Former Illinois Senate President John Cullerton’s name surfaced in the “ComEd Four” trial Monday over a political dispute with former House Speaker Michael Madigan as the longtime allies both served in the Illinois General Assembly.
Madigan complained about a political ad critical of him and tied to Senate Democrats that Cullerton led in 2018, saying that the attacks should be aimed at President Donald Trump and other Republicans rather than the speaker, who doubled as chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois.
In a secretly recorded telephone call in July 2018, Madigan asked Michael McClain, a former lobbyist for ComEd, who advised the speaker to let his “agents” initially hammer Cullerton with “body blows”
“Sorry about that stupid Cullerton move,” McClain said.
“What’s your take on what I should do?” Madigan asked McClain.
McClain told Madigan on the recording that the longtime lobbyist had sent Cullerton a text expressing displeasure and that sooner or later Cullerton has to be told it is “(expletive) inappropriate.”
McClain maintained criticism of Madigan could be picked up and used by then-Gov. Bruce Rauner, Madigan’s GOP nemesis running against Democratic J.B. Pritzker in the November 2018 gubernatorial race.
“It’s got enormous complications in my view,” McClain said of criticism from Senate Democrats. “It’s so stupid, I can’t even put my arms around it.”
Madigan said the general election is a “time to be against the Republicans.”
McClain asked Madigan to “let me work on it for 24 to 48 hours. If Cullerton hasn’t by that time called you, you’re going to have to call him. He should come to your law office.”
“OK,” Madigan said.
McClain added Madigan had “enough problems” with #MeToo scandals involving misbehaving aides and a push by Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, to improve Madigan’s handling of sexual harassment and the general treatment of women in Springfield.
While the call concerning the political riff with Cullerton has nothing to do with ComEd, prosecutors are using it to try to establish to the jury that McClain was a key member of Madigan’s political braintrust, someone the speaker strategized with on a regular basis and delegated authority to when it came to thorny political situations.
Later in the call, McClain worried in the call that criticism from Senate Democrats could give “ammunition” to opponents who might try to challenge his speakership, but the speaker maintained he wasn’t even thinking of that because the focus at the time was on the November election.
Knowing that Madigan and Cullerton had a decades-long friendship from their days in the House together, McClain recalled words of his father, a onetime legislator like his son: “My dad always said, ‘You always got hurt from your friends, not your enemies, because your enemies, you’ve got your guard up,”
Wrapping up the call, they talked about how Cullerton should be told to “pull the ads down,” that it is at Madigan’s request, and that the speaker could respond by doing nothing or taking unspecified action.
“If you want to put the squeeze on the guy,” McClain called the speaker a “street fighter” and said he could “hurt him pretty badly.”
In other calls from 2018 played at trial on Monday, Madigan asked McClain to get hold of Sam Panayotovich, a former state representative from Chicago who had a lobbying business with former Rep. Joe Berrios, the longtime Cook County assessor who was under fire over campaign contributions from real estate lawyers who did business with his office as he also chaired the Cook County Democratic Party.
“Are you in position to advise Mr. Panayotovich to stay away from me?” Madigan asked.
McClain later called Madigan’s secretary, telling her to let the speaker he “took care of” the matter with Panayotovich.
Prosecutors played a call between Madigan and McClain for the first time last week in the trial of the “ComEd Four,” charged with funneling at least $1.3 million to his hand-picked Madigan associates in exchange for the powerful speaker’s influence over legislation the utility giant wanted passed, or blocked, in Springfield.
On trial 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.
The indictment in the case 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.
The defendants’ attorneys contend 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.
Madigan and McClain, meanwhile, are facing separate racketeering charges alleging an array of corrupt schemes, including the bribery plot by ComEd.
The recordings played for the jury Thursday were the first of what’s expected to be more than a hundred wiretapped phone calls and secretly recorded meetings that prosecutors have said will lay out the scheme in the defendants’ own words.
The tapes have built a foundation on which prosecutors hope to show that when Madigan gave orders, legislators, lobbyists and executives alike snapped into action to please him.
More tapes are expected to be played when the trial resumes Monday. Also expected to testify Monday is state Rep. Bob Rita, D-Blue Island, who was a co-sponsor of one of ComEd’s massive pieces of legislation that passed in 2016.
Prosecutors also want Rita to testify about how he was made a sponsor of major gambling legislation after a meeting in Madigan’s office in 2013. According to prosecution filing last week, Rita would testify that Madigan pointed to McClain and said “he will guide you.”
Defense attorneys want to bar any testimony about the gaming bill, saying it’s irrelevant and possibly prejudicial given the negative connotations surrounding gambling.
Calls played last week focused on an effort in late 2018 by Madigan and McClain to force then-state Rep. Lou Lang, a longtime Madigan ally, to resign. Word had begun circulating that a woman was threatening to go public with a second potential #MeToo moment for Lang, who had overcome sexual harassment allegations made in May of that same year.
Though he called the May accusations “absurd,” Lang stepped down from the high-ranking position of deputy majority leader in Madigan’s House Democratic caucus and called for an investigation by the Illinois legislative inspector general.
Lang, 73, testified in federal court Thursday that he’d been cleared of the May allegations by the IG, who wrote a “preponderance of the evidence does not support” the accuser’s allegations.
But the recorded calls played in court underscored how the speaker was on high alert, still feeling the effects of separate #MeToo scandals involving his own misbehaving aides.
Vogt is testifying about ComEd’s financial struggles in the late 2000s. “Dire,” is how he described the utility’s situation in 2007/2007, after the Illinois Commerce Commission granted only a quarter of its requested rate hike.
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March 20, 2023 at 05:01PM