Despite repeatedly promising to be “independent” of longtime Democratic boss Michael Madigan, first-term Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker filled many prominent roles in his administration with people recommended by the state House speaker and party chairman, a WBEZ investigation has revealed.
As Pritzker won the election in 2018 and was sworn into office last year, Madigan’s office sent him the names of scores of job seekers and the positions in state government they desired. Madigan’s successful recommendations far outnumbered those from other legislative leaders, with records showing the new governor made nearly three dozen hires and board appointments off the speaker’s clout list.
Illinois taxpayers are paying those Madigan-endorsed public officials a total of more than $2.5 million a year, according to WBEZ's analysis of Madigan's recommendations, which were obtained through public records requests.
Among the hires made at Madigan’s urging were some of the highest-ranking officials in the new Pritzker administration, including Illinois Commerce Commission head Carrie Zalewski.
Madigan recommended Zalewski to the governor, and Pritzker put her in charge of the ICC — which regulates public utilities such as Commonwealth Edison. She has remained in that position as federal investigators conduct an ongoing criminal probe into the giant power company’s ties to the speaker’s allies.
The top-level Pritzker appointees whose names appeared on the long list of Madigan favorites also include three directors of Illinois government departments, the state’s superintendent of education, the heads of the workers compensation and human rights commissions and two aides in the governor’s office.
Pritzker is free to appoint whomever he wishes for many of these positions, which are exempt from restrictions on hiring or firing based on political ties. And in a statement Thursday, the governor’s office defended his picks, saying “almost all” who were recommended by Madigan were “extremely qualified” for their state jobs.
But the pattern of Madigan-recommended hires revealed by WBEZ undercuts Pritzker’s long-running attempts to distance himself from Madigan. The speaker’s vast efforts to influence the personnel decisions of the new administration provides a sharp contrast to Pritzker’s repeated campaign promises to be his own man once elected to the Governor’s Mansion.
Madigan’s spokesman did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment
In their statement to WBEZ on Thursday, the governor’s aides suggested Madigan does not deserve credit for the hiring of the many state officials he recommended.
“The notion that the speaker compiled a list of well-known people, some of whom were already being interviewed by our team before their inclusion on any list and were then hired in our administration, somehow impacts the Governor’s ability to remain independent is just deeply misguided and ignores the fact that the people listed are the same people many others could have easily named and did name as qualified candidates,” reads the statement from the governor’s office.
Pritzker’s pledges of independence
Pritzker entered the 2018 gubernatorial campaign as the multibillionaire heir to a hotel fortune with a long track record in business. But he had no background in elected office. In his campaign for the Democratic nomination and in the general election against incumbent Republican Bruce Rauner, Pritzker vowed to change the notoriously corrupt political culture in Springfield.
Hewing to that reform-themed campaign message required Pritzker to continuously fend off suggestions he was too closely connected to Madigan, a career politician and Southwest Side ward boss who has been one of the most powerful figures in the state for decades.
Madigan has been the speaker of the Illinois House for all but two years since 1983, making him the longest-serving legislative leader in the country’s history. He’s also the longtime chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party.
In the 2018 election campaign, Pritzker faced rivals’ allegations that Madigan secretly supported him.
During a Democratic candidate forum in the fall of 2017, Pritzker dodged questions about his ties to Madigan, saying, “There is nobody who is supporting me that is going to have an effect on my views.” The comment drew laughter from the crowd at that event.
Then, at a candidate debate in January 2018, Pritzker said, “I’ve been an independent leader, an independent thinker my entire life, and that won’t change when I become governor. There are things that I’ll agree with the speaker of the house about, and things that I’ll disagree with the speaker of the house.”
During the campaign, Pritzker said he supported term limits on legislative leaders and taking away legislative map-making power from Madigan. Neither of those reform proposals have come to fruition — or even been seriously debated — since Pritzker took office.
Emails obtained recently by WBEZ show Madigan sought to promote his picks for state government positions almost immediately after Pritzker defeated Rauner and even before Pritzker took the oath of office in January 2019.
“Recommendations for New Administration”
Earlier this year, WBEZ filed Freedom of Information Act requests for correspondences between top Pritzker aides and Madigan’s chief of staff since the governor’s inauguration. The documents yielded by the requests included a series of lists of job seekers that Madigan wanted to place in positions in the Pritzker administration.
In December 2018, the first of the emails with these lists attached – titled “Recommendations for New Administration” — was sent by top Madigan aide Jessica Basham to Pritzker chief of staff Anne Caprara and another top aide in the governor’s office, Nikki Budzinski.
Initially, the speaker recommended 35 people “for permanent placement.” Over the next few months, Madigan’s office sent 17 “updated” lists with an ever-increasing number of job requests, ultimately lodging a total of nearly 80 recommendations.
