News & Politics

Corruption Probe in Illinois Targets State's Most Powerful Democrats

Corruption Probe in Illinois Targets State's Most Powerful Democrats
Democratic gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker smiles after winning the Democratic gubernatorial primary over a field of five others, Tuesday, March 20, 2018, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

That federal authorities are investigating corruption in Illinois isn’t news. What’s huge news is that they are targeting the most powerful Democratic politicians in the state, including Speaker of the Illinois House Mike Madigan whose clout extends from Chicago to Springfield.

The probe is also looking into the dealings of the state’s biggest utility; Commonwealth Edison. Its parent company, Exelon, Inc., has an army of lobbyists in Springfield who allegedly routinely use corrupt practices to enrich themselves and Exelon at the same time.

The Hill:

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.

Exelon knows where the power is in the state.

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.

Some of those lobbyists reportedly got contracts for “no show” jobs — a regular practice in Springfield when politicians want to spread the wealth around.

Madigan’s former top aide, Kevin Quinn, was forced to resign after he was ensnared in a sexual harassment scandal. But that didn’t stop Quinn and other former Madigan aides from cashing in.

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.

Madigan has been investigated before, but nothing stuck. But those under scrutiny are Madigan’s closest associates and given his wheeling and dealing, it’s possible the feds might have him this time.

As for the culture of corruption, one state political expert, Christopher Mooney, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, thinks that things are actually getting better.

“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.”

Ethics laws are only as good as the ethics of those in office and in positions of trust. Using that standard, Illinois has a long way to go.