Irked Illinois governor to Speaker: End 'political circus'

JOHN O'CONNOR

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said taxpayers “don't deserve a political circus” on Thursday when he gave powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan a choice: Answer questions about a federal bribery investigation which implicates him, or give up the gavel after three decades of iron-grip control.

It was the strongest statement yet from the Democratic governor, coming a day after federal prosecutors delivered bribery and conspiracy indictments on Madigan's closest confidant and three others in an ongoing probe of a decade-long scheme involving ComEd. The utility giant has admitted handing out $1.3 million in no-work lobbying jobs and sub-contracts to Madigan allies in exchange for favorable legislation. Court documents in the investigation have not named Madigan but identify him by title.

“If Speaker Madigan wants to continue in a position of enormous public trust with such a serious ethical cloud hanging over his head, then he has to, at the very least, be willing to stand in front of the press and the people and answer every last question to their satisfaction," Pritzker said at the end of his daily briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic in Chicago.

“We are at an incredibly difficult moment in our state," the governor said. “We are all overwhelmed with decisions of life and death, and economic distress. The people of Illinois do not deserve a political circus on top of that.”

Pritzker's demand came hours after three more House Democrats withdrew support from Madigan’s continued control of the House, first in a joint statement by suburban Chicago Reps. Sam Yingling and Jonathan Carroll, and later from progressive Chicago Rep. Will Guzzardi. It brings to 15 the number of Democrats who have indicated an unwillingness to return the gavel to Madigan when a new General Assembly convenes in January.

If the number holds, the longest-serving leader of a legislative body in U.S. history would be two votes shy of the 60 he needs for a 19th term.

“From the beginning of my career, I thought the system was broken but I was determined to work within the system to do the best I could for the community I represent,” Guzzardi, who began his House career with a 2014 primary victory over a Madigan-preferred incumbent, said in an interview. “It’s reached the point now that there is no more working within the system. It’s too broken and too corrupt and it has to change.”

The 78-year-old Madigan was mentioned again Wednesday in bribery and conspiracy indictments that landed on Michael McClain of Quincy, Madigan’s close friend and once the Statehouse’s most powerful lobbyist; Anne Pramaggirore of Barrington, former CEO of ComEd parent Exelon; lobbyist and former ComEd executive John Hooker of Chicago; and Jay Doherty, a consultant and former head of the City Club if Chicago.

The indictments come after ComEd agreed in July to pay a $200 million fine as part of a deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. attorney for the northern district of Illinois. The utility admitted that its top administrators doled out jobs and contracts for lobbyists and a Madigan-preferred law firm, in many cases with no work expected or completed, to curry favor. Former ComEd vice president Fidel Marquez pleaded guilty to bribery conspiracy in September. He could get probation if he cooperates in the ongoing investigation.

In his lengthiest statement yet on the matter, Madigan steadfastly proclaimed his innocence and defended his record.

“I anticipate some will be disappointed that I was not a party to this indictment and find it difficult to swallow the fact that I have not been accused of or charged with any wrongdoing,” said Madigan, who is completing his 50th year as a state representative. “These same individuals will likely claim this indictment should end my tenure as a public official, even though it alleges no criminal conduct on my part, nor does it allege I had knowledge of any criminal conduct by others.”

Defections from Madigan's caucus began shortly after the ComEd prosecution agreement. Seven women of the House and Senate called for his resignation as speaker, chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party, or both, an indication that there was lingering dissatisfaction over his handling of recent incidents among staff and officeholders of sexual harassment and workplace intimidation. Influential Sen. Iris Martinez, elected this month as Cook County circuit clerk, said at the time: “Women have been bullied over there for a long time.”

Pritzker, who in his 2018 campaign sought to distance himself from Madigan amid the growing questions, said in July that the speaker “ must resign ” if the ComEd allegations are true. After the election defeat this month of his top priority, a constitutional amendment to hit wealthier residents with higher income taxes and unexpected losses by Democrats, Pritzker joined senior U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin in partially blaming Madigan’s troubles and seeking his resignation as party chairman.

With a huge budget deficit and ongoing economic fallout from COVID-19 as Springfield heads into the new legislative session, Pritzker last week disavowed any involvement in the impending choice of speaker, saying, “I’m going to work with whoever (is) the speaker of the House.... And I don’t get to choose, they do, the members do.” On Thursday, he cautioned those members to ”think long and hard about the duties that they owe to the people that we all work for."

Republicans, not surprisingly, have joined the growing anti-Madigan chorus. House Minority Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs and three GOP representatives serving on a special House investigating committee to determine Madigan's culpability and potential punishment said in a video conference that Pritzker should put pressure on Madigan to speak up or step down. And they again called for the committee, chaired by Democratic Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch of Chicago, to undercut Madigan's refusal to speak to the committee with a subpoena to appear.

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Associated Press writer Sophia Tareen contributed from Chicago.

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Follow Political Writer John O’Connor at https://twitter.com/apoconnor