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Some possible holes in the defense

Monday, Mar 20, 2023 - Posted by Rich Miller

* My weekly syndicated newspaper column

ComEd has long been a source of political patronage. The company’s deferred prosecution agreement with federal prosecutors even references how former House Speaker Michael Madigan’s “old-fashioned patronage system” obtained ComEd meter reader jobs for its precinct workers.

Madigan’s wasn’t the only patronage network to do this. It was a widespread practice and, as old-timers tell it, became even more important when Mayor Harold Washington, Chicago’s first Black mayor, cut some prominent white politicians out of the city’s patronage spoils.

Madigan came up through a city ward system that was fed by patronage. But his people would always say that because he started his career as an employee of the Illinois Commerce Commission, he didn’t much care for utility companies. So, when ComEd did things like fire a bunch of his Statehouse lobbyist allies during a 2007 battle with Senate President Emil Jones and Gov. Rod Blagojevich, he liked them even less.

After Blagojevich and Jones departed the scene, Madigan was left as the unrivaled Statehouse king. ComEd bent over backward to get into his good graces, and Madigan seemed, at least from a distance, to enjoy the groveling. It helped that Madigan’s own members complained at the time that the company’s services had deteriorated and that ComEd wasn’t respecting them when they complained. Madigan couldn’t have squeezed the company if his members loved ComEd.

The company eventually got much of what it wanted, but it always had to jump through Madigan’s many hoops, even more so than other interests did. Eventually, those hoops included things like funding no-show contracts for Madigan cronies through various folks in Madigan’s circle.

ComEd wasn’t alone, of course. Madigan’s crew put the arm on plenty of special interests. He would often bring hand-written lists of people he wanted taken care of to his meetings with governors. He was running a small army, and his soldiers required sustenance.

ComEd stood out partly because it often needed things, and because of its patronage history and because it had so many jobs and so much money for contracts. It was the old Willie Sutton story. When the notorious criminal was asked why he robbed banks, he reportedly said, “Because that’s where the money is.”

And Madigan’s top lieutenant Mike McClain made sure ComEd’s key executives never forgot that Madigan could turn on them at any moment and the company would go right back into the penalty box. They complied mainly because they didn’t want any trouble, and when that compliance led to legislative successes, that, in turn, helped their own careers.

It was likely no accident that, after working closely with Madigan and McClain, ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore was being paid $2.7 million a year, according to Crain’s Chicago Business. Pramaggiore is now on trial in the “ComEd 4” bribery case, along with McClain and lobbyists Jay Doherty and John Hooker, a former ComEd official.

The federal government claims that their behavior crossed numerous legal boundaries. The defendants claim, in part, that this was simply the way things were always done.

But times changed, and Madigan’s demands became ever-more voracious while the feds were listening in. It was almost like making a U-turn in front of a police squad car. They’re gonna get you for that.

If McClain had any doubt that the feds were looking at both him and Madigan, it should’ve been confirmed when he decided to cooperate with their investigation into a fraudulent scheme involving a federal immigration program that granted visas to millionaire foreign investors. The feds asked him at the time, for instance, why he used code words when speaking or writing emails about Madigan.

“McClain admitted that he ‘referred to Madigan as our friend in e-mails and in public conversations because people might be listening to or reading McClain’s conversations,’” the government claimed in a court filing last month.

The defendants also claim that the federal government essentially shoe-horned whatever they found into a vast criminal conspiracy case. They saw what they wanted to see, McClain’s defense attorney Patrick Cotter told jurors.

But the prosecution claims that Madigan could kill any bill he wanted to kill. So, Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Streicker told jurors last week, according to the Chicago Tribune, “The defendants bribed him, and they did so by paying Madigan’s associates through jobs and contracts at ComEd.”

And he did indeed get a whole lot of those.

* Keep in mind that Anne Pramaggiore’s defense attorney used the same approach with his opening remarks

Scott Lassar, Pramaggiore’s defense attorney, told the jury that his client was well aware that Madigan was only concerned with his political well-being.

“Anne knew, and others knew at ComEd, that Mike Madigan was only concerned with one thing, and that was staying in power, staying the Speaker of the House, staying has head of the Democratic Party,” Lassar said. “Anne knew that Mike Madigan was not a friend of ComEd, never was and never would be. And she was right.”

