Federal judge in ComEd bribery trial reverses course, will allow secret recordings to be released to the media

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Michael McClain enters the Dirksen federal courthouse for the start of his corruption trial Tuesday morning.

Ashless Rezin | Sun-Times

The federal judge presiding over the ComEd bribery trial reversed course Tuesday and ruled that secret recordings made of former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and his allies may be released to the media after they are played for jurors. 

U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber made his new ruling after an earlier decision regarding the recordings, made last week, was challenged by the Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ. The Chicago Tribune later joined in the challenge.

The public release of evidence, once admitted and published at trial, is standard practice in Chicago’s federal court.  The issue was sorted out ahead of jury selection in the case.

Madigan confidant Michael McClain, former ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore, ex-ComEd lobbyist John Hooker and onetime City Club President Jay Doherty are accused of trying to illegally sway Madigan by landing his associates jobs, contracts and money while legislation crucial to ComEd’s bottom line moved through Springfield. 

Leinenweber said last week that the recordings would not be released for fear they would “sensationalize the trial more than we want.”

Patrick Cotter, McClain’s defense attorney, had argued that jurors could wind up hearing “whatever the media considers to be the greatest hits” outside the courtroom. He also said “the First Amendment will be completely respected” if journalists are allowed to cover the trial, hear the tapes in open court and report on their contents.

Cotter objected again Tuesday, insisting the question amounted to “ratings,” and arguing that the media wanted information from the trial “in the most entertaining form possible.” 

But media lawyer Brian Saucier said “it is not a question of ratings. It is a question of good journalism and public understanding” of what is presented.

Cotter also argued that potential jurors had expressed concern that they would hear the recordings on the radio or on television, and they would be exposed to recordings of evidence that they don’t want to hear. 

The feds’ yearslong investigation of Madigan and his allies has had significant ramifications for Illinois government. Madigan was forced in 2021 to end his record-setting tenure as Illinois House speaker two months after the indictment triggering the upcoming trial. 

The trial is expected to last as long as two months.

Madigan also faces a separate indictment for racketeering handed up one year ago. His trial is not expected to begin until April 2024.

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March 14, 2023 at 10:31AM

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