Prosecutors say ‘ComEd Four’ bribery conspiracy defendants did Madigan’s bidding, while defense says conduct was legal lobbying, ‘a profession’

The driver’s license photo displayed on large screens in a federal courtroom Wednesday looked like that of an average grandfather, with the requisite bad lighting, wispy hair, squinting eyes and slightly unprepared smile.

Only this grandfather was Michael J. Madigan, the now-indicted former House speaker and longtime lord of Illinois politics. And the image was being shown to the jury in one of the biggest political corruption cases the state has ever seen.

Madigan’s photo became a focal point as the high-profile “ComEd Four” trial started in earnest at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse, where federal prosecutors said in opening statements that the long-serving Democratic boss benefited personally and politically from a scheme by the utility giant to funnel payments and jobs to Madigan’s associates.

In return, prosecutors, say, the powerful speaker used his position to push or block legislation worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the utility.

“In short Madigan wanted, the defendants gave, and the defendants got. It’s that simple,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Streicker said in her opening remarks to the jury.

Streicker alleged ComEd poured $1.3 million into payments funneled to ghost “subcontractors” who were actually Madigan’s cronies, put a Madigan-backed person on the ComEd board, and gave coveted internships to families in his 13th Ward, all part of an elaborate scheme to keep the speaker happy.

And, it worked, Streicker said, because over the eight years of the scheme, Madigan helped ComEd win three lucrative pieces of legislation, including the “Smart Grid” bill in 2011 and another bill in 2016 that held a rate structure in place and extended the life of two of the company’s nuclear plants.

This recent driver's license photo of former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan was shown to the jury on March 15, 2023, in the "ComEd Four" federal bribery case.

“Mike Madigan was the most powerful person in the Illinois General Assembly,” Streicker said. “He (could) wield that power to make or break a piece of legislation. The defendants bribed him, and they did so by paying Madigan’s associates through jobs and contracts at ComEd.”

The defendants’ attorneys, meanwhile, all contended that the so-called scheme was nothing more than legal lobbying, part of the state’s high-stakes, often-messy politics where myriad interest groups and stakeholders compete for access to lawmakers.

“It’s not a crime, and it’s not a conspiracy,” said Patrick Cotter, who represents Michael McClain. “And you know what? It’s not even suspicious. It’s a profession.”

Cotter also accused “overzealous” investigators of developing tunnel vision in their zeal to bring down a big political target in Madigan, which in the end led to them getting it “terribly, tragically wrong.”

The four defendants are McClain, 75, an ex-ComEd lobbyist; 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 four have pleaded not guilty to bribery conspiracy and other charges alleging they covered up illegal payments on ComEd’s books.

Madigan, meanwhile, has pleaded not guilty to a separate racketeering indictment accusing him of an array of corrupt schemes, including the ComEd bribery plot. McClain is also charged in that case, which is scheduled to go to trial in April 2024.

Lawyers began giving their statements in the expected six- to eight-week trial after less than two days of jury selection. U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber conducted the selection, and a panel of six women and six men, plus six alternates, was picked by about 10 a.m.

“So do you want to go down and deliver the good news to the winners?” Leinenweber quipped to his clerk after the selection process was complete.

As opening statements began, McClain, one of Madigan’s most trusted confidants, sat at the defense table in a gray suit and glasses and looked directly at the prosecutor as she spoke. When Madigan’s photo was put up on the screen, McClain kept his hands folded in front of him and did not appear to look at it.

In his remarks to jurors, Cotter said that McClain, a former state representative, was one of the finest lobbyists in the state, one who was trusted by his friends and clients. He also became good friends with Madigan in 1974, when they were in the General Assembly together, and their bond grew over the next half century, Cotter said.

“Mike lived the General Assembly. He lived Springfield. It was his life,” Cotter said. He got to know everybody and everybody got to know him. … He was absolutely committed to his clients’ best interest.”

Cotter said that it was clear that federal prosecutors and the FBI developed an “exceptionally focused, goal-driven investigation” that was targeting Madigan from the beginning. In their overzealousness, he said, the government “began to see what they wanted to see.”

“When you’re too focused on getting the big target, everything begins to look like a crime,” he said.

Pramaggiore’s lawyer, Scott Lassar, described his client as a “wonderful woman,” a “Girl Scout” who rescued ComEd from tumultuous times.

He said she “knew that Mike Madigan was only concerned with one thing, and that was staying in power, staying speaker of the House,” and that he ”never lifted a finger” to help pass any legislation on the company’s behalf.

“He was never a friend to ComEd, never was and never would be,” Lassar said. “And she was right.”

So why did the ComEd legislation pass?

“Maybe (Madigan) said a prayer for them,” Lassar quipped. “I don’t know, but he didn’t do anything to help the bills pass the legislature.”

In her roughly 90-minute opening statement, Streicker went systematically through the defendants and their alleged crimes, starting with McClain’s role as a “double agent” for ComEd and Madigan.

McClain used his “direct” and “unique” access to Madigan, which allowed the lobbyist to act as a “double agent,” relaying what Madigan wanted from ComEd and vice versa, Streicker said.

ComEd focused on ingratiating Madigan because he controlled the political fundraising and governmental issues through his roles that ranged from Democratic committeeman of the Southwest Side’s 13th Ward to his chairmanship of the Democratic Party of Illinois and his post as speaker, Streicker said.

