A brief yet tense hearing on Thursday morning set the stage for an unprecedented investigation by a panel of state representatives into powerful Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan.
House Republicans filed a petition last week that prompted a special committee to be formed to investigate Madigan in the wake of a sweeping federal corruption probe that remains active. They’re now asking that Madigan testify before the committee.
While the committee is not a criminal proceeding, the six-member panel still must determine whether Madigan should face punishment in his role as a legislator. That includes calling witnesses to testify before the committee, which has subpoena power to compel the production of documents or testimony.
House GOP Leader Jim Durkin on Thursday read aloud the single non-criminal charge facing Madigan.
“Rep. Madigan engaged in conduct which is unbecoming to a legislator or which constitutes a breach of public trust as detailed in the admissions by Commonwealth Edison in the deferred prosecution agreement including engaging in a bribery scheme, an extortion scheme, conspiracy to violate federal and state laws among other misconduct and misuse of the office,” Durkin said.
Three House Republicans petitioned for the creation of the committee after federal prosecutors charged power company ComEd with bribery. The utility company admitted in a deferred prosecution agreement that it contracted with and gave jobs to associates of Madigan to curry favor with him in exchange for favorable legislation, including rate hikes. ComEd agreed to pay a fine of $200 million as part of the agreement, which put off criminal prosecution for three years.
Madigan denies any wrongdoing, he does not face any criminal charges and he angrily dismissed the House investigation into him as political theater. Madigan was not present at Thursday’s hearing and no representative spoke on his behalf. He will have the ability to defend himself if he so chooses, according to Rep. Chris Welch, D-Hillside, who is chairman of the special committee.
“This is a political process, not a legal proceeding. We are not a court of law,” Welch said to kick off the committee’s formal investigation. “As such, this committee is not bound by traditional rules of evidence. However, we are bound to adhere to the rules of decorum. This case is unique to previous special investigating committees in that the member that is subject of the petition has not been accused by federal prosecutors of any criminal activity.”
The panel investigating Madigan consists of three Republicans and three Democrats. At least one Democrat would ultimately have to vote against Madigan for the House to consider any kind of punishment against the longtime speaker.
While such a split may appear unlikely, the gravity of convening such a rare committee was palpable from Thursday’s initial hearing. Lawmakers bristled as they discussed how to proceed after they unanimously agreed to contact the U.S. attorney’s office about how they can conduct their own investigation of Madigan without interfering with the ongoing criminal investigation.
They did not set another hearing date.
Rep. Natalie Manley, D-Joliet, sought clarification as to what it is that the committee is investigating considering that the speaker faces no criminal charges himself.
Ronald Safer, a former federal prosecutor who is representing Durkin in the House investigation of Madigan, responded by noting that the deferred prosecution agreement between ComEd and prosecutors itself is evidence, and it warrants investigation of Madigan by the committee.
House Republicans also presented their witness list for the committee. Madigan himself tops the list, in addition to former ComEd executives including former CEO Anne Pramaggiore, Fidel Marquez and John Hooker. The witness list also includes Madigan consigliere Michael McClain, former Chicago Ald. Michael Zalewski and former ComEd lobbyist Jay Doherty.
They’re also seeking documents, emails, text messages and billing records from that same list of people.
The use of such a committee is extremely rare in the Illinois House of Representatives. In 2012, the committee was convened to investigate then-state Rep. Derrick Smith, who refused to resign his position after being criminally charged with accepting a bribe. The House of Representatives eventually voted to expel Smith.
As recently as Friday, prosecutors filed a count of bribery against ComEd’s former chief lobbyist. The type of court filing indicates that Marquez is cooperating with prosecutors.
Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.
Editor’s note: In the interest of full disclosure, ComEd is a WBEZ underwriter.