SPRINGFIELD – Republicans in the Illinois House on Tuesday, July 21 called on Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker to convene a special session of the General Assembly to focus on ethics reform.
During a video news conference, Reps. Grant Wehrli, Deanne Mazzochi and Dan Ugaste said there is an urgent need for ethics reform in light of the recent federal charges against utility giant Commonwealth Edison that implicated House Speaker Michael Madigan in a bribery scheme.
“Governor, lead. Call us back into session,” said Wehrli, of Naperville. “Let’s address ethics collaboratively and in a bipartisan manner. To my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, you should be demanding that we get back into Springfield and address this.”
On Friday, July 17, federal prosecutors in Chicago announced charges against ComEd for allegedly giving jobs, vendor subcontracts and monetary payments to people associated with Madigan in exchange for Madigan’s support of legislation that benefited the utility.
ComEd effectively admitted its guilt by entering what’s known as a “deferred prosecution agreement” that defers any prosecution of the charges for three years, leading to a potential dismissal of charges, in exchange for ComEd agreeing to pay a $200 million fine and cooperate with the government’s ongoing investigation.
Later Friday, federal authorities issued a subpoena for documents in Madigan’s office related to job recommendations he may have made for people to work at ComEd. Madigan has not been charged. He has denied any wrongdoing and has said he is cooperating with the investigation.
The charges against ComEd are just one aspect of a long-running and sprawling federal investigation into public corruption allegations involving several high-profile Chicago-area Democrats.
In August 2019, Sen. Tom Cullerton, then chairman of the Senate Labor Committee, was indicted on embezzlement charges for allegedly being on a ghost payroll of a Chicago-area labor union. He has pleaded not guilty and remains in the Senate.
In November 2019, former Rep. Luis Arroyo was forced to resign after he was charged with a felony for attempting to bribe an unnamed state senator to support gaming legislation that would have benefitted a client of Arroyo’s private lobbying firm. Madigan, in fact, was among those who urged Arroyo to resign, calling the allegation against him “beyond extraordinary.”
Arroyo has pleaded not guilty and remains free on bond while his court proceedings, like many proceedings in federal court, have been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Also in November, former Sen. Martin Sandoval, then chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, was forced to resign after federal agents executed a search warrant on his Statehouse office, later indicting him on charges of bribery and tax evasion in connection with payments he had received from individuals connected to a company that provides red light cameras to local governments in the Chicago area.
Sandoval later pleaded guilty but his sentencing was delayed in exchange for his cooperation with further investigations.
Throughout those investigations, it remained unclear whether the federal dragnet would ensnare Madigan, the state’s most powerful Democrat who serves simultaneously as House speaker and chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party. He has served as speaker for all but two years since 1983.
Madigan’s name often came up in connection with ComEd lobbying contracts. But it wasn’t until Friday that the House Speaker was implicated in direct connection with criminal charges against another entity.
Meanwhile, the steady stream of news stories about investigations and indictments prompted bipartisan calls last year for broad ethics reform. But during the fall veto session last year, instead of enacting substantive legislation, lawmakers formed a special commission to study reform proposals and make recommendations to the 2020 General Assembly.
That commission met several times and received extensive public testimony from reform advocates, but never produced a final report, and the 2020 session ended up being cut short because of the pandemic.
Since Friday, July 17, however, Republicans in the General Assembly have renewed their calls for ethics reform, and many have openly called for Madigan to resign.
Reaction among legislative Democrats has, for the most part, been more measured.
Some — including the 12 members of the Illinois House Progressive Caucus — have called on Madigan to resign “if the allegations are true.” Rep. Anne Stava-Murray, a Democrat from Naperville who was the lone member of her party in the House who voted “present” during Madigan’s latest election as Speaker, said he should resign outright. Sen. Melinda Bush, D-Grayslake, issued a statement encouraging Madigan to step down as chair of the state’s Democratic Party, Speaker of the House and member of the body “effective immediately.”
“Think about that,” Mazzochi, of Elmhurst, said during the July 21 news conference. “There are 73 members of the House Democratic Caucus. Where’s the rest of them? Where’s the rest of you who say you wanted to talk about ending corruption in Illinois?”
Ugaste, of Geneva, argued that Madigan himself has been the main roadblock to passing ethics reform.
“House Democrats can’t hide from reality,” he said. “At the top of their party are elected officials, some of whom have either been arrested, charged or under federal investigation for corruption.”
Article IV, Section 5 of the Illinois Constitution gives the governor authority to call the General Assembly into special session for specific purposes. But when asked Monday about the possibility of calling a special session for ethics reform, Pritzker indicated he’s willing to wait until the fall veto session, which doesn’t begin until after the Nov. 3 general election.
“So I’m hoping that in November that we’ll be able to take up again the work, by the way, of the ethics commission that was put together in the General Assembly — bipartisan commission — that was doing quite good work until they were cut short by COVID-19,” Pritzker said during an event in Peoria. “So my hope is that we’ll be able to get major ethics reform pushed ahead. It’s a priority of mine.”