still led at the time.
“I certainly feel vindicated,” Hampton said of the indictment. “I feel like I’ve received more justice than I did when my lawsuit settled.”
She said her career in politics clearly suffered as long as Madigan kept his power.
“When Madigan lost the speakership last year, I could kind of feel things in politics in Chicago starting to change,” she said. “Politicians and politicos are kind to me again, and I think people could see the ways things were going and that they kind of felt that they went in the wrong direction initially. …This has been a long time coming.”
Another long-time observer of Illinois politics questioned the resolve and ability of the state’s elected officials to end pay-to-play schemes — and to bring honest government to the Land of Lincoln.
“My expectations about reform, based on crises in this state, are not very high given previous situations,” said Chris Mooney, a state politics professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago and former head of the Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs.
Mooney pointed to the arrest and conviction of former Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison. “Here’s a guy, straight-up gangster, they got him on tape, you know, selling bits and pieces of the state for his own personal benefit, he hated being governor,” Mooney said. “It should have been a window of opportunity to make major reform in this state. There were hearings, there were committees, they went around the state … and there was a lot of talk about various reforms.”
After all that, Mooney added, “They basically did almost nothing.”