Feds draw near House Speaker Michael Madigan as key confidant weighs cooperation choice others have faced in Illinois corruption cases

Jason Meisner and Ray Long, Chicago Tribune
·12 min read

Federal prosecutors reached the doorstep of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan last week by indicting one of the powerful Democrat’s oldest and most trusted friends in an alleged extensive bribery scheme involving Commonwealth Edison.

But like other major political corruption cases before it, a key question remains when it comes to the charges against Michael McClain.

Will he flip?

McClain, 73, likely marks the clearest path for investigators if they were to get to Madigan, especially considering the speaker’s well-honed reputation for caution, from avoiding phone and email conversations to leaving much of the day-to-day business of politics to a trusted circle of advisers.

If there’s no direct evidence of Madigan’s participation in the bribery scheme, any case against him could hinge on the testimony of an insider, someone who could give a jury a believable guide to how the operation was conceived and directed, where the money came from and went, and, most importantly, who ultimately benefited.

“You’ve got a guy in McClain who clearly knows where the bodies are buried and where the dollars were sent,” said former federal prosecutor Jeffrey Cramer, now managing director at Berkeley Research Group. “This is the first time we’ve seen someone this close to Mike Madigan facing time in prison. … There is going to be a lot of pressure on McClain to cooperate.”

Similar scenarios have certainly played out in Chicago before, with varying results.

The prosecution of former Republican Gov. George Ryan got a decided boost from the testimony of top aide Scott Fawell, who flipped on his boss after investigators put the squeeze on his fiance over her own legal troubles.

In the mid-2000s, federal prosecutors were climbing the ladder in a City Hall patronage probe that had reached into the office of then-Mayor Richard Daley, a Democrat. That investigation hit a wall, however, when Daley’s patronage chief, Robert Sorich, held the line for the mayor and refused to cooperate after he was charged.

In the sweeping corruption case against then-Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a series of insiders abandoned the governor and ultimately helped the government. But it was Alonzo “Lon” Monk, Blagojevich’s old roommate at Pepperdine University Law School and groomsman at his wedding, who offered prosecutors the ultimate insider’s look at how Blagojevich benefited from the spoils of state government.

McClain now sits in a similar position. Prosecutors alleged in the charges unveiled Wednesday he was the key go-between in a yearslong scheme by ComEd to give contracts, do-nothing jobs and other perks to Madigan loyalists in exchange for the speaker’s influence on legislation in Springfield.

The 50-page indictment lays out in detail how McClain allegedly quarterbacked the operation, pressuring executives at the utility to hire a clout-heavy law firm favored by Madigan and pushing a list of hires from the speaker’s 13th Ward political operation for ComEd’s summer internship program.

Among the evidence against McClain are recorded phone conversations and emails in which McClain allegedly refers to Madigan as “our Friend” and warns his co-defendants — former ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore, lobbyist John Hooker, and consultant Jay Doherty — that it was in the utility’s best interest not to disappoint the speaker.

Madigan, 78, has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. In a lengthy statement Thursday, the speaker said that knowing McClain and the others who’ve been charged, he doubted that any scheme as characterized by the government existed.

“To the extent anyone may have suggested to others that I could be influenced, then they, too, were wrong,” Madigan’s statement read. “Had I known about it, I would have made every effort to put a stop to it.”

So far, McClain has given no indication he’s going to roll on his old friend. A source familiar with the ongoing case said prosecutors first asked McClain to cooperate shortly after the FBI raided his home office in downstate Quincy in May 2019. McClain has so far refused the overture, though the invitation has never been rescinded, the source said.

Publicly, McClain came out swinging after the indictment was announced, saying in a statement that prosecutors were misusing the law to climb the ladder to get to their ultimate prize.

“Mike McClain absolutely denies that he has committed any crime, and he will fight these charges as long as it takes, and as long as his age and health allow, to restore his well-earned honest and honorable reputation,” the statement read.

His lawyer, Patrick Cotter, told the Tribune on Thursday that McClain suffers from prostate cancer and cataracts “among other lesser medical issues.”

