A commissioner at the state agency that oversees Commonwealth Edison has called on the head of the Illinois Commerce Commission to recuse herself from a public meeting with executives from the corrupt power company, according to an internal ICC letter obtained Tuesday by WBEZ.
ComEd executives are scheduled to appear at the ICC meeting Wednesday to answer questions about the utility giant’s admission that it had engaged in a long-running bribery scheme in Springfield.
One of the five ICC commissioners, Sadzi Martha Oliva, wrote that she was “deeply troubled” to see the commission’s chairwoman, Carrie Zalewski, was planning to participate in the meeting on ComEd’s “ethics reforms” despite her father-in-law’s involvement in the corruption scandal.
In federal court documents unsealed on July 17, ComEd admits it funneled payments to politically-connected consultants who did little or no work to win Illinois Speaker Michael Madigan’s favor and that one of the ghost “subcontractors” was a former alderman — identified by a source close to the investigation as former Chicago Ald. Michael Zalewski.
WBEZ and the Better Government Association first reported last year that federal agents had raided the Southwest Side home of Michael Zalewski seeking records about the former alderman’s dealings with ComEd and Madigan, D-Chicago. Shortly after that May 2019 raid, Democratic State Rep. Michael J. Zalewski – the former alderman’s son and the husband to the ICC chairwoman – spent tens of thousands of dollars in campaign money on legal advice, state records show.
Oliva sent her letter to the ICC’s general counsel and ethics officer on July 20. She sought a legal opinion as to whether there is any conflict of interest or violation of ethics laws “‘in allowing Chairman Carrie Zalewski to continue to preside over or exercise authority over matters involving ComEd,” including Wednesday’s meeting with executives.
But Oliva made her own position clear.
“As a former prosecutor, ethics officer and general counsel, I believe it is improper for Chairman Carrie Zalewski to preside or exercise any authority over matters involving Commonwealth Edison,” Oliva wrote. “Her continued participation diminishes the credibility of the Illinois Commerce Commission and undermines our integrity.”
Oliva — who was a Republican appointee to the ICC — cited the former alderman’s role in the ComEd scandal in her letter and also noted that Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker appointed Carrie Zalewski to the $136,800-a-year post after Madigan’s office recommended her in a “patronage list” sent to the governor.
“Based upon this information, I am deeply troubled that she can assert any regulatory authority over and ask questions of ComEd executives about ethics reforms implemented after ComEd was charged with and admitted to a bribery charge,” Oliva wrote.
Then-Gov. Bruce Rauner appointed Oliva as an ICC commissioner since 2017.
Four days after Oliva’s letter, top ICC lawyer Philip Kosanovich replied that he disagreed with her.
“I have reviewed the statutes and rules language you cited,” Kosanovich wrote. “I am aware of no facts that would require Chairman Zalewski’s recusal from the July 29, 2020 proceedings involving Commonwealth Edison Company.”
Copies of that response were sent also to Carrie Zalewski and the other three ICC commissioners.
After the criminal case against ComEd was revealed, the ICC said Carrie Zalewski had “no conflict, real or perceived” that kept her from doing her job at the state agency that regulates the power company, which serves 4 million customers across northern Illinois.
And Pritzker defended Carrie Zalewski’s job performance at the state, adding, “I think it would be unfair for us to hold against her something that has to do with someone else.”
The ICC leader’s husband, Democratic state Rep. Michael J. Zalewski of Riverside, has spent nearly $75,000 in campaign funds on legal services since his father’s home was visited by agents armed with a search warrant, records show.
Asked about the large payments to the law firm Tuesday, the state lawmaker declined to say whether he had been contacted by federal law -enforcement authorities.
In a statement to WBEZ, Rep. Zalewski said, “In early June 2019, I engaged Jones Day for legal counsel. I wanted to ensure legal compliance in case any investigatory agency sought my cooperation. As several investigations are ongoing, I’ll have no further comment at this time.”
The younger Zalewski had been Madigan’s point man in negotiations for a massive gambling bill last year, but he gave up his role as lead negotiator on the measure after complaints that he was conflicted. A WBEZ review of state lobbyist-disclosure documents showed the Chicago law firm where Rep. Zalewski works had more than 30 clients with interests in gambling legislation in Springfield.
The ComEd case is one of multiple federal investigations roiling Chicago and Illinois politics. Authorities have accused another Democratic lawmaker from Chicago, Luis Arroyo, of allegedly attempting to bribe a state senator for a City Hall lobbying client with an interest in so-called “sweepstakes” gaming machines.
The ICC had maintained silence for more than a year after the federal corruption probe of ComEd and Madigan became publicly known.
Hours after the case was unsealed on July 17, the agency issued a statement saying it had called on ComEd executives “to appear at a public hearing to discuss ethics reforms … that the company says it has implemented.”
ComEd has admitted it paid more than $1.3 million to the clouted consultants and reaped benefits worth more than $150 million from its corruption, court records show. The company agreed to pay a $200 million fine as part of what the government calls a “deferred prosecution agreement.”
During the scheme, ComEd won two pieces of lucrative legislation, in 2011 and 2016. Since the first of the two bills was approved, the total amount of state-approved revenue that ComEd gets for electricity delivery has increased more than 30%, according to a WBEZ analysis of ICC records.
ComEd has said it would oppose efforts to reverse the tainted legislation.
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team.