Soon after JB Pritzker was elected Illinois governor and in the first months of his administration, state House Speaker Michael Madigan’s top aide forwarded scores of job recommendations to Pritzker’s aides. Nearly half of them would land positions in state government. Pritzker administration officials deleted the names of those who did not get jobs from this document, which was provided to WBEZ in response to a request under the Illinois public records law.
WBEZ compared the clout lists from Madigan to the state government’s payroll and to Pritzker’s appointments to state boards and commissions. The investigation found that at least 35 people who enjoyed Madigan’s blessing were put into prime spots in state government.
The first name on Madigan’s list for Pritzker was Barbara Flynn Currie, a former Democratic lawmaker from the Hyde Park neighborhood who was the speaker’s top lieutenant in the Illinois House for decades. Months after she retired from the General Assembly last year, Pritzker made her head of the Illinois Pollution Control Board, with an annual salary of nearly $124,000.
She said she spoke with Madigan and knew he had recommended her but believes the governor’s appointment took into account her legislative track record and his own interactions with her.
“I appreciate the recommendation from the speaker, of course,” Currie said. “But I don’t think it was something where he clouted me into the job.”
Currie’s husband created the pollution control board and was its first chairman 50 years ago.
Two former Republicans and two Pritzker aides
Others who got jobs or appointments from Pritzker after being recommended by Madigan included:
David Harris, Pritzker’s $168,000-a-year director of the Department of Revenue. Harris was a Republican state representative from Arlington Heights who broke ranks with Rauner and other Republicans in 2017 and sided with Madigan to end a long budget impasse between the speaker and the then-governor. In a statement Thursday, a spokesperson for Harris said his appointment by Pritzker “represents bipartisanship and expertise within the administration,” but they did not say whether he had discussed the opening with Madigan.
Steve Andersson, another former GOP state House member who joined with Madigan’s Democratic caucus in the 2017 budget vote. Andersson is now paid about $122,000 a year to serve on the Illinois Human Rights Commission.
Tiffany Newbern-Johnson, a former Madigan aide who became deputy chief of staff in Pritzker’s office.
Sam LaPaille, another aide in the governor’s office. LaPaille’s father was a Democratic lawmaker and Madigan’s first chief of staff and his grandfather was a top precinct captain for the speaker’s 13th Ward Democratic organization.
Jim Bennett, the $135,600-a-year director of the Illinois Department of Human Rights. State Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, brought Bennett to the attention of Madigan’s office, records show.
Shirley Madigan, the speaker’s wife, who was retained as head of the Illinois Arts Council.
Jerry Costello II, who was recommended for and appointed to be director of law enforcement for the state Department of Natural Resources. He’s since been promoted to director of the Department of Agriculture.
Carmen Ayala, who is paid nearly $250,000 as superintendent of education for the state. According to Madigan’s clout list, Ayala had the backing of Democratic legislator Lisa Hernandez, the Illinois House assistant majority leader from Cicero. Before being appointed, Ayala had made campaign contributions to Hernandez.
Sam Toia, the president and CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association. Pritzker put Toia on the state’s Employment Security Board of Review, which hears appeals of state decisions on unemployment claims. He gets paid $15,600 a year for the part-time role.
Toia said this week he spoke directly with Pritzker twice and offered to serve his administration in some capacity but never discussed it with Madigan.
“I have no idea how I ended up on that list,” Toia told WBEZ. “It’s probably because of my qualifications. I would hope it was that.”
Others on Madigan’s list soon got positions from Pritzker on the boards of the University of Illinois, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, the state liquor control commission, the tollway authority, the labor relations panel, the civil service commission, the Illinois Medical District and the Illinois International Port District.
Madigan confidant’s hometown favorites
Pritzker also took action in favor of two state officials recommended to him by Madigan at the suggestion of the speaker’s longtime close friend and political adviser Michael McClain, according to records obtained by WBEZ.
McClain — who was a highly influential lobbyist in Springfield for ComEd and many other big corporate clients for decades — prodded Madigan to push for jobs for two men from his hometown of Quincy.
Federal agents raided McClain’s home in Quincy in May 2019, as part of the ongoing investigation of ComEd’s efforts to influence Springfield lawmakers. WBEZ was the first to report last year that federal authorities are looking into allegations ComEd hired politically connected consultants — some with ties to Madigan — in exchange for favorable legislative actions, such as electricity-rate increases. Nobody has been charged with wrongdoing.
With backing from Madigan and McClain, Troy Culbertson kept his job as superintendent of the state home for veterans in Quincy, despite the change in the governor’s office.
Culbertson took over a year after a fatal 2015 Legionnaires’ disease outbreak killed 15 residents at the home, and there have been repeated outbreaks in subsequent years. The state’s mishandling of the crisis was the subject of a years-long WBEZ investigation and several independent investigations, including an open criminal probe.
