ComEd bribery case is unfair to utility workers

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While grateful for the quick fix, this little occurrence also serves as a gentle reminder that there’s more to the state’s largest electric utility than the ugly corporate and political bribery scandal being hashed out in federal court. It’s a legal tussle that has muddied the utility’s reputation and that will eventually determine the fates of two local powerbrokers: Former ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore and ex-Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.

While this high-stakes drama takes center stage, it’s worth noting that thousands of ComEd workers are still showing up every day to keep the lights on, repair storm-damaged lines and maintain the power grid.

They do so because it’s their livelihood, of course. But I contend there’s also a greater purpose, something ComEd workers may not even realize is their larger mission: making sure Chicago and northern Illinois don’t backslide and end up like some energy-strapped places, such as Texas, where electrical service disruptions cost the state economy between $80 billion and $130 billion in 2021, according to federal data.

Consider that during the past couple of years, as the bribery saga publicly unfolded, ComEd workers spent 1.2 million hours in 2020-21 on storm restoration within the company’s backyard. That means when nasty Chicago-area weather occurred—those days when even the family dog refuses to go out because it’s so miserable outside—ComEd crews were in aerial buckets or under tarps, struggling to turn the power back on.

What’s more, whenever another state was smacked by floods, hurricanes or tornadoes, ComEd workers were quick to lend a helping hand. During 2020 and 2021, the utility pitched in at least 300,000 worker hours helping short-handed and storm-ravaged states with their emergency repairs and recovery assistance. (All work hour data cited was provided by ComEd at my request.)

More than rescue crews are on the job: ComEd’s estimated 6,000-person workforce includes cable splicers, mechanics, meter technicians, engineers, dispatchers, attorneys, scientists and more—all keeping the place up and running.

Indeed, ComEd is a complex, government-regulated behemoth, which makes it subject to a labyrinth of rules and regulations that could confound Albert Einstein.

Yet that doesn’t excuse ComEd’s supreme disgrace: agreeing to pay $200 million in 2020 to resolve a federal criminal investigation into a yearslong bribery scheme that’s resulted in the indictments of four people connected to the utility: Former ComEd CEO Pramaggiore; an ex-executive vice president; a lobbyist; and a consultant. They’re accused of bribery conspiracy, bribery and willfully falsifying ComEd books and records as part of a scheme to influence "Public Official A," according to the federal indictment.

We know that "Public Official A" was government code for former Speaker Madigan, who for decades controlled the legislation that flowed through the Illinois General Assembly, including ComEd-related bills. A subsequent and separate 22-count federal indictment alleges Madigan and a co-defendant used his position to solicit and receive financial rewards from the utility for himself and his associates, including no-show or low-show jobs.

All of the accused say they’re innocent, and each will get their day in court. ComEd’s prosecution is being deferred for three years, and the bribery charge will then be dropped, provided the utility helps make the feds’ case against the indicted.

Obviously, the vast majority of ComEd workers had nothing to do with this sordid affair and they could care less if a couple of corporate suite types or Illinois’ master class politician end up in jail.

Yet, make no mistake: ComEd’s labor force is a victim of this alleged bribery scheme and subsequent fallout because, like us, they are taxpayers, customers, and residents who all suffer when trust breaks down and corruption infects the business and political systems. The employees also bear an added burden of working for a company that, for the near future, will be under a legal cloud and whose ethics are questionable

Amid pressure from lawmakers and activists, the electric utility is taking steps to clean up its act with a stepped-up corporate ethics program. A recently installed CEO, hired from outside the company, is overseeing ComEd’s reputational rebuild.

Still, rebounding won’t be easy, particularly as the ComEd-Madigan scandal wends through the courts, generating big news coverage along the way.

Yes, it’s a mess.

And it didn’t have to be.

Those ComEd workers who came to my rescue—along with the thousands of other employees who keep the region’s electricity buzzing—deserved better from their leaders.

Robert Reed is a veteran Chicago journalist who currently contributes to Chicago magazine. A former editor of Crain’s Chicago Business, he also wrote a business column for the Chicago Tribune, was an anchor and reporter for WBBM Newsradio 780, and was a senior writer and columnist for BusinessWeek’s BW Chicago.

via Crain’s Chicago Business https://ift.tt/mDjzso3

July 13, 2022 at 07:26AM

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