Rich Miller

Rich Miller

Where does the General Assembly go from here?

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By Rich Miller

We’re going to talk some history today.

According to testimony at the federal ComEd Four trial, then-House Speaker Mike Madigan’s former 13th Ward alderperson, Frank Olivo, was brought on as a subcontractor under then-ComEd Chairman and CEO Frank Clark.

Clark retired in September 2011, almost a dozen years ago. He has never been charged, nor has it ever been claimed that he did anything at all illegal. Olivo didn’t officially register as a lobbyist until the beginning of 2012, according to a 2019 report by NBC Chicago.

Olivo was put on ComEd lobbyist Jay Doherty’s payroll as a subcontractor, according to a secretly recorded video of a conversation Doherty had with ComEd’s top in-house lobbyist at the time, Fidel Marquez. Doherty explained that John Hooker, ComEd’s former top in-house lobbyist, was the person who carried the news to him.

RichMiller 1

Rich Miller

It didn’t stop there, of course. The alleged ComEd scheme was drastically expanded and even perfected under Clark’s successor, ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore, who appeared to express surprise when she was told by Marquez how, long ago, Olivo had been hired and by whom. “Oh my God,” she said on a secret government recording when told the news.

Pramaggiore, Doherty, Hooker and former Statehouse lobbyist Mike McClain are now all on trial for allegedly carrying out a massive scheme to bribe Mike Madigan.

Give Madigan an inch and he would always try to take a mile. But this sort of thing often happens with big bureaucracies, private and public. Assign a bureaucracy a task, and it will tend to stay on that path, sometimes to a ridiculously absurd conclusion–although rarely does that conclusion wind up with a federal criminal trial as it has here. Putting Olivo on the payroll eventually led to a level of absurdity that surpassed anything seen before or since, even if there are legitimate arguments that the behavior was not criminal.

Needless to say, this is not how it was all supposed to end when Frank Olivo was awarded a $4,000 a month Jay Doherty subcontract a dozen years ago.

But there’s an aspect to this lobbying topic which isn’t really being addressed at the ComEd Four trial.

Over the decades, Madigan built a giant “farm system” that became the backbone of his political and Statehouse organization. Young people either started out on campaigns before they were put on Madigan’s Issues Staff or were subsequently sent out to work on campaigns after joining the staff. The most favored were moved up to the top of the in-house food chain, and the most favored of them were eventually sent forth into the lobbying world, where they could make very good money and continue overseeing campaigns, training the young people hired for the next cycle.

Every other legislative leader had a similar operation, although none nearly as extensive as Madigan’s far-flung operation. Madigan, as was his habit, “perfected” it to the point where companies and other special interests believed they had to hire his people as contract or in-house lobbyists, or their bills wouldn’t advance. A buddy of mine recently recalled a conversation with a former legislative leader who only half-jokingly predicted a certain bill wasn’t going anywhere because the proponents hadn’t yet hired enough Madigan people to work the legislation.

None of the current legislative leaders have been around long enough yet to set up anything like that. Senate President Don Harmon is the most senior leader, but he’s had the job a little over three years. House Speaker Chris Welch has led his chamber for a bit more than two years, and the two Republican leaders just started in January.

The ComEd Four trial should put a damper on such things going forward. Madigan and the other leaders branded this practice as building “good will,” and the accused have used that in their defense. Those who wanted something done did favors for people close to the leaders to grease the skids and what could possibly be so horrible about that, was the feeling.

But doing such things now could well be seen as attempted bribery by the feds.

To be clear, many of the lobbyists themselves are not the issue here. They participated in a tradition that started long before they came to the legislature. None of them were charged by the feds in this case, after all.

But now the Statehouse leaders need to figure out where to go from here.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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