Federal prosecutors have given Springfield lawmakers investigating House Speaker Michael Madigan the all-clear to call witnesses and request documents — so long as they steer clear of asking for procedural details about the criminal probe into utility Commonwealth Edison.
In a letter to lawmakers Thursday, U.S. Attorney John Lausch said his office does not “object generally” to the committee members calling forward people connected to the federal investigation. He said witnesses would be allowed to tell lawmakers the same information they told the feds, but not about whether that information also was shared with prosecutors or a grand jury.
Lausch also left open the possibility that his office might stifle the lawmakers’ inquiry down the road.
“We might raise objections to particular testimony or document requests as the [committee’s] and our investigations proceed, including objections to testimony and to the production of documents from parties the [committee] has already named, but we are not asserting such objections at this time,” he wrote.
Lausch also said the House investigative panel can’t ask the feds themselves to produce any information about their probe, and suggested he might also object to any requests that could compromise cooperating witnesses in the case.
In July, ComEd admitted it gave jobs and contracts to associates of Madigan in exchange for favorable legislative action. That shocking admission prompted House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, of Western Springs, to convene a rarely-used House committee and to charge Madigan with having engaged in conduct unbecoming of a legislator.
The question of whether the panel would be able to call witnesses and request documents amidst an active federal criminal probe is central to how lawmakers proceed with their own investigation of Madigan, who could face discipline or even removal from office.
But there remain very different — and partisan — takeaways from Lausch’s guidance that will affect the tenacity with which the House panel will conduct its investigation into Madigan, who also chairs the state’s Democratic Party. The committee is evenly split between three Democrats and three Republicans.
State Rep. Chris Welch, D-Hillside, chairs the House panel and has accused Republicans of “using the committee as a political stunt.”
“Lausch’s letter today confirms our understanding that while this committee can call individuals to voluntarily appear, they would be limited in what they can discuss,” Welch said in a statement. “In particular, information underlying the deferred prosecution agreement beyond what is already public could be met with objection by federal investigators, and any further information collected by the federal government that informed that agreement is explicitly off limits.”
But that appears to contradict what Lausch wrote in his own letter Thursday.
“[If] a witness explained certain facts to prosecutors or federal law enforcement agents, we do not object generally to the witness explaining those same facts to the [committee],” he wrote. “We object, however, to questions about whether the witness shared those (or any other) facts with prosecutors or federal law enforcement agents, as such questions could reveal confidential information about the course of our investigation and could deter cooperation with our investigation by that witness and others.”
Republicans, meanwhile, wish to call Madigan, former ComEd executives and former ComEd lobbyists to testify before the committee.
“I have a very different view of our conversation than Chairman Welch,” Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, wrote to Lausch in his own letter dated Wednesday.
“Chairman Welch said that you indicated the Committee could call witnesses, but, in essence, the Committee cannot ask them any relevant questions,” Demmer wrote. “Once again, that is not what I heard you to be saying. While we would not ask them what they discussed with the government, e.g., ‘what did the government tell you about x’ ‘Did you appear before the grand jury,’ the subject areas would be fair game for the [committee’s] witness examination, whether or not they discussed it with you, e.g. ‘What do you know about x,’” Demmer wrote.
The partisan squabbling over calling witnesses and requesting documents will have a big impact on what is fundamentally a political process.
If a majority of the committee – which is split evenly between both parties – does not agree on a certain request, a tie vote results in no action. So a stalemate could prevent the release of potentially embarrassing information about Madigan, just weeks before the Nov. 3 election.
Welch told WBEZ in a text message that he hopes to reconvene the committee on Sept. 28.
Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.