McClain and Madigan also recommended former Quincy Ald. Daniel Brink to Pritzker. In April 2019, the governor gave Brink a nearly $88,000-a-year appointment to the state’s parole board.
McClain did not return messages seeking comment this week.
He told WBEZ in January that federal investigators had asked him to cooperate with them, but he suggested that he would not be willing to do so. As a former state representative who has known Madigan for roughly 50 years, McClain is one of several with close ties to the speaker who have seen their homes or offices raided by the feds in the past 13 months.
A spokesman for U.S. Attorney John Lausch, whose office is conducting the ongoing investigation into ComEd, declined to comment this week.
Madigan pick oversees ComEd
Besides McClain’s house in Quincy, the feds also searched the Southwest Side home of former Chicago Ald. Michael R. Zalewski, who sought consulting work with ComEd.
The ex-alderman’s son, Michael J. Zalewski, is a Democratic state representative in Madigan’s caucus and is married to Carrie Zalewski, who became the ICC head under Pritzker.
Madigan recommended her for the ICC in December 2018, the emails show. And Pritzker appointed her to a five-year term as chairwoman on April 15, 2019.
The state Senate then confirmed Carrie Zalewski’s appointment on May 31, 2019. That vote came a couple weeks after the federal search of her father-in-law’s home, although the FBI’s visit to Zalewski did not become publicly known until WBEZ and the Better Government Association revealed it in July 2019.
Carrie Zalewski’s position at the ICC pays about $137,000 a year, records show.
The governor’s office said she was appointed because she is “a highly qualified attorney and state regulator who is accomplished and well-respected in her field.”
Through the ICC’s spokeswoman, Carrie Zalewski declined an interview request. In a statement, the agency said she got the top post there “on her own merits.”
“To suggest otherwise ignores the experience and qualifications that qualify her to be chairman,” the ICC said, citing Carrie Zalewski’s nine-year tenure as a “fair and independent regulator” at the Illinois Pollution Control Board.
But the ICC appointment was not the first time Madigan had sought to boost Carrie Zalewski’s career. According to emails from 2014 between McClain and Madigan’s top aide, the speaker had a “special interest” in urging then-Gov. Rauner to keep Carrie Zalewski in the spot she had at that time on the Pollution Control Board.
Consumer-protection activists who want to end ComEd’s near-monopoly over providing electricity to northern Illinois said they are “appalled but not surprised that Carrie Zalewski was recommended to Gov. Pritzker by Speaker Madigan.
“ComEd’s business model relies on favorable relationships with regulators like the ICC to ensure they get the best possible deal, even if it’s at the expense of ratepayers,” said Liz Kantor, a co-coordinator of the Democratize ComEd campaign. “Clearly a system where regulators are clandestinely appointed by friends of the companies being regulated is not one that is operating in the public interest.”
A spokesman for ComEd declined to comment. The utility’s executives have said they are cooperating with the federal investigation.
Recommendations from lawmakers who later got indicted
Madigan recommended far more people who got hired by the Pritzker administration than any other leading Illinois politician, according to the records that the governor’s office provided in response to WBEZ’s requests.
The Democratic president of the Illinois Senate at the time Pritzker took office was John Cullerton of Chicago’s North Side. Cullerton’s office recommended just three people. Two were not hired and one was chosen for an unpaid board position. The former Senate president declined to comment this week.
The leader of the Republican minority in the Illinois Senate, Bill Brady of Bloomington, asked the new governor to appoint 11 people “who I believe are qualified and appropriate candidates” to serve on boards and commissions. Just two of them were chosen.
Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs forwarded one resume to the Pritzker administration, but that person did not get hired.
Aides to Brady and Durkin said they declined to comment.
Two other prominent lawmakers who later faced federal corruption charges also had some involvement in the board appointment process in the Pritzker administration, the records show.
Then-state Rep. Luis Arroyo, a Democrat from Chicago’s Northwest Side, got a resume from former Cook County Circuit Court Judge Gloria Chevere in May, and Arroyo relayed it to top Pritzker aide Christian Mitchell seven minutes later.
The governor placed Chevere on the board of the Chicago Transit Authority in September, less than two months before Arroyo was charged with bribery and resigned from the legislature.
State Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Cicero, turned in the resume of Cesar Santoy, an architect and alderman from Berwyn, in February 2019.
Two weeks later, Pritzker picked Santoy for the tollway board. But later in the year, Santoy resigned, at Pritzker’s insistence, because his name and his company were mentioned in a search warrant used to raid Sandoval’s office at the Illinois Capitol in September.
Sandoval pleaded guilty to bribery and tax evasion and is cooperating with federal corruption investigators.
Pritzker’s aides say the feds “have not asked our office anything regarding their investigations into Arroyo or Sandoval.”
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Follow him @dmihalopoulos. State politics reporters Tony Arnold and Dave McKinney contributed.