If only the “ComEd Four” bribery trial tied closely to former House Speaker Mike Madigan could be transformed into a reality TV show. The ratings might rise to the roof. More people in Illinois would be riveted to the reveals showing that what happens in Springfield far too rarely results in authentic, democratic representation for the good of its residents.
Maybe then people would snap out of their corruption fatigue. A groundswell of people could start agitating for more positive change. Maybe the trial, and the one to follow for Madigan, will persuade even more lawmakers that it’s time to end the days of iron rule by leaders seeking to emulate the man once called “the velvet hammer.”
Since the federal corruption trial got underway for former ComEd lobbyist Michael McClain, longtime Madigan confidant; Anne Pramaggiore, former CEO of ComEd; John Hooker, former ComEd lobbyist; and Jay Doherty, former ComEd lobbyist and longtime president of the City Club, we’ve heard recordings of Madigan himself and learned in rich detail the extent of his power and control and how he doled out rewards and retribution.
Former state Rep. Carol Sente testified early on that she was called into Madigan’s office after she introduced legislation that would limit the terms of the speaker and his Senate president counterpart. He told her it took leaders a while to get organized. She replied, “35 years?”
Shortly thereafter, Sente lost the chairmanship of a committee, and the extra pay that comes with it, and learned about it when she noticed the committee was gone from the General Assembly’s website.
To their credit, current House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch and Senate President Don Harmon have adopted rules that limit the terms of the speaker and Senate president to 10 years, but allowing a law to be approved would be even stronger.
Former state Rep. Scott Drury testified he never passed a bill after he voted “present” rather than support Madigan for speaker in 2017.
And veteran former state Rep. Lou Lang testified McClain called him after word surfaced that a second woman was going to claim wrongdoing by Lang. McClain told Lang it was time to go, and Lang knew the message was from Madigan. “This is no longer me talking; I’m an agent,” jurors heard McClain tell Lang in a recording.
Lang has maintained he did no wrong, but within weeks, he resigned and quickly leveraged his legislative experience by becoming a lobbyist. Lawmakers did pass a law they said would stop the revolving door of lawmakers leaving to immediately lobby former colleagues, but it’s one of the weakest in the nation and should be strengthened to prevent former officials from lobbying for at least two years after they leave office.
When the charges first were aired in 2018, Lang asked the legislative inspector general to investigate, and the inspector general said the “preponderance of the evidence does not support” his accuser’s allegations.
But the legislative branch’s watchdog long has been a weak spot. The office sat vacant for years. Its prior occupants all have said publicly they did not have the power to do the job properly. Attempts to empower the office have stalled repeatedly.
Now would be the ideal time to allow a vote on HB 2892 to give the watchdog tools and independence to do the job. The legislative inspector general should be able to subpoena witnesses and documents without prior approval from lawmakers who serve on the legislative ethics commission. That commission should have at least four people serving on it who are not lawmakers with an obvious conflict of interest in any decisions that come before them.
At the very least, the legislative inspector general needs the authority to publish the results of founded investigations and summary reports without prior approval of that commission of lawmakers.
Madigan ruled by “fear and intimidation,” state Rep. Bob Rita told jurors. Madigan is gone, but some of his methods still haunt the Capitol like a stale rerun. Bills don’t get called for debates and votes unless the leaders want them to move.
The “ComEd Four” trial, and the Madigan trial to come, demonstrate this is the season for a smash serial sequel. The story arc could include passage of a law limiting leaders’ terms along with a two-year cooling off period for lawmakers before they lobby. The star could be a legislative inspector general with the freedom to investigate fully and independently. That’s a reality show we all would watch.
This column originally appeared in Crain’s Chicago Business. Read the full column here.