SPRINGFIELD — The federal investigation into utility company ComEd’s lobbying efforts is putting a spotlight on one of the most exclusive rites of passage in Springfield: Democratic lawmakers and top staffers to House Speaker Michael Madigan leaving state government to push the utility giant’s agenda in the halls of the Capitol.
This year alone, the lobbying team for ComEd and parent company Exelon included nine former Democratic lawmakers, including two recent members of Madigan’s leadership team and the daughter of a former Cook County Democratic chairman. Also on the list was a former Madigan political director and two of the speaker’s former legal counsels.
ComEd and Exelon have enjoyed considerable success at the Capitol during the last decade, persuading the General Assembly to approve a smart-grid overhaul and a bailout of the nuclear power plants in Downstate Clinton and the Quad Cities with consumers helping foot the bill.
Those wins took place under Anne Pramaggiore, who led ComEd and was elevated to CEO of Exelon Utilities. The utility employed an army of lobbyists and sprinkled millions of dollars in campaign contributions to legislators, with the companies consistently among the top corporate donors in Illinois.
Pramaggiore abruptly retired last month amid the federal investigation. A source has told the Tribune she is a focus of the probe, and longtime top ComEd lobbyists John Hooker and Fidel Marquez are under scrutiny. Since news of the probe broke, the company has parted ways with several lobbyists, including some with ties to Madigan.
As part of the investigation, authorities are scrutinizing certain ComEd executives and have zeroed in on payments through the company’s vast network of consultants to some individuals who seemed to have done little actual work, the source said. The payments were aimed at currying favor with certain lawmakers while circumventing lobbying disclosure rules, the source added.
Under Illinois law, lobbyists must register with the state and disclose their clients. The idea is that the public has a right to know when lobbyists are seeking to influence the governor, lawmakers and other state officials on whether to support, oppose, modify or delay action on issues and policy matters.
ComEd spokeswoman Jean Medina defended who the company has hired to lobby, saying that educating officials includes “engaging consultants who are experienced and knowledgeable about policymaking in Illinois.”
“Typically, companies who hire lobbyists find that experience comes from working as a legislator or on the legislative staffs of the four leadership caucuses because the caucuses, not the individual legislators, employ virtually all of the policy staff,” Medina said.
Madigan’s own name has popped up on a subpoena and search warrant delivered to the City Club, along with Pramaggiore and others, sources have told the Tribune.
Madigan has declined to address the City Club subpoena. Pressed last week during the fall session on whether he was a target of the federal investigation, Madigan replied: “I’m not a target of anything.”
Even so, the nation’s longest-tenured speaker doesn’t have to look too far to see his associates under federal scrutiny.
In mid-May, authorities raided the home of Michael McClain, a former ComEd lobbyist who spearheaded the company’s Springfield efforts and a close confidant of Madigan. They also raided the home of former 23rd Ward Ald. Michael Zalewski, looking for what a source said was information about efforts to get him ComEd work.
Around the same time, authorities raided the home of Kevin Quinn, the brother of the 13th Ward alderman and a longtime staffer that Madigan ousted last year in a sexual harassment scandal. Quinn may be off Madigan’s state and political payrolls, but the Tribune revealed that some of ComEd’s lobbyists sent him $1,000 checks. Authorities are looking at those payments.
The FBI also executed a search warrant on the Capitol office of Democratic Sen. Martin Sandoval, whose district overlaps with Madigan’s territory. Sandoval hasn’t shown up in Springfield and has not responded to requests for comment. But ComEd and Exelon have acknowledged getting a subpoena about communications with Sandoval, whose daughter works at ComEd.
In the wake of all that, ComEd has shuffled its lobbying lineup in recent months. They’ve separated from Jay Doherty, the City Club president whose compensation listed in federal regulatory records from 2011-18 tallied slightly more than $3.1 million. WBEZ first reported Doherty’s pay.
The company also parted ways with a firm co-owned by 36th Ward Ald. Gilbert Villegas; as well as Heather Wier Vaught, a former legal counsel for the speaker.
ComEd also no longer uses two lobbyists tied to checks written to Quinn, the former Madigan staffer. One of those was former Democratic Rep. John Bradley of Marion, who once served in Madigan’s leadership team. The other was the firm of Will Cousineau, a former Madigan staffer who was a longtime political point person for the speaker’s office.
Medina, the ComEd spokeswoman, said the company regularly reviews its lobbying needs “and make adjustments as necessary, as reflected in our filings."
Lawmaker to lobbyist
The revolving door between the public sector and the special interests is not a new phenomenon in Illinois or elsewhere. But revolving door restrictions in Illinois focus more on making sure executive branch bureaucrats don’t negotiate a contract, set regulations or issue licenses and then suddenly go to work for the company that won state business. The idea is to ensure government employees are making decisions based on the public interest, not their private interests.
Lawmakers and legislative staffers generally don’t fall under those categories or have as many opportunities to do the kind of things that would require a one-year ban from moving from state job to a private sector position.
Democratic Sen. Heather Steans of Chicago plans to revive her effort for a two-year ban for lawmakers and possibly staff from leaving the state payroll and going directly into a lobbying gig to eliminate the potential for conflicts of interest.
Steans’ comments came a day after Gov. J.B. Pritzker said he was “disgusted” by Democrats caught up in federal investigations and proposed broader lobbyist disclosure rules for legislators to be pushed in the final days of the fall session next week.
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ComEd and Exelon have tended to collect lobbyists whose names resonate in the corridors of Springfield, including this year’s lineup that features nine former Democratic lawmakers and five former Republican lawmakers.
