SPRINGFIELD — “Implicated but not charged.”
That’s how Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan was described in news story after news story since federal prosecutors and Commonwealth Edison entered into a plea deal Friday.
In a nutshell, ComEd, the huge utility serving Chicago and much of northern Illinois, has admitted to bribing Madigan, and has agreed to pay $200 million and to cooperate with federal investigators for at least the next three years.
But no Commonwealth Edison executives are going to prison.
When I see a prosecutor choose not to nail a guilty executive’s pelt to the wall there’s a reason and it is usually because they are aiming higher.
And by now, it should be obvious U.S. Attorney John Lausch wants to take down Madigan, the longest-serving state House speaker in U.S. history.
Madigan, through a spokesperson, said he is innocent.
For decades, Madigan has been the most powerful person in the state. But assertions of wrongdoing have swirled around the speaker like flies buzzing around a carcass.
Despite this, he’s always been able to claim the two words synonymous with the Illinois version of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval: Never Indicted.
“Mike Madigan is the glue that holds the Illinois Democratic Party together. If we lose him, we are in big, big trouble. But I think Mike Madigan is a whole lot smarter than those going after him. When this is over, he’s going to stick it right up their fannies,” said Denny Jacobs, a Democrat and former state lawmaker from East Moline.
I began covering Madigan in 1987 and I’ve watched his power and arrogance grow decade by decade.
It’s never been a secret in Springfield that House Speaker Mike Madigan helped his supporters get jobs with Commonwealth Edison. It’s been going on for years.
Prosecutors would have us believe that ComEd did this to curry favor with Madigan who in turn would support the utility’s legislative agenda.
At the heart of the utility’s corrupt lobbying practices is the way in which it bestowed contracts and subcontracts on Madigan’s supporters, between 2011 and 2019. The feds contend Madigan allies were paid handsomely but often did little to no work for the power company.
Much is at stake when the utility asks Madigan for help.
For example, in 2016, the Madigan-led House gave the green light for ComEd’s corporate parent, Exelon, to hit its customers with as much as a $2.3 billion, 10-year rate increase to subsidize two of Exelon’s financially struggling nuclear plants just north of the Quad-Cities.
Several years ago, a former federal prosecutor shared that it is difficult to investigate Madigan because he doesn’t use email and often uses long-time aides as intermediaries.
When the former fed shared this with me over lunch, I couldn’t help but remember a quote from long-ago Louisiana governor, Earl Long: “Don’t write anything you can phone. Don’t phone anything you can talk. Don’t talk anything you can whisper. Don’t whisper anything you can smile. Don’t smile anything you can nod. Don’t nod anything you can wink.”
Charles Wheeler III, a longtime statehouse reporter and Illinois political observer, has known Madigan since the 1960’s. He is skeptical that Madigan will be charged with any wrongdoing.
“My take is the prosecutors have thrown this out there without actually charging Madigan to see what shakes loose,” he said.
But Jim Nowlan, a long-time statehouse political observer, said what sets this scandal apart from others is its size and the level of arrogance involved.
A document released by prosecutors alleges that Madigan successfully sought to name a board member to ComEd’s Board of Directors.
“Who is so arrogant as to think they can name someone to the board of a corporation like Commonwealth Edison? The size of this is big, federal prosecutors had to do something,” Nowlan said.
But Wheeler anticipates Madigan will weather the storm.
Short of a conviction, Madigan will likely continue to be elected speaker, he said.
Wheeler said this despite more than a dozen Democratic House members reportedly saying the speaker should resign “If the allegations are true.”
“That’s a pretty big caveat they have given themselves – “if the allegations are true.” Unless something like that were to be proven in court against Madigan, I expect he will be reelected.”