Political scandals make for great TV.
And the unfolding corruption scheme involving utility giant Commonwealth Edison seems ready-made for a dramatically scored Netflix documentary. There’s the all-knowing political boss, wiretaps, bribes and a massive, faceless corporation reaping the benefits – at the cost of the regular Joe.
But actual legal cases can be pretty boring.
The indictment unveiled last week against four former top ComEd executives and lobbyists is a slog for even the most earnest citizen. Weighing in at 50 pages, the charging document is leaden with legalese and less-than-clever nicknames for its cast of anonymous players. (Try not to confuse “Individual 13W-3” with “Individual 23W-1” or “Individual BM-1.”)
TLDR: The feds say the four defendants orchestrated a scheme to influence the man who has long been Springfield’s most powerful politician – House Speaker and state Democratic Party Chair Michael Madigan. He has not been charged and vehemently denies wrongdoing. The four defendants also say they’ve done nothing wrong.
But ComEd has already admitted to hiring Madigan’s political allies and paying them to do little or no work. What’s more, the company admits it did that all to please the speaker, so he’d back lucrative Springfield legislation benefiting ComEd, including electricity rate hikes.
Alas, this isn’t fiction, and it has real-world consequences. Here’s how this larger-than-life scandal has directly touched your lives – and your pocketbooks.
Yes, it has affected your monthly power bill.
ComEd is a state-regulated utility, which means lawmakers and bureaucrats decide how much the power company is allowed to charge for delivering your electricity. Thanks to ComEd’s state-granted near-monopoly, more than 4 million homes and businesses – 70% of Illinois’ population – largely don’t have a choice when it comes to paying a monthly bill to the company.
ComEd has long employed an army of influential lobbyists to advance its interests in Springfield – many of them with ties to Madigan. The feds say the utility’s agents arranged the bribery scheme to influence Madigan from 2011 until 2019, when agents raided the homes and offices of several people with ties to the speaker.
During that stretch, ComEd also had some big legislative wins in the statehouse. They were wins that increased the utility’s profits – and your monthly costs. Now federal prosecutors are highlighting those measures in their corruption cases against ComEd, its former executives and its lobbyists.
If you want to see how all of this can impact you, just take a look at your ComEd bill.
In 2011, state lawmakers approved so-called Smart Grid legislation. ComEd says that has increased reliability and service, and expanded energy efficiency programs. It also baked in rate increases for customers, which affects the “delivery” section on page 2 of your ComEd bill, circled above in green.
Not coincidentally, the state-approved revenue that ComEd gets from providing electricity to you has risen dramatically in the past decade. The feds said as much in the new indictment, noting that the law “helped improve ComEd’s financial stability.”
Then in 2016, ComEd won approval for another piece of lucrative Springfield legislation called the Future Energy Jobs Act, or FEJA. According to the power company’s July 17 agreement with the feds and Wednesday’s indictment, FEJA represented “a renewal of the regulatory process that was beneficial to ComEd.”
It also let ComEd’s parent company, Exelon, take in another $235 million a year from customers to bail out its financially ailing nuclear power plants in downstate Illinois. The subsidy from rate-payers is supposed to last for a decade and will provide more than $2 billion to Exelon.
You can find that line-item on your monthly bill, labeled “Zero Emission Standard,” circled above in red.
In this week’s indictment, prosecutors allege ComEd’s point-person on ushering FEJA through the legislature also was told to help ensure the utility renewed its contract with a law firm run by a Madigan political ally.
Both bills were passed at the same time ComEd’s long-running bribery scheme was going on – a scheme ComEd itself has admitted was an “effort to influence and reward [Madigan’s] efforts, as Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives, to assist ComEd with respect to legislation concerning ComEd and its business.”
It’s your government – and your money
So how exactly are you, a normal Illinoisan, paying for this scheme?
In a few ways.
First off, public officials get paid with your tax dollars. House Speaker Michael Madigan – who, it bears repeating, has not been charged, denies wrongdoing and says he knew nothing about ComEd’s scheme to influence him – makes nearly $97,000 a year for being a state representative and legislative leader, according to the state comptroller’s office. The base salary for Illinois state lawmakers is a little less than $70,000 a year.
Secondly, ComEd has admitted to paying big money to politically-connected subcontractors with ties to Madigan, even though they performed “little or no work for ComEd.” While it’s illegal to use ratepayer money for political expenses, such as lobbying, it’s not illegal to use ratepayer money to hire contractors.
To cover up the scheme and make it look like these payments were for legit contracts (not political bribery), the feds allege that ComEd funneled the money to Madigan’s allies through a consultancy run by a prominent Chicagoan – former City Club President Jay Doherty – sometimes to the tune of nearly $70,000 a month. Last week’s indictment alleges some of that money was allotted to two unnamed former Chicago aldermen, whom WBEZ has identified as Frank Olivo and Michael R. Zalewski. Neither have been charged; Doherty denies wrongdoing.
Finally, political corruption schemes like the one ComEd copped to come with a third, invaluable cost: your trust. That’s supposed to be the foundation of government in America. Sure, that sounds sappy, but think about it: Once enough people stop trusting in our system of government, they’ll stop abiding by it. And a government ignored is no government at all.
Michael Madigan is a big deal
It’s hard to overstate the mythology that’s grown around Madigan in Illinois political circles.
As speaker of the Illinois House, Madigan has the tremendous power to decide what bills do – or do not – get voted on. And as the chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois, he’s wielded authority over who can – or can’t – get elected in our deeply blue state.
He’s been able to work both of those levers in concert to exert extraordinary (but not total) control over the government of America’s sixth-most-populous state.
And so, warranted or not, Madigan has attained an Oz-like status in Springfield. With nearly four decades gripping the gavel, he’s the longest-serving speaker of any House – state or federal – in American history. Love him or hate him, he’s someone you’ve had to do business with.
Think of the towering milestones Illinois has passed while Madigan has been in power, some of which he helped construct. The abolition of the death penalty. The advent of casino gambling. The gargantuan pension crisis. The legalization of marijuana. The impeachment and conviction of corrupt ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich. These are all things that have touched the lives or wallets of every Illinoisan.
So consider: How might your life be different if such an influential figure as Michael J. Madigan had not been in power at such pivotal moments? What might have happened differently?
Or perhaps, as Madigan faces the very real prospect of losing the speakership he’s held for decades, the question may be: What happens next?
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that it was an Exelon company that received benefits from the 2016 FEJA legislation to bolster its nuclear power plants. The story and graphics have been updated to clarify which part of a ComEd bill is affected by the 2011 legislation.
Alex Keefe is an editor on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Follow him @akeefe. Investigative reporter Dan Mihalopoulos contributed.