Jury selection begins in ‘ComEd Four’ bribery case involving Michael Madigan – Chicago Tribune

Jury selection begins in ‘ComEd Four’ bribery case involving Michael Madigan – Chicago Tribune

More that two years after their indictment, the defendants known as the “ComEd Four” entered Chicago’s downtown federal courthouse for the first time on Tuesday to face charges alleging they conspired to bribe former House Speaker Michael Madigan.

After about seven hours of questioning potential jurors in the hot-button case, U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber wrapped for the day about 5 p.m., with a pool of just over 60 members of the panel told to come back to court Wednesday for another round.

On trial are Madigan’s longtime confidant, Michael McClain, 75, of downstate Quincy, former ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore, 64, ex-ComEd lobbyist John Hooker, 73, and Jay Doherty, 69, a lobbyist and consultant who formerly led the City Club of Chicago. All of the defendants have pleaded not guilty to charges of bribery conspiracy.

The indictment filed in November 2020 alleged the defendants orchestrated a scheme to funnel jobs and hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments from the utility to Madigan-approved consultants in exchange for Madigan’s assistance with legislation the utility giant wanted passed, or blocked, in Springfield.

The indictment also alleged ComEd agreed to hire numerous summer interns from Madigan’s 13th Ward, and install former McPier boss Juan Ochoa on the company’s board of directors in order to curry favor with the then-powerful speaker.

Madigan has pleaded not guilty to a separate indictment brought in March 2022 charging him with racketeering conspiracy for an array of alleged schemes, including the ComEd bribery plot. He is set for trial in April 2024. McClain is also charged in that case.

Meanwhile, Tuesday’s highly anticipated trial opened with a battle over whether secret federal recordings would be released to the news media while the trial is in progress.

Attorneys for McClain, who as Madigan’s longtime confidant is accused of quarterbacking the bribery scheme, argued that releasing the recordings, such as wiretaps, could result in jurors flipping through radio or TV channels and hearing selected snippets that newsrooms would present “in the most entertaining form as possible.”

“To be blunt,” attorney Patrick Cotter said, “the only issue here is one of ratings.”

Leinenweber had ruled in favor of Cotter’s argument last week that the recordings should not be released during the trial. The judge said then that transcripts would be available as soon as they are entered into evidence.

“Absolutely nothing has changed,” Cotter argued.

But news groups intervened Tuesday, including the Chicago Tribune, arguing the public should not be “deprived” of hearing recordings that could involve a variety of folks, including Madigan, the longest-serving legislative leader in American history.

“The issue is not a matter of ratings,” argued Brian Saucier, attorney for the news media, but rather a “question of good journalism.”

Saucier, citing a case involving former President Richard Nixon, who tried to block release of his White House recordings, also maintained a “cold transcript doesn’t convey” the information on the recordings as well as the actual audio itself.

Cotter countered that a judge has “discretion” to allow or disallow release of the recordings during the trial.

But Leinenweber noted that previous judicial decisions are “one-sided” in favor of immediate access to the recordings when they are presented in court and granted immediate access to the news outlets.

After reversing course and saying he’d allow the recordings to be disseminated, Leinenweber began questioning the first pool of 70 prospective jurors.

The judge did most of the questioning in sidebar, including asking about their answers on a questionnaire about any feelings they have about lobbyists, ComEd, and Madigan.

Most of those who were excused Tuesday have stated that sitting for the expected six- to eight-week trial would be a hardship on their lives. Among those who made the cut:

— A Cook County assistant state’s attorney assigned to the felony review unit, who said she could be impartial despite her job.

— A woman who said she worked for a utility in Arkansas for a few months in 2005.

— A lawyer for the ACLU of Illinois, who said she’d seen “headlines” about the case but didn’t know details.

— A man who said he has a negative view of some of the FBI’s senior leaders due to “politicization” of the agency, but respects the agents on the ground.

Due to COVID-19 protocols, Tuesday marked the first time any of the four defendants has set foot in person in the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse since the indictment was filed nearly 2 ½ years ago.

Before questioning began, attorneys for the defendants stood with their clients at the two long defense tables to the left of the judge’s bench and introduced themselves to the jury pool.

Pramaggiore, dressed in a black-and-white checkered shirt, nodded slightly and smiled when her attorney, Scott Lassar, introduced her. Doherty took off his face covering and said “good morning,” while Hooker and McClain also smiled and greeted those in the courtroom.

The judge started to move on before realizing he’d inadvertently forgotten to introduce the government lawyers and FBI agents seated at the prosecution table.

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“Oh, sorry,” Leinenweber said, as many in the courtroom burst into laughter. “Ladies and gentlemen, the government.”

When jury selection resumes Wednesday, each side will get a chance to use their peremptory strikes and remove potential jurors from the pool. Ultimately, the judge has said he intends to seat a panel of 12 regular jurors and six alternates.

After the trial let out for the day, the defendants made their way out of the courthouse without comment.

McClain, accompanied by his wife and attorneys, turned back and glanced at the television cameras in the lobby, and quipped, “Five o’clock news.”

“There you go,” a member of his party said.

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Source : https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/criminal-justice/ct-comed-four-bribery-conspiracy-trial-day-one-20230314-xb5i4kvxprfrvl2widzrele7y4-story.html#ed=rss_www.chicagotribune.com/arcio/rss/category/news/

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