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Corruption probe roils Illinois political machine

A sprawling federal investigation into lobbying, patronage and alleged corruption threatens to upend Illinois’s powerful Democratic machine as agents raid offices and interrogate witnesses from Chicago to Springfield.

Federal agents have conducted searches of at least nine homes and offices in connection to a probe of Commonwealth Edison, the state’s largest utility, and the political operation run by state House Speaker Mike Madigan, the most powerful Democrat in Illinois. 

Those agents have been asking questions about Madigan, his associates and his political operation, according to two people who have sat for interviews with law enforcement.

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A part of the investigation appears to focus on the army of lobbyists Commonwealth Edison and its parent company, Exelon, employ in Springfield, some of whom allegedly won contracts for no-show jobs. 

The companies have publicly acknowledged receiving at least two subpoenas seeking information about their lobbying practices in Springfield and their relationship with former state Sen. Martin Sandoval (D). 

Of the 23 lobbying firms Exelon paid to advocate on their behalf this year, 15 have ties to Madigan, the radio station WBEZ reported. Eight employ former top Madigan staffers. Five employ retired state Democratic legislators who served under Madigan. And two employ lawyers who worked for Madigan while also lobbying for the utility.

Representatives for Exelon and the FBI did not return requests for comment.

Sandoval, the former chairman of the state’s powerful Senate Transportation Committee, will resign at the end of the year. The FBI raided his offices in September, seeking information about construction, transportation and utility employees and lobbyists.

Federal agents also raided the homes and offices of several prominent lobbyists who had contracts with Exelon. In May, they raided the City Club of Chicago, seeking records from its president, lobbyist Jay Doherty. They also searched the homes of Kevin Quinn, a former top Madigan aide who was fired after allegations that he sexually harassed another Madigan employee, and Michael Zalewski, a former Chicago alderman who represented the ward next to Madigan’s.

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The agents were looking for documents relating to Zalewski’s interactions with Madigan, WBEZ reported. 

Doherty resigned his position as president of the City Club. Anne Pramaggiore, Exelon’s CEO, abruptly resigned in October. The Chicago Tribune reported that Pramaggiore is a focus of the probe.

In July, the FBI raided the home of Michael McClain, another ComEd lobbyist and one of Madigan’s closest confidants. In November, the Chicago Tribune reported that federal agents had tapped McClain’s phones, though it was not clear whether Madigan was recorded on any conversations.

The FBI is also reportedly interested in payments made to Quinn after he was fired from Madigan’s political operation. The Chicago Tribune obtained emails showing McClain lined up more than $30,000 in payments to Quinn from ComEd lobbyists. McClain himself retired from lobbying in 2016, though records show ComEd continued to pay him hundreds of thousands of dollars for consulting services.

Sources who have been interviewed by federal agents told The Hill that authorities are also looking into the relationships between several small towns around Chicago and people in Madigan’s orbit. In September, the FBI raided government offices in McCook, Lyons, Schiller Park and Summit, all towns in Sandoval’s state Senate district. 

All four towns have insurance contracts with Mesirow Insurance Services, a Chicago-based company that employs Andrew Madigan, the Speaker’s son.

One source interviewed by federal agents, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, said agents asked about several Madigan allies who lobbied for ComEd and about the relationships between the suburban cities and the Speaker’s political operation. The agents specifically asked about Andrew Madigan, the source said, and whether the towns were told to sign contracts with his firm in exchange for legislative favors in Springfield.

“They know it’s happening, it’s just really difficult to prove,” the source said.

Mesirow and Andrew Madigan did not return requests for comment.

Mike Madigan is a towering presence in Illinois politics, where he has served as the state House Speaker for all but two of the last 36 years. He has also served as chairman of the state Democratic Party since 1998. And he famously does not carry a cellphone or have an email address. 

“Madigan is just such an overarching figure in the Statehouse, he’s just been so important for so many people for so many years,” said Christopher Mooney, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “He’s got people everywhere, and they’re very devoted to him.”

Madigan’s top political aide and the executive director of the state Democratic Party did not respond to requests for comment. Madigan said in October he is not a target of any investigations.

That a politician in Illinois is under federal investigation is hardly new. Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) is still in prison after being convicted of soliciting bribes, the second consecutive Illinois governor to serve time behind bars. Earlier this year, state Rep. Luis Arroyo (D) resigned after allegedly bribing a state senator.

The current investigation isn’t even the first time Madigan has come under scrutiny. The FBI secretly recorded Madigan pitching his law firm’s services to a developer in 2014, the Chicago Sun-Times reported, in the course of another investigation that took down a powerful Chicago alderman. Madigan was not charged with or accused of a crime.

But the state has taken some steps to address the constant drumbeat of corruption. This month, Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) signed a bill creating an ethics commission and another measure requiring lobbyists and legislators to disclose more information about their outside income and potential conflicts of interest.

“The people of Illinois deserve a state government they can trust, and that means we need to put stronger ethical safeguards in place, prioritize transparency and demand more accountability from public servants,” Pritzker said when he signed the bills.

Still, Mooney said the latest investigation is a sign that reform is a work with much progress left to attain. 

“In the state of Illinois, the culture is so deeply entrenched that there seems to be some people — and it’s not most people, but some people — who continue to think that it’s OK to gain private benefit from the public trough,” he said. “It is getting better. That’s what makes this so sad, is that we are making progress.”

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