ComEd has in-house lobbyists on staff who are company employees. The utility also hires contract lobbyists, who usually have multiple clients.
McClain, the Madigan confidant, was a contract lobbyist. Until recently, so was former Rep. Bradley, a close friend of McClain’s who grabbed some of his clients when he retired. Bradley, a six-term lawmaker, was a member of Madigan’s leadership team, but lost in November 2016, a casualty to a wave of Republican support in southern Illinois for Donald Trump’s presidential bid.
Another notable ComEd contract lobbyist is former Democratic Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Orland Park, who shepherded the power company’s vaunted smart-grid overhaul negotiations in 2011 and left the House soon after.
McCarthy said he reached out to ComEd and some other companies when he quit the House after 15 years, saying he hoped his knowledge of the issues came into play when he landed the contract. He said lobbyists are a “valued part of the process” because they can provide accurate information for lawmakers who need it to make decisions.
McCarthy said he was “shocked” that some ComEd and Exelon figures are under scrutiny and noted it can cut both ways when lawmakers have familiarity with their former colleagues and staffers who become lobbyists.
“Some of the people it helps you with,” he said. “Some of the people it doesn’t help you with.”
Yet the list of ex-lawmakers now lobbying for ComEd and Exelon remains extensive.
For ComEd, the list includes former Chicago Democratic Reps. Marlow Colvin and Howard Kenner and former Chicago Democratic Sens. Annazette Collins and Donne Trotter. The Republicans are ex-Sens. Thomas Walsh of LaGrange Park and David Sullivan of Park Ridge who once sponsored ComEd rate freeze legislation; and former Rep. Ed Sullivan of Mundelein.
“We’re not hard-line Republicans or hard-line Democrats,” Sullivan said. “We’re experts at dealing with both sides of the political spectrum and understand the rules and how to pass legislation within those rules.”
Also on Exelon’s list of contract lobbyists is former Rep. Maria Antonia “Toni” Berrios, a Chicago Democrat defeated in 2014. She is the daughter of former Cook County Democratic Party chairman Joe Berrios, a Madigan ally defeated in his bid for a third term as Cook County assessor in 2018. Toni Berrios’ husband is businessman James Weiss, whose business office recently was raided by the FBI after bribery charges were filed Friday against Democratic Rep. Luis Arroyo of Chicago.
Another contract lobbyist for Exelon is former Rep. James Brosnahan of Evergreen Park, a town in Madigan’s southwest suburban sphere of influence.
One high-powered firm lobbying for Exelon is Advantage Government Strategies. The firm’s key lobbyists are former Democratic Rep. Lou Lang of Skokie and Nancy Kimme, a former top aide to the late Republican Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka. Lang, a former deputy majority leader under Madigan, pointed out that the firm represented Exelon before he joined.
Exelon’s former Republican lawmakers lobbying for the power company include ex-Rep. Brent Hassert of New Lenox, who runs his own lobbying firm, and former Sen. Matt Murphy of Palatine, who leads the government relations practice for Mac Strategies Group.
Staffer to lobbyist
ComEd and Exelon have signed up former House Democratic staffers who accumulated a reservoir of goodwill for their behind-the-scenes abilities to make Madigan and other lawmakers look good. Some of those onetime staffers are among the biggest of the hired guns, with long lists of clients and the perception of close relationships with the speaker.
When Republican James R. Thompson served as governor during the 1980s, one of ComEd’s most powerful contract lobbyists was former top aide James Fletcher. These days, one of the most highly connected among the ComEd crew of contract lobbyists is Michael Kasper, who joined and worked with Fletcher’s old lobbying firm.
Kasper is Speaker Madigan’s former chief legal counsel who continues to represent Madigan and his political organization in state and federal courts. He is Madigan’s go-to guy on election issues, and he’s served for years as the lawyer for the Illinois Democratic Party that Madigan chairs.
Kasper’s lobbying firm, which has dozens of clients, recently severed its arrangement to work on ComEd issues with Hooker, who long served as a top in-house lobbyist for the utility.
Until recently, ComEd also had as a contract lobbyist Cousineau, who bills himself as the longest-serving political director to Madigan and his Democratic caucus. Cousineau serves as a senior vice president at Cornerstone Government Affairs, which has told the Tribune it received a federal subpoena and is fully cooperating with the investigation.
Wier Vaught, another former legal counsel for Madigan, registered in January as a contract lobbyist for ComEd. She held a contract that covered the spring session and was deactivated as a lobbyist for the firm in August.
Wier Vaught helped Madigan during the #MeToo scandal that rocked the speaker’s operation last year. She sorted through the sexual harassment case raised by campaign worker Alaina Hampton that ended in Madigan booting Quinn.
That scandal that also saw Madigan remove lobbyist Shaw Decremer, a former House staffer, from his political operation when a female lawmaker complained about an abuse of power during a campaign. Decremer was off ComEd’s lobbyist list shortly after.
Another casualty arising from the Hampton allegations was Travis Shea, a former Madigan staffer accused in court documents of sexual misconduct with two other female staffers. Shea was no longer listed as a lobbyist for Michael Best Strategies, whose clients included ComEd, within days of the documents being filed in a Hampton lawsuit against Madigan and his political committees.
Among other ComEd lobbyists who served as Madigan staffers are Margaret Houlihan Smith, Kristen Bauer, and Liz Brown-Reeves, who also is listed as a contract lobbyist for Exelon. Former Madigan staffer D’Javan Conway also made the well-traveled move from state staffer to contract lobbyist for Exelon. He heads the Conway Consulting Group.