For decades, the diminutive Michael J. Madigan has stood tall as a political constant in Illinois, displaying equal parts of power, arrogance, defiance and vindictiveness, while holding a singular ability to dictate much of the state’s policy agenda under governors both Democratic and Republican.
The extent of Madigan’s power over Democratic politics was evident from the muted responses of a number of members of his own House majority after federal prosecutors implicated the nation’s longest-serving statehouse leader as the beneficiary of a near-decadelong bribery and influence scheme conducted through Commonwealth Edison.
As federal subpoenas were delivered to Madigan’s large third-floor office at the State Capitol, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who deferred much of his first-term agenda to the speaker, said Madigan owed the public an explanation and should resign if allegations of wrongdoing are true.
Pritzker’s remark was echoed by Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle, who heads the county Democratic Party, as well as by a few of Madigan’s Democrats in the House.
State Sen. Melinda Bush of Grayslake was a rare Democratic lawmaker calling outright for Madigan to not only resign his legislative post but also the state Democratic Party chairmanship he has held since 1998.
But other Democrats were silent or called for generic “ethics reform” in response to the federal action, reflecting what some said privately — that until Madigan has truly lost his powerful post, any reaction adverse to the speaker would be met with retribution.
“We’ve been on this ride before,” said one Democrat who asked not to be identified to avoid taking on Madigan, noting that several times in the past the speaker was viewed as being close to losing his vaunted power.
“It’s like, ‘Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?‘” the lawmaker said, echoing the backseat refrain of children. “And yet, we never are.”
Madigan, 78, has served in the legislature since 1971 and as House speaker since 1983 with the exception of two years when Republicans took control of the chamber in the mid-1990s. He was not charged with wrongdoing by the government on Friday as ComEd agreed to pay a $200 million fine and cooperate with prosecutors.
In a statement issued by spokeswoman Maura Possley, Madigan indicated that, as in times past when faced with ethical or political controversy, he wasn’t planning to go anywhere.
“The speaker accepted subpoenas related to his various offices for documents,” Possley said. “He will cooperate and respond to those requests for documents, which he believes will clearly demonstrate that he has done nothing criminal or improper.”
The U.S. attorney’s office said in a statement that ComEd, the state’s largest utility, admitted that it arranged for jobs and vendor subcontracts for Public Official A’s political allies and workers even when those people performed little or no work.
Unlike the traditional alphabet soup used by federal prosecutors to describe participants in a criminal action, the federal complaint specifically said, “Public Official A was the Speaker of the House of Representatives.”
Prosecutors put a value of at least $150 million on the legislative benefits ComEd received. That included a 2011 bill in which “ComEd was able to more reliably determine rates it could charge customers” and a 2016 renewal of a regulatory law that governs how ComEd does business.
U.S. Attorney John Lausch said the filing “speaks volumes about the nature of the very stubborn public corruption problem we have here in Illinois.”
“The admitted facts detail a nearly decade long corruption scheme involving top management at a large public utility, leaders of state government, consultants and several others inside and outside of government. In two words, it’s not good,” he added.
The federal government’s action implicating Madigan threatens to roil the fall election season in Illinois, which has become a reliably blue state. Madigan has used his fundraising power and mapmaking ability to generate veto-proof Democratic majorities in the state House and Senate.
For years, Illinois Republicans, most notably with the funding of wealthy former Gov. Bruce Rauner, have sought to put the blame on Madigan for decades of state ills, but the party has largely been unsuccessful in using that issue to motivate voters.
Rauner and his money are gone from the political scene. But the federal government’s actions provide Republicans with a ready-made script to attack new Democratic legislative officeholders in suburban districts that had previously been held by the GOP.
The federal case also could have implications for Pritzker’s signature item on the Nov. 3 ballot — asking voters to change the state constitution to impose a graduated-rate income tax to replace the mandated flat-rate income tax. Republicans who oppose the change have already adopted the campaign mantra of asking voters if they trusted sending more tax dollars to a Springfield run by Democrats led by Madigan.
