Madigan’s legacy of corruption will survive his downfall, unless …
After decades under Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan’s rule, Illinois is corroding from his concentration of power. Robust ethics laws, rules and norms could stop a new Madigan from rising.
With a close confidant and three others indicted for bribery, it looks like the walls are closing in on Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. On Nov. 18, a federal grand jury charged Madigan’s longtime confidant Michael McClain, ex-Commonwealth Edison CEO Anne Pramaggiore, former ComEd executive and lobbyist John Hooker, and former City Club president and consultant Jay Doherty with bribery, alleging a scheme to influence “Public Official A” – who the indictment reveals to be Madigan.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been circling Madigan for at least a year, serving his office with a subpoena related to investigations into possible bribery and patronage schemes involving ComEd, Walgreens, Rush University Medical Center and AT&T. The speaker was asked in September to testify before a special Illinois House of Representatives committee investigating whether Madigan should face discipline for conduct unbecoming a legislator. Madigan denied the request, calling the petition a “political stunt.”
He went even farther to make a statement defending his practice of finding jobs for political allies. “To the contrary, I believe that it is part of my duties as a community and political leader to help good people find work – from potential executives to college interns, and more.” Madigan’s reaction may seem brazen, but in a political culture where lawmakers can work as lobbyists while in office, and where one man can gain so much power that he can determine whether any piece of legislation has a hearing, it should be expected.
A culture of corruption has surrounded Madigan for decades. From the conflict inherent in his work as a property tax appeals attorney while having power over state property tax legislation, to the open secret of his patronage army, to the speaker’s steady accumulation of power used to benefit those who fall in line and punish those who don’t, scandal has stalked his career.
Recently, top Illinois Democrats Gov. J.B. Pritzker and U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth have called for Madigan to step down as chair of the state Democratic Party. Others have called for him to step down as speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives. So far, Madigan has been able to avoid a serious reckoning, but the corruption that surrounds the speaker has become an anchor weighing down his party and threatening his position as state Democratic party chair as well as speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives.
Madigan will exit the stage eventually, but he could not get away with these practices for so long without an institutional power structure backing him up. The speaker has steadily built his power by controlling the redistricting process, amassing powers through the Rules of the House of Representatives, soliciting property tax appeals work for his law firm, and finally, ensuring the conspicuous absence of accountability and transparency from Illinois’ ethics laws. If Illinois is going to make a clean break from the speaker’s decades of corruption, it needs to break the institutional structures that have propped him up for so long.
To counteract Madigan’s legacy of corruption, Illinois needs to:
- Take legislative redistricting out of the hands of lawmakers
- Reform the House rules to reverse the consolidation of powers in the hands of the speaker
- Enact better financial disclosure and conflict of interest laws that require lawmakers to fully disclose their financial interests and will hold legislators accountable for recusing themselves when their interests conflict with the public’s
- Empower the legislative inspector general to open investigations and publish findings of wrongdoing without being blocked by lawmakers on the Legislative Ethics Committee
- Reform lobbying by ending the revolving door and prohibiting state lawmakers from acting as lobbyists while they are in office
In law school, Madigan was given a job with the Chicago city law department by none other than Mayor Richard J. Daley. Since those early days, Madigan has entrenched himself in Chicago’s machine politics. He became a 13th Ward committeeman at age 27, was elected as a delegate to the 1970 Illinois Constitutional Convention and elected to the Illinois House of Representatives a year later.
But it was not until Madigan took charge of redistricting Illinois after the 1980 Census that he showed his political chops at the statewide stage. Democrats dominated in the 1982 election, even though population trends favored Republicans. When the next session convened in 1983, Madigan was elected speaker of the House.
But the map, Madigan’s key to entering the speaker’s office, was challenged for racial discrimination and other issues. In 1982 a panel of federal judges found the redistricting plan unconstitutionally diluted the votes of black Illinoisans.
The Democratic Party under Madigan would go on to draw Illinois’ legislative districts in 2001 and 2011, drawing lines to force Republican incumbents into the same districts to face primaries or abandon reelection. Democrats created districts that were so uncompetitive that in 2020, 44% of the Illinois House of Representatives seats were uncontested and 11 of 22 Illinois Senate candidates faced no opponent, according to the Chicago Tribune. The single time Republicans drew the districts in 1991 was the only redistricting period when Democrats lost the House and the only time since 1983 Madigan lost his speakership for two years.