“Madigan exercised enormous power,” she said, saying his “power and control made him critical to ComEd’s success” because he could help or hurt ComEd’s agenda in Springfield.

“This is why defendants sought to corruptly influence Madigan,” Streicker said.

Pramaggiore “wanted to keep Madigan happy in order to ensure he didn’t do anything to obstruct ComEd’s legislative agenda in Springfield, and it worked,” Streicker said.

When Pramaggiore rose from CEO of ComEd to Exelon Utilities, part of parent Exelon, she told McClain that McClain and Madigan were her “spirit guides.”

Hooker, once a top ComEd executive who became a contract lobbyist for the utility, remained “very close” to McClain, so much so that McClain referred to Hooker as a “brother from another mother,” Streicker said.

In one recorded conversation, Streicker said, McClain and Hooker acknowledged they were the “masterminds” of setting up the scheme to put Madigan allies into little-known ComEd “ghost subcontractor” positions through Doherty’s consulting and lobbying firm.

They even talked about how the subcontractors were on a payroll “off the beaten path” and could not be traced directly to ComEd, Streicker said.

Doherty represented a “pass-through” to the subcontractors, including 13th Ward precinct captains Ray Nice and Ed Moody, the former Cook County recorder of deeds, as well as former 13th Ward Ald. Frank Olivo and ex-23rd Ward Ald. Mike Zalewski. They received contracts through Doherty’s firm worth thousands of dollars a month, some of them for as long as seven years, Streicker said.

When Doherty was asked about the contracts, he told then-ComEd Vice President Fidel Marquez that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” because the “money comes from Springfield,” meaning the company needed to keep doing what it was doing because it wanted to keep Madigan happy, according to Streicker.

Moody, who also cooperated with investigators to avoid charges, will give the jury an “insider’s view” of the subcontractor arrangement, Streicker said. He will also testify that he and his twin brother, Fred, were so valuable to Madigan’s operation that they were sent all over the state to help Democratic candidates and train people how to campaign.

Streicker also maintained that a law firm headed by Democratic operative Victor Reyes received a number of guaranteed billable hours as a way to recognize his alliance with Madigan. In another part of the alleged scheme, innumerable college kids received ComEd internships from Madigan’s 13th Ward, she said.

She also explained how Juan Ochoa, the former McPier chief and onetime Madigan political nemesis, was placed on the ComEd board of directors at Madigan’s behest despite internal resistance from top utility officials.

She said Madigan was seeking to “curry favor” with a prominent Hispanic politician who was a friend of Ochoa’s. Though she didn’t name the politician, the Tribune has reported he is former U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Chicago.

In his opening statement, Lassar said Ochoa was a perfectly acceptable nominee for ComEd’s board and was recommended not only by Madigan, but also “by Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of the city of Chicago,” whom prosecutors didn’t mention.

The Tribune has previously reported Emanuel did meet with both Ochoa and Gutierrez about the appointment in November 2017.

Defense attorneys also urged the jury to be cautious of testimony from Marquez, who began cooperating after being confronted by the feds in January 2019 and recorded several key phone conversations and meetings in the case.

“He took the sure thing. The ‘get out of jail free’ card,” said Hooker’s attorney, Jacqueline Jacobson. “Marquez is a man who lies to benefit himself.”

Doherty’s lawyer, Gabrielle Sansonetti, said there are completely different — and totally legal — explanations for what her client told Marquez at a lunch meeting in 2019, and she asked the jury not to “speculate” as the government has.

At the meeting, Marquez asked, at the direction of the FBI, what he should say to incoming ComEd CEO Joseph Dominquez about the subcontractor arrangement, according to Sansonetti.

Sansonetti said that when Doherty suggested “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” he was simply saying that subcontractors like Moody, Nice, and Zalewski were important to ComEd’s overall lobbying effort.

“Jay doesn’t admit to a crime,” Sansonetti said. “He gives him advice. These guys are connected to Madigan. They’re valuable. They can give you access. Don’t fire them.”

All four defense attorneys spent much of their time describing, and defending, Illinois’ lobbying system and how it fits into the political process. It’s constitutionally protected profession, they said, where registration is required and everyone knows that the goal is bending the ear of politicians like Madigan, who have their own agendas.

“Politicians, and I don’t want to shock anybody, politicians act in their own best interest a lot,” Cotter said. “Mike Madigan acted in his own best interest all the time.”

Cotter said Madigan’s staff negotiated every significant, complicated bill that ever came before the General Assembly, not just ComEd-related legislation. They did it, he said, because “that’s their job.”

Cotter also touched on one of the more curious aspects of the case: The allegation that McClain used coded language like “our Friend” when referring to Madigan.

“That’s his nickname for Mike Madigan,” Cotter said. “There is nothing nefarious about it. Nothing weird. Nothing suspicious. I used to call my old boss ‘Chief.’”

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After more than five hours of opening statements, prosecutors called as their first witness former state Rep. Carol Sente, a Democrat from Vernon Hills.

She testified that Madigan’s power, particularly in her own party, was almost absolute in the House, where he set the rules, decided who served on the various committees, and deployed a team of people who constantly pressured members to vote a certain way.

When asked if she found it challenging to vote in an independent way that she felt was in her district’s best interest, Sente answered, “Very much so.”

“We were told if we voted the wrong way, it could be used for campaign fodder in the next election,” she said. “… It was rather strong.”

Sente is scheduled to be back on the stand Thursday morning.

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