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.
Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.