While polling reveals the majority of Illinoisans support reforming the redistricting process, John Hooker, the ComEd lobbyist now charged with attempting to buy Madigan’s influence, sued to get the Independent Maps initiative off the ballot, winning a 4-3 decision in the Illinois Supreme Court in 2016.
No lawmaker, much less the speaker of the House, should be trusted with drawing their own legislative districts. Illinois needs to adopt a redistricting process that takes that power out of the hands of the General Assembly and places it with an independent redistricting commission, as has already been done in 14 other states with some success.
Madigan’s rise to House speaker brought significant power and influence, which he consolidated over the years to a level unparalleled in other states. Of particular importance are the Illinois House Rules, the parliamentary rules that govern how legislation is passed in Springfield.
Under the current House Rules, the speaker of the House can:
Gut and replace bills: Madigan can amend existing bills with completely unrelated language to circumvent the state constitution’s requirement that each bill be read by title on three different days in each chamber.
For example, Illinois’ entire fiscal year 2020 budget was originally introduced as a bill that read as follows: “The amount of $2, or so much of that amount as may be necessary, is appropriated from the General Revenue Fund to the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget for its FY 20 ordinary and contingent expenses.”
Lawmakers passed the bill in the Senate and went through two readings in the House before gutting and replacing it with all 1,581 pages of the budget.
Hold bills in Rules Committee: Every bill that is filed in the House goes directly to the Rules Committee, which sends it to the relevant substantive committee where they can have a hearing. Madigan can have bills held in the Rules Committee to keep them from a public debate or a vote.
An article from the Center for Illinois Politics details how the majority of ethics bills filed in 2019 became stuck in the House Rules Committee or the Senate equivalent. This includes commonsense bills with wide popular support. For example, 61% of Illinois registered voters surveyed support a ban on sitting lawmakers being employed to lobby local governments, according to a Paul Simon Public Policy Institute poll released in March 2020. Yet there are bills addressing this issue filed in 2019 and still stuck in Rules Committee.
Appoint committee chairs based on loyalty: The speaker can appoint lawmakers to committee chair positions that come with a stipend over $10,000 to reward loyalty. He can withhold appointments to punish those who cross him.
In 2017, former Illinois state Rep. Scott Drury, D-Highland Park, was the only Democrat in the House who did not vote to re-elect Madigan as speaker. In the aftermath, he was the only third-term representative who did not receive a committee chair appointment, according to the Chicago Tribune. Drury specifically cited the stipend as a reason a colleague was afraid not to vote for Madigan for speaker. On top of the power to appoint committee chairs, Madigan is the chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois, which gives him the ability to control millions in the party’s campaign funds.
Swap out committee members for those who will vote his way: The speaker can appoint temporary replacements for any committee member who is “otherwise unavailable,” and substitute that member with another who agrees with him.
The speaker appears to have done just that on behalf of ComEd’s parent company, Exelon, to replace a committee with members favorable to the company’s cause. ComEd is currently being investigated for participating in an over $1.3 million scheme to bribe Madigan.
Michael McClain, a close confidant of Madigan’s and an Exelon and ComEd lobbyist, wanted to gain unanimous support for a resolution backed by Exelon warning against closing Illinois’ nuclear plants. Emails obtained by WBEZ showed McClain identified at least six Democratic committee members for the speaker to substitute to obtain a unanimous vote in the House Environment Committee. That resolution passed out of committee 16-0, prompting McClain to write to a high-level member of Madigan’s staff: “I love you.”
Call bills for a vote whenever he wants: There is no set schedule for the order of business of the General Assembly, including votes, and lawmakers can never be sure when a particular bill will be called for a vote. The House Rules give the speaker the power to change any order of business “at any time,” regardless of what is slated on the calendar.
For example, on May 15, 2015, there were 244 bills scheduled on the calendar. The General Assembly acted on 16 bills that day, and only Madigan knew for sure which of the 244 bills those would be, and in what order they would be called. The rules allow the speaker to keep lawmakers waiting, or to spring a vote on them without warning.
The House Rules concentrate entirely too much power with one lawmaker. The House Rules need to be reformed to:
- Require bills to be read in their final and unchanged form on three different days, only allowing a supermajority vote to suspend this requirement.
- Allow a simple majority vote of House members to discharge a bill from the Rules Committee to give it a fair hearing in a substantive committee or on the House floor.