But that may have played right into the hands of Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Streicker, who essentially said that Madigan’s reluctance to help ComEd was the reason for the alleged bribery.

* Meanwhile, this is from the Tribune’s weekend story

At that meeting, which was video recorded, Marquez tells McClain he’s worried that new ComEd CEO Joseph Dominguez, a former federal prosecutor, might raise alarms when he sees how much money is being paid on a monthly basis.

“I forget the amount, Mike, but it’s a monthly amount,” Marquez said, according to a transcript in court records. “Equal to a yearly amount, and it’s a pretty hefty amount.”

McClain responded it was “168 grand” just for Madigan’s associates, plus “probably 10 grand a month at least” for Doherty himself.

Later in the conversation, McClain said, “If that hour (Dominguez) got his ex-prosecutor hat on, he’s gonna say we can’t do this,” according to the transcript. “It’s very possible that that’s what his reaction is going to be, and then I think you have to have, at least I’d ask you to recommend that, ‘Before you do anything, can McClain and you have a sit-down?’”

Does that look to you like McClain knew or at least suspected that what they were doing was or could be construed as being illegal?

       

20 Comments
  1. - Perrid - Monday, Mar 20, 23 @ 9:24 am:

    His lawyers are going to have to lean on “could be construed as”, they’re going to have to say that McLain thought it was legal and just had to “convince” everyone else it was kosher as well.

    I don’t see that working, I’m certainly not convinced, but I don’t see any other way they could play it.


  2. - Friendly Bob Adams - Monday, Mar 20, 23 @ 9:35 am:

    The question to me is: Why would anyone assume that everyone else will keep their mouth shut? Everybody should know that everybody’s in it for themselves.


  3. - Rabid - Monday, Mar 20, 23 @ 9:36 am:

    Favors for democrats. Somebody somebody sent


  4. - Homebody - Monday, Mar 20, 23 @ 9:41 am:

    I don’t practice criminal law, but the number of cases I’ve been involved with where people admit, in writing often, that they know or suspect they are doing something wrong/illegal/in violation of a contract/etc. is wildly high.


  5. - Back to the Future - Monday, Mar 20, 23 @ 10:01 am:

    The Sunday Sun Times article on the ComEd4 and Madigan case is really worth a read and also worth passing along to other friends that may not know much about the history of patronage politics that served as background that got this court case moving.
    Lot’s of different opinions on why the USDA pursued these defendants and whether or not these alleged activities are crimes. Of course one should read the entire article to put things in context, but the comment “It was almost like doing a u turn in front of a police squad car” caught my attention. That sentence really brought a lot of clarity to the why these defendants are in court.
    The writing kinda put me in a Time Machine moment when I was a paperboy reading a writer in the old Daily News that was also able explain something in a sentence.
    Really good writing - Thanks .


  6. - Rich Miller - Monday, Mar 20, 23 @ 10:06 am:

    ===Of course one should read the entire article to put things in context===

    Um, that’s the “article” (it’s actually my column) that is posted here. In full.

    People, you gotta go beyond the headlines.

    But thanks.


  7. - Back to the Future - Monday, Mar 20, 23 @ 10:12 am:

    Knew it was one your articles- read them every week.
    I just appreciate the Times giving readers a chance to learn a lot the comings and going in Springfield.


  8. - low level - Monday, Mar 20, 23 @ 10:18 am:

    McClain absolutely suspected but there was more to it then that. People need to realize that Madigan and McClain came up right when the Paul Powell cash / bribery became public. In that context, as long as you werent getting cash bribes, it was perfectly fine and legal to help friends get contracts and jobs. They weren’t benefitting financially as Powell (and others) did when they took an outright cash bribe. That was their mindset imo.

    For more background on old school patronage politics, any book by Len O’Connor or Milton Rakove is good.

    As for this being “a democrat thing”, I guess you aren’t familiar with the DuPage County Republican Party under Pate Philip. They did this as well if not better than the Cook County Dems…


  9. - Donnie Elgin - Monday, Mar 20, 23 @ 10:19 am:

    “Does that look to you like McClain knew or at least suspected that what they were doing was or could be construed as being illegal?”

    Of course, the whole bribery and influence-selling scheme was illegal from the start. McClain using colorful and vague language simply reinforces that idea.


