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The federal prosecution of former Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan is the latest, and biggest, development in a push to crack down on corruption in Chicago.
By the time the feds finally caught up with Mike Madigan, the Chicago Democrat’s storied career was already over.
Federal prosecutors on Wednesday unveiled 22 counts of corruption-related charges against Madigan, the former speaker of the Illinois House. It’s a remarkable coda for a lawmaker who flummoxed seven governors, outfoxed and out-waited political adversaries on his way to becoming the longest-serving state legislative leader in U.S. history.
But it is also part of a sustained effort, especially in Chicago, by federal prosecutors to target powerful political figures who have created fiefdoms in the city by using their clout in state and local government.
- The city’s longest-serving alderman, Ed Burke, faces 14 counts of corruption-related charges.
- Another fixture in Chicago politics, Ed Vrdolyak, reported to prison last year for a second corruption-related prison sentence.
- Patrick Daley Thompson, the nephew and grandson of two Chicago mayors, resigned from the city council in February after he was convicted on tax-related charges for a sweetheart loan he received at a now-failed neighborhood bank.
- Danny Solis, a former influential alderman who faced his own legal troubles, wore a wire for years to help build the cases against Burke and Madigan.
And federal prosecutors have trained their sites on legislative leaders in other states, too. The Ohio House last year expelled former speaker Larry Householder after he was indicted for his part in a $61 million bribery scheme from First Energy Corp., which secured a $1.3 billion bailout under Householder’s leadership. Last month, federal prosecutors in Hawaii charged two lawmakers, including a former state senate majority leader, with bribery. The FBI raided the home of former Tennessee House Speaker Glen Casada last year.
But Madigan may be the biggest target of them all.
Madigan loomed larger than life in Springfield, as he led the charge to impeach disgraced Gov. Rod Blagojevich and marshalled Democrats to hobble the anti-union ambitions of Gov. Bruce Rauner in a two-year budget standoff. The speaker kept the gavel while two governors he served with went to prison, and his daughter became a popular state attorney general.
In his later years, Republicans invoked his name to rail against chronic problems in Illinois’ state government, including its woeful budget situation and persistent corruption.
But the man that prosecutors portrayed in the grand jury indictments released this week was concerned with far smaller details: how many internships the electric company would reserve for people in his ward on Chicago’s Southwest Side, jobs for political allies and new clients for his clout-heavy law firm.
Madigan was able to get such small favors, of course, because of his political power. Not only was he the speaker of the House, he was also a Democratic ward boss and the partner in one of the city’s pre-eminent law firms that handles property tax appeals.
Prosecutors say Madigan used all those positions to operate a political machine, which they dubbed the Madigan Enterprise, to illegally win favors for Madigan and his allies. The fact that federal prosecutors characterized the activities as a part of a single operation allows them to pursue charges under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which can significantly increase the penalties for those alleged crimes. The prosecutors have also asked to seize $2.8 million in illegally obtained assets from Madigan and his organization.
The prosecutors charged Madigan with conspiring with Solis, the alderman who was an FBI mole, in real estate schemes to help gin up business for Madigan’s law practice. They say Madigan and his allies used their influence with the Chicago-area electric utility, Commonwealth Edison, to secure a board seat, internships and other jobs for friends and allies. In return, according to the indictments, the company got help pushing through favorable legislation and blocking proposals they opposed.
The indictments gave a glimpse of how Madigan, a man of famously few words who eschewed email and often phone calls, participated in those efforts. Madigan made phone calls and took meetings to help attract new clients and ensure his ally got a ComEd board seat.
Solis apparently sold Madigan on a scheme to get a real estate company to help both the alderman and the speaker.
“I think they understand how this works, you know, the quid pro quo, the quid pro quo,” Solis told Madigan.
“OK,” the speaker responded. “Very good.”
Many of the details though, were handled by Mike McClain, a Madigan confidant who formerly served with Madigan in the Illinois House. McClain, who had previously been indicted, was much more forthcoming in email and phone conversations than Madigan.
Anne Pramaggiore, the CEO of Exelon Utilities, at one point assured McClain that she would install Madigan’s ally as a board member. “You take good care of me and so does our friend [Madigan] and I will do the best that I can to, to take care of you,” she said, according to the indictments. Pramaggiore retired in 2019 as the federal probe into Madigan and his allies explored their connections to the utility.
Madigan’s Rise and Fall
Madigan rose through the ranks of Chicago politics under the tutelage of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley, and eventually became speaker of the Illinois House in 1983. He held on to the gavel until the 1994 elections swept Republicans into power nationwide (and in Illinois). But Madigan and the Democrats retook the chamber two years later, even though Republicans had drawn the legislative districts to increase their chances of winning.
Madigan remained in power until 2021, when the federal investigation into Madigan’s allies and questions about how his staff handled sexual harassment allegations weakened the speaker’s standing in his caucus. In the end, it was Democrats, not Republicans, who pushed Madigan aside as speaker last January.
Once Madigan lost his role as speaker, he resigned his seat in the Illinois House and his other political positions, including chair of the state Democratic Party, as well.
But the fact that Madigan’s retirement comes after he was forced from public office, and at a time when he nears his 80th birthday, could diminish its political impact.
Illinois Democrats were quick to show that they had already acted to put the Madigan era behind them.
“The era of corruption and self-dealing among Illinois politicians must end,” Gov. JB Pritzker said. “The conduct alleged in this indictment is deplorable and a stark violation of the public’s trust. Michael Madigan must be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”
House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, though, said the Madigan indictments reflected on Democrats who still control Illinois government.
“This is not just an indictment against Michael Madigan,” he said, “but it’s an indictment against the Democrat Party of Illinois that he ran for decades. It also starts at the top with Gov. Pritzker, who was elected with the full force and backing of Michael Madigan.”
The Illinois indictments sent a message to people in government, as well as to the general public, said Howard Master, a managing director at the global investigations firm of Nardello & Co. and a former prosecutor who helped lead the criminal investigation of New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
“It’s important, because it represents the culmination of years of investigation of apparently a very entrenched and very powerful group of officeholders at the state and local level, who were together using their power and influence to benefit themselves financially instead of working solely in the public interest,” he said. “The details in the indictment lay bare how transactional this group allegedly was. In order to get certain things, [according to the indictment] you needed to give them financial benefits.”
“Part of the reason for [bringing the indictments] is not just to hold people accountable but to deter others from thinking it was OK to do that,” added Master, who teaches courses on public corruption as an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania's law school.
The cases against Silver and Madigan bore some striking similarities, he said, especially because both were charged with using law firms that handle real estate tax appeals to collect money as part of their illegal schemes.
Silver died in prison earlier this year, while serving a sentence for helping a cancer researcher and real estate firms that gave business to Silver's law firms.
New York state politics have changed in the years since federal prosecutors first brought corruption cases against Silver and state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos in 2015, Master noted. The number of prosecutions of state lawmakers there has declined, state ethics laws have been strengthened and the most “blatant excesses and misconduct” have been curbed, he said.
“As prosecutors, we felt we had to rid this state of this corrupt culture,” he said. “It doesn’t mean you’re going to get better outcomes in government, but at least you'll get more honest outcomes.”
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter at Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C. He covered Madigan as an Illinois statehouse reporter from 2000 to 2005.