- Appoint committee chairs by a majority vote of their caucus and appoint minority chairpersons by a majority vote of the minority caucus.
- Prohibit temporary committee member replacements. If lawmakers are absent from a vote in committee, they should simply lose their votes.
- Maintain a set order of business and give lawmakers advance notice of the agenda. The House should not be able to deviate from that agenda without the approval of a majority of the chamber.
Finally, the House Rules should set term limits for the speaker of the House. Mike Madigan is the longest-serving state House speaker in the history of the country. His tenure has allowed him to accumulate enough power to make it nearly impossible to do anything in Springfield without his say-so. The Illinois Senate Rules already set a limit on the term of the Senate president and minority leadership, and the House Rules should do the same. Implementing a term limit along with these reforms would limit the power one person could accumulate in the speaker’s chair.
Conflicts of interest
Madigan’s law firm, Madigan & Getzendanner, was founded in 1972. Since then, his firm has grown to dominate property tax appeals in Cook County. Madigan’s firm works to reduce the assessed value of his clients’ property, saving them millions in property taxes. Former Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios, a Madigan ally in charge of property valuations from 2010 to 2018, attained his position with the help of Madigan’s own political network. But even without connections in the assessor’s office, Madigan’s position as speaker of the House could potentially give him power over decisions that directly affect his clients.
For instance, Madigan waited to disclose his law firm’s relationship with McCormick Place developers in the context of a $60 million bailout related to construction on the building just as negotiations were coming to a head, according to the Chicago Tribune. At the time, Madigan claimed the past work for his clients would “in no way bear [on his] … judgment on the merits of the bill at hand.”
But Madigan has continued to gain concessions for his clients and jobs for his allies, and it is hard to imagine this would have occurred absent his dominance in the Illinois political landscape. The conflict of interest is clear to anyone paying attention, but Illinois’ current ethics laws are unable to prevent Madigan from acting on these interests.
In explaining how this is possible, two key factors stand out: there is insufficient transparency in the financial disclosures lawmakers are required to file; and there are no teeth to the provisions in the ethics code dealing with conflicts of interests. Illinois’ statements of economic interests are mockingly known as “none sheets” for the scant information lawmakers provide in the statements.
And the ethical rules for recusing oneself in the case of conflicts of interest are little more than suggestions, leaving lawmakers on the honor system to both acknowledge and act when a vote poses a conflict. Lawmakers’ statements of economic interest must require a more detailed accounting of lawmakers’ financial and business interests so they will actually give constituents a clear picture. Furthermore, lawmakers should be required to recuse themselves from voting in the case of a conflict of interest, with real penalties for violating this rule.
The patronage system and #MeToo
ComEd shows how Madigan’s influence gives sway over the hiring decisions of firms seeking his favor. In July 2020, the energy company admitted in a deferred prosecution agreement with federal prosecutors to seeking Madigan’s favor by hiring his friends and allies. Madigan was subpoenaed by the FBI shortly thereafter for information related to the federal bribery case. The speaker has not yet faced charges, but the FBI appears to be building a case against him.
This practice of providing jobs to influence politicians and reward supporters is often known as the patronage system, and the ComEd scandal is not the first time it has been tied to Madigan. The speaker’s patronage system made headlines back in 2013. Alex Clifford, the CEO for Metra, alleged in a 2013 memo to commuter rail system’s board of directors that he was pressured to give a raise to Metra employee Patrick Ward, a request he was told came from Madigan. According to the memo, Ward had been a longtime supporter of Madigan’s, donating money to his political campaigns and doing political work for the speaker. Madigan wanted to pay him back for his loyal service, Clifford was told. Clifford alleged he was scolded by certain members of the board for his refusal, and it was implied that by not playing ball he would jeopardize Metra’s funding.
These allegations led to an investigation requested by Madigan himself, and concluded that there was insufficient evidence to find Madigan had violated state ethics laws in the scandal. The report from the legislative inspector general, however, did determine the speaker “created the impression among Metra officials that the speaker’s support for Metra’s legislative initiatives may be linked,” according to a Chicago Tribune article citing the report.
The scandal again exposed the patronage system in Illinois, but there are other examples of Madigan’s use of pressure to favor his allies. A 2010 Chicago Tribune investigation found the speaker had swayed the University of Illinois to admit the relatives of public officials, political operatives and donors to campaign funds controlled by Madigan. According to the Tribune, Madigan attempted to influence the University of Illinois to admit 28 applicants, many of whom would not have been accepted otherwise.