  10. - Annonin' - Monday, Mar 20, 23 @ 10:32 am:

    “So, when ComEd did things like fire a bunch of his Statehouse lobbyist allies during a 2007 battle with Senate President Emil Jones and Gov. Rod Blagojevich, he liked them even less.”
    ….this was the spat that led to legislation mandating ComEd, Ameren and others refund $1 Billion to customers, creating the Illinois Power Authority and the renewable energy portfolio.
    It also reflects an awareness that ComEd had a 40 plus year history of hiring various workers from the government realm for many unspecific purposes.


  11. - cermak_rd - Monday, Mar 20, 23 @ 10:37 am:

    This patronage army, what was it used for? I can’t imagine knocking on doors and handing out palm cards is that influential in today’s social media society.
    I go out to vote every election whether I get a knock at the door, “literature” in the mail and find the palm card handers out annoying (I am however polite and accept with a smile). I voted for Lisa Madigan, for instance, not because she was on my palmcard but because Birkett was a jerk and looked like a railroader.


  12. - Hannibal Lecter - Monday, Mar 20, 23 @ 10:39 am:

    === This patronage army, what was it used for? ===

    To win elections.


  13. - low level - Monday, Mar 20, 23 @ 10:47 am:

    ==This patronage army, what was it used for?==

    Read Clout by Len O’Connor or We Dont Want Nobody Nobody Sent by Milton Rakove. Those are the two inside accounts.


  14. - Three Dimensional Checkers - Monday, Mar 20, 23 @ 10:51 am:

    I am surprised and not surprised to see the arrogance on display from McClain and others. I know where it comes from, but man they really jumped the shark with this.


  15. - levivotedforjudy - Monday, Mar 20, 23 @ 11:03 am:

    If you worked in IL government, government affairs, advocacy, etc.. and compared notes with colleagues in other states, IL was different. It was our normal. Now with JB, Harman and Welch, we are more like other states and it is weird. Pleasantly weird.


  16. - Candy Dogood - Monday, Mar 20, 23 @ 11:05 am:

    ===The defendants claim, in part, that this was simply the way things were always done.===

    This is really not a defense that I would want to rely on.

    ===I can’t imagine knocking on doors and handing out palm cards is that influential in today’s social media society.===

    You’re referencing things that didn’t really exist before the 2008 cycle in any meaningful fashion.

    ===I go out to vote every election whether I get a knock at the door===

    You’ve found your way to Rich’s blog. You are probably not representative of a voter that GOTV drives are hoping to turn out. The Democratic Party of Illinois has historically had shockingly few employees getting their salaries reported and that’s something that should have been a red flag for everyone considering how other state parties operate.

    ===because she was on my palmcard but because Birkett was a jerk and looked like a railroader. ===

    No one really is comfortable with admitting their political actions were influenced by a piece of mail or an ad they saw on television. We prefer to think our positions or support for a candidate is consistent with however we view ourselves and our decision making process rather than acknowledge anything that might make us feel inconsistent.

    How our society functions is changing so things that worked in 2008 may not work in 2028, but that doesn’t mean relying on unpaid full time workers who did election work in order to keep or get jobs wasn’t a successful strategy for decades.

    Good Golly, look at the Thompson administration or those stories you hear about people spending tens of thousands of dollars on political contributions to secure their promotions.


  17. - Amalia - Monday, Mar 20, 23 @ 11:40 am:

    to the question, yes, yes it does.


  18. - Chris - Monday, Mar 20, 23 @ 12:34 pm:

    “ The defendants claim, in part, that this was simply the way things were always done.”

    That’s an Illinois slant rhyme to the Nuremberg defense. “My political mentor told me this is the way to get things done.”


  19. - Friendly Bob Adams - Monday, Mar 20, 23 @ 1:13 pm:

    Haven’t seen a Len O’Connor reference in a million years.


  20. - Tim - Monday, Mar 20, 23 @ 1:45 pm:

    === I can’t imagine knocking on doors and handing out palm cards is that influential in today’s social media society. ===

    And I can’t imagine it _not_ being influential in a world where so many are turned off by what they see online and on TV.

    Ground game is where elections are won and lost, especially locally. It is Brandon Johnson’s best hope in the mayor’s race.


Sorry, comments for this post are now closed.


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