In essence, the government’s filing could help fuel efforts by Republicans to try to denationalize the fall election in a state where President Donald Trump is unpopular, and instead turn contests into more localized battles that are a referendum on Madigan. Still, there are questions whether Republicans have the financial resources to pull off such a strategy.
Madigan has worked to ensure loyalty among his Democratic members in part through a vast political operation that runs campaigns as turnkey operations for candidates who don’t want to engage in the nitty-gritty of raising money or working districts for election. In exchange, Madigan requires only one vote — for his reelection as speaker — while also using his fundraising ability as a cudgel to keep members in line on legislation he favors.
Campaign reports filed with the State Board of Elections last week showed Madigan had $22.6 million in four political funds that he controls at the start of July.
The government filing alleges that ComEd became a source of patronage for Madigan’s political allies and campaign workers. In Springfield, however, ComEd has long been widely known as a source for patronage for other political leaders, including former Senate President Emil Jones Jr., D-Chicago.
Patronage and organization are Madigan’s political pedigree.
His father, Michael Sr., was a Democratic precinct captain and a ward superintendent. He also held a patronage job under Cook County Clerk Mike Flynn, the 13th Ward Democratic committeeman. One of Flynn’s employees was Richard J. Daley, the future mayor.
When the younger Madigan, then a law student, approached the mayor about a job, he got one in the city’s law department. He went on to serve as a hearing officer for the state commerce commission and as a consultant on public utilities for the city.
In 1969, the 27-year-old Madigan became the youngest ward boss in the city. Backed by City Hall control over jobs, he used loyalty to turn the 13th Ward area solidly Democratic. Two years later, he was elected to the General Assembly.
In 2014, the Tribune identified more than 400 then-current or retired employees at all levels of government with political ties to Madigan as well as documented repeated instances where Madigan personally lobbied for jobs, promotions or raises for allies.
In April of that year, a mass transit task force found Madigan sought to place and promote allies at Metra, the suburban commuter rail agency, for decades. A legislative inspector general’s report found Madigan did not violate the state’s ethics act when he sought to arrange a raise for one of his campaign foot soldiers.
In the statement issued on Madigan’s behalf Friday, his spokeswoman said he “has never helped someone find a job with the expectation that the person would not be asked to perform work by their employer, nor did he ever expect to provide anything to a prospective employer if it should choose to hire a person he recommended.”
Madigan also found his standing threatened when the #MeToo movement took hold in the Capitol two years ago. He faced criticism that he had not done enough to deal with complaints of sexual harassment involving members and staff.
Madigan eventually fired his chief of staff, as well as key campaign operatives in an attempt to quell the complaints.
The House speaker also has faced ongoing questions of whether his political power presents a conflict of interest involving his real-estate tax appeal law firm, which profits by representing clients seeking lower assessments and property tax bills.
Known as the “Velvet Hammer” for how he wields power and also as “The Sphinx” for saying little publicly and having an aversion to speaking to the media, Madigan has few close friends. But one of them, Michael McClain, has emerged as the nexus of the federal investigation into ComEd and Madigan’s operation.
McClain, a trusted adviser to the speaker, is a former lawmaker and Quincy attorney who retired as a high-profile lobbyist from the utility in 2016 but continued collecting six-figure payments from the company.
Federal agents raided McClain’s home in Quincy in May 2019, which turned out to be the same month ComEd said they had stopped paying him. The Tribune exclusively reported in November that authorities secretly recorded McClain’s phone calls.
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McClain’s attorney did not respond to requests for comment Friday.
The federal filing did not outline any conversations between McClain and Madigan. Referring to the speaker as Public Official A and McClain as Individual A, prosecutors did allege the two “sought to obtain from ComEd jobs, vendor subcontracts, and monetary payments associated with those jobs and subcontracts for various associates of Public Official A …”
There were indications that the federal investigation could go well beyond ComEd.
In Friday’s federal subpoena to Madigan, authorities sought records related to AT&T, Walgreens and Rush University Medical Center, as well as the utility, WBEZ reported. The subpoena also sought records related to Madigan’s political organization and law firm, as well as former state lawmakers and current or former Chicago aldermen, according to WBEZ.
Among McClain’s past longtime lobbying clients in addition to ComEd was Walgreens.