And alongside leveraging pressure to favor his supporters, Madigan’s loyalty to his allies and their loyalty to him have led to a reluctance to discipline them for their misconduct. Madigan’s former state and political aide Kevin Quinn allegedly sent more than 70 texts trying to start a romantic relationship with Alaina Hampton, a Democratic campaign staffer supervised by Quinn. Hampton sued Madigan, claiming his office did nothing to prevent the sexual harassment after Quinn was repeatedly rebuffed and Madigan was notified in writing. Madigan was forced to settle for $275,000. Madigan dismissed Quinn from his political organization, but Madigan allies and ComEd lobbyists began sending Quinn checks shortly afterward, according to the Chicago Tribune. The FBI opened an investigation into the payments, which topped $30,000.
The allegations of sexual harassment in the Capitol finally spurred the appointment of a new Legislative Inspector General in 2017 after the office had been vacant for years. But that watchdog, Julie Porter, later detailed serious impediments to holding lawmakers accountable for wrongdoing. The inspector cannot open investigations, issue subpoenas, or publish findings of wrongdoing that do not involve sexual harassment allegations without approval of the Legislative Ethics Commission. The commission is made up of eight lawmakers, four Republicans and four Democrats, who are tasked with holding their fellow members of the General Assembly accountable for wrongdoing. But the commission can block the inspector from pursuing or publicizing wrongdoing on a party-line vote, meaning partisan lawmakers can protect members of their party from accountability. Porter said that happened during her stint.
If Illinois is going to counter the patronage system that Madigan has built and investigate lawmakers for other misconduct, it will need a robust and independent legislative inspector general. Legislation such as filed by state Rep. Jonathan Carroll, D-Northbrook, would allow the legislative inspector general to open investigations, issue subpoenas, and publish findings of wrongdoing without first seeking the approval of the commission. With this added authority, the inspector would be empowered to further expose the corruption in the Statehouse that the patronage system exemplifies.
Cleaning up other ethical problems to bring Madigan’s era of corruption to a close
While Madigan has presided over decades of corruption, Illinois can break with this trend whether Madigan remains in power or not. The steady stream of raids, investigations, charges, and convictions have gained the public’s attention, and gotten notice from politicians ranging from Madigan’s opponents to members of his own party, including the governor himself.
The General Assembly’s Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform was set to consider how to clean up Springfield before COVID-19 undid their plans, but there is still appetite for change in Springfield. And with leaders from U.S. Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin to Pritzker partly blaming the failure of the progressive tax ballot question and the poor performance of Illinois Democratic candidates on Madigan, it seems like change could come.
The General Assembly should pass a comprehensive ethics reform package targeted not only at Madigan and his allies, but at the culture of corruption in Springfield.
This means reforming the practicing of lobbying itself. Illinois is one of only 14 states without a broad revolving door law that prevents state lawmakers from becoming lobbyists immediately after leaving office. Most states require lawmakers to wait one or two years after leaving office before they can lobby their former colleagues. Illinois should adopt the same limit.
Worse, Illinois allows lawmakers to lobby local governments and state executive agencies while in office, creating the appearance of a conflict between the interests of their clients and the interests of their constituents. When, for example, municipal or regulatory issues come before the General Assembly, lawmaker lobbyists are in a position to potentially cast a vote benefitting their clients. If Illinois is to end its culture of corruption, the state should explicitly prohibit lawmakers from lobbying.
As Madigan’s era comes to a close, Illinois has the opportunity for a fresh start. Keeping a clear line of separation between lobbyists and the lawmakers they lobby will help keep Illinois clear of the kind of corrupt entanglements it has seen under Madigan.
Madigan’s legacy of corruption is as old as his career as speaker of the Illinois House, and the system he has constructed to consolidate power will remain even if scandal or exasperated Illinois Democrats take him down. With or without Madigan, the structure of corruption will have to be dismantled.
Illinois can begin this process by taking the redistricting process out of the hands of lawmakers, by reforming the House Rules, by strengthening ethics rules to mandate transparency and hold lawmakers accountable for their conflicts of interest, and by freeing the legislative inspector general to investigate and publicize wrongdoing without hindrance from lawmakers.
Without these reforms, Madigan’s legacy will be a different House speaker wielding the same corrupting powers.