Whatever McClain’s posture has been in the past, the charges he’s facing are a game-changer, particularly given his age and apparent health troubles, according to Cramer. It starts the legal clock ticking and forces McClain into a making a stark choice between possible prison and loyalty, he said, and self-preservation often wins the day.

“I’ve heard a lot of guys (say) that they’ll never flip, and it’s an accurate statement right up until the moment they do,” Cramer said.

A staunch loyalist

The story of how McClain became a Madigan insider began when the two served in the House together as young legislators in the 1970s and early 1980s.

McClain joined the Illinois General Assembly following the 1972 death of his father, Elmo “Mac” McClain, who also served as a colleague of Madigan’s. Stepping into his father’s shoes in Springfield, McClain’s move to the statehouse echoed the way Madigan had followed his own father into politics, and the two quickly aligned.

Madigan was the up-and-coming Irish city boy endeared to Mayor Richard J. Daley, the master of machine politics. McClain, who appreciated his own Irish roots, was from Quincy, a genteel river town across the Mississippi from Hannibal, Missouri, a community made famous by Mark Twain’s tales of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

They worked side by side in what some may have viewed as the glory days of the Big House, the one with 177 legislators and the unique cumulative voting system that delivered two House lawmakers from one party and one from another party in each district.

McClain included in his bio material in the Illinois Blue Book — the official record kept by the secretary of state — that the Chicago Daily News named him one of the “13 movers and shakers” of the 80th General Assembly, the term covering 1977 and 1978.

When Ryan, the future Republican governor, was elected House speaker in 1981, Madigan became minority leader and put McClain on his leadership team.

Even though McClain played a role in crafting new legislative boundaries after Democrats won the right to draw them following the 1981 session, the Quincy Democrat could not hold onto his House seat in the 1982 election.

McClain soon would turn to the business of lobbying — a hired gun on contract with companies that needed an insider to make a pitch for help from the legislature.

McClain remained a staunch Madigan loyalist and built an enviable list of clients, such as ComEd, Walgreens, the Chicago Board Options Exchange, Illinois Property Tax Lawyers Association and other mighty special interests that wanted something from Springfield.

McClain was known for his ability to bend the elbows of elected officials. During the 1980s, he once passed out to delighted lawmakers sparkling white ceramic coasters with black letters that provided a quote from Gideon Tucker, a 19th century politician, lawyer and New York newspaper editor: “No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session.”

It was just a small gesture, of course, but it was one accepted with smiles in the heat of summer debates. McClain was serious about his job, but he knew a touch of humor could break the ice.

Like most any lobbyist, McClain had his critics, and a lobbyist with his type of juice with the speaker drew many detractors.

Bureaucrats still tell stories about how they remained wary of what they viewed as McClain’s one-on-one wrath, never sure if he came down on them because he was on his own mission or one on the speaker’s behalf.

In recent years, McClain often would hold court outside Madigan’s third-floor offices when the legislature was in session, greeting lobbyists who were graduates of Madigan’s staff and occasionally rising for a private meeting by the brass railing overlooking the rotunda.

After hours, McClain was a regular dinner companion with Madigan at his corner table at the back of Saputo’s, a popular, old-school Italian joint six blocks from the Capitol.

No easy task

Flipping someone as loyal as McClain, no matter how many years behind bars he may be facing if convicted, comes with obvious difficulties for the U.S. attorney’s office.

In 2005, Fawell, the former chief of staff when Ryan was secretary of state, had been considered a reluctant witness at best for prosecutors. But his attitude cooled after prosecutors threatened to push for prison time for his then-fiance, Andrea Coutretsis, who’d been convicted in a bid-rigging scheme at the Chicago Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority.

On his first day on the witness stand, the wisecracking and cocksure Fawell let the jury know he was testifying only because prosecutors “got my head in a vise, basically.”

Ryan eventually was convicted of corruption in the licenses-for-bribes scandal stemming from the time he was secretary of state and was sentenced to 6 1/4 u00bd years in prison.

The tables were turned when it came to the case against Sorich, the nominal head of Daley’s patronage operation who took his case to trial instead of cooperating. Sorich was convicted by a jury along with two co-defendants and was sentenced in 2006 to just under 4 years behind bars.

At the time, prosecutors publicly said the investigation would soon reach even higher, but Sorich’s loyalty to Daley’s political organization helped put a stop to it. Even after Sorich was granted immunity after his case was finished and forced to testify to a grand jury, no one else in Daley’s circle was ever charged.

Whatever calculation McClain makes remains to be seen. Cramer, the former federal prosecutor, said that after McClain is arraigned Dec. 2, his lawyer will begin to get a look at the evidence that prosecutors turn over in discovery, including transcripts of phone calls, statements of witnesses and other records.

That’s when the true magnitude of what he’s facing may set in, Cramer said.

“It’s one thing to say hypothetically that you’d never cooperate when you’re sharing a couple of beers at the bar,” he said. “But until you’re looking at years in prison, you don’t know what that pressure is like. No one understands what that feeling is.”

‘I know the drill’

McClain’s coziness with Madigan and his favored lobbyists ultimately drew the spotlight when federal authorities started sniffing around ComEd’s dealings in Springfield.

In July 2019, two months after the FBI raided McClain’s home, the Tribune reported that investigators were scrutinizing thousands of dollars in payments from current and former ComEd lobbyists to former Madigan lieutenant Kevin Quinn, who had been ousted from the speaker’s political operation in early 2018 amid a sexual harassment scandal.

One of the checks came from McClain and was signed by McClain’s wife from the couple’s joint account.

Those checks tied into a much broader probe into McClain’s marshaling of Madigan-approved lobbyists and consultants, many of whom were paid off the books through Doherty’s consulting firm J.D. Doherty & Associates, according to the federal indictment.

In addition to wiretapping McClain’s cellphone, investigators were also looking into numerous emails from McClain and others that refer to Madigan in veiled ways such as “Friend” or “Himself.”

One such email obtained by the Tribune illustrated McClain’s deep involvement with Madigan’s political operation. The confidential message thanked an undisclosed list of recipients for help on a “secret” project involving campaign fundraising for House Democrats in targeted contests on the November 2018 ballot.

In the message, McClain did not mention the speaker by name, but instead employed a nickname, “Himself,” that some Democratic insiders say they’ve heard him use when talking about Madigan.

“We always called you the ‘Most Trusted of the Trusted,’ ” McClain wrote. “So, again, on behalf of Himself, I thank you for ALL your work to help him and the Caucus.”

The indictment last week also included new emails sent to and from McClain regarding ComEd hiring the Reyes Kurson law firm — headed by longtime political operative and Madigan ally Victor Reyes. When ComEd tried to reduce the hours the firm was to be paid, McClain allegedly fired off a note to Pramaggiore warning her not to upset the boss.

“I am sure you know how valuable (Reyes) is to our Friend,” McClain allegedly wrote. “I know the drill and so do you. If you do not get involve(d) and resolve this issue of 850 hours for his law firm per year then he will go to our Friend. Our Friend will call me and then I will call you. Is this a drill we must go through?”

The charges also identify for the first time at least one direct phone call between McClain and Madigan related to the scheme. In May 2018, McClain allegedly called Madigan to tell him Pramaggiore was getting pushback on placing a Madigan-approved appointee on the ComEd board. The Tribune has identified the appointee as Juan Ochoa, a former McPier CEO who was ultimately appointed to the utility’s board but is no longer listed as being on it.

McClain’s communications in the alleged scheme were also outlined in the plea agreement of Fidel Marquez, a former ComEd vice president who is cooperating in the probe in exchange for leniency.

According to Marquez’s plea, McClain told Marquez in 2013 that he wanted to shift the payments to Madigan operatives from the lobbying firm he co-owned with his wife to Doherty’s firm. Marquez agreed to facilitate the shift, the plea stated.

And in February 2019, McClain advised Marquez on how to communicate with other ComEd officials about renewing the consulting contract for Doherty’s company, according to court records.

“I would say to you, don’t put anything in writing,” McClain allegedly told Marquez. “All it can do is hurt ya.”

jmeisner@chicagotribune.com

rlong@chicagotribune.com

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