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‘Go forward with Ochoa’: Madigan kept pressure on ComEd for key board appointment

By HANNAH MEISEL
Capitol News Illinois
hmeisel@capitolnewsillinois.com

CHICAGO – When Juan Ochoa was appointed to the board of Commonwealth Edison in April 2019, it was after a year and a half of delays and behind-the-scenes wrangling on his behalf by some of the most powerful people in Illinois politics and Chicago’s business community.

But four years later, the emails and calls on his behalf would land Ochoa on the witness stand in a federal bribery trial. His board appointment is one of four main pillars of the feds’ case that three ex-lobbyists and the former CEO of ComEd bribed powerful Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Ochoa spent approximately 90 minutes on the witness stand Thursday afternoon, marking the end of the trial’s fourth week. Prosecutors are expected to rest their case next week, and defense could take up the rest of the month.

Jurors on Thursday heard from Ochoa about the 17-month delay between his resume being submitted through Madigan’s office and his ultimate appointment to the board. It was a period marked by a few emails, phone calls and a dinner with two high-ranking ComEd officials – but mostly, Ochoa heard silence between November 2017 and April 2019.

A year prior to his appointment, Ochoa said he received a call from Madigan, who said he’d likely be appointed at the August 2018 board meeting.

“Did you ask yourself why it was that Mr. Madigan was the one communicating with you and giving you information about board seat?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Diane MacArthur asked Ochoa on Thursday.

Ochoa said that he “didn’t give it much thought,” adding that it’s common for elected officials to “take credit” for appointments and job recommendations.

At any rate, Madigan’s call to Ochoa that spring turned out to be a false start, as both a corporate restructuring at ComEd and internal pushback against Ochoa delayed his appointment.

While Ochoa was experiencing more silence after Madigan’s call, his appointment was the subject of several wiretapped calls through the spring and summer of 2018.

In early May of that year, Madigan called Mike McClain, one of his closest friends and a longtime lobbyist for ComEd – and one of the four defendants in the trial. In the call, McClain told Madigan that Ochoa was not a universally popular choice for the board seat.

“I guess Juan’s had some financial problems in the past and stuff like that,” McClain explained, adding that there were some within ComEd who would have rather seen former board member Jesse Ruiz re-appointed to his old seat. Ruiz had stepped down from the board to mount an unsuccessful campaign for attorney general in 2018, creating the vacancy in the first place.

In light of that pushback, McClain told Madigan that ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore – one of the other four defendants– had a question for Madigan.

“Is it important to you for Juan to be on the board?” McClain asked. “If it is, she’ll keep pushing. If it’s not…She’ll try to find something that would compensate him equally.”

Madigan asked McClain how much a board member is paid annually: $78,000.

“Maybe I’ll take the appointment,” Madigan joked, before giving his directive. “Mike, I would suggest we continue to support Juan Ochoa, but keep me advised as to how much pushback there is.”

Two weeks later, Ochoa’s appointment was the subject of another call between the two men.

“Mike, my recommendation is go forward with Ochoa,” Madigan told McClain. “So if the only complaint about Ochoa is that he suffers from bankruptcy twice, so did Harry Truman.”

That same day, McClain called Pramaggiore with a message from the speaker: “He would appreciate if you would keep pressing,” McClain said.

“Okay,” Pramaggiore replied. “I will keep pressing.”

Ochoa was not a natural beneficiary of Madigan’s help; the two had a falling out years earlier over Ochoa’s firing of a former Madigan staffer when he was the CEO of Chicago’s Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority. Earlier this week, the defense successfully requested that the court bar prosecutors from asking Ochoa about that fight while he was on the witness stand.

But Ochoa was close with former U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez and his successor, U.S. Rep. Chuy Garcia. The two had endorsed Madigan in 2016 when the speaker was facing a rare primary challenge from a candidate named Jason Gonzales. In an increasingly Latino area of Chicago’s southwest side, Madigan and his allies sought help from Latino leaders like Gutierrez and Garcia in order to survive the challenge.

From there, Madigan retained his political alliance with Gutierrez and especially Garcia as he ascended to Congress, solidifying his position as the most powerful Latino elected official in Illinois.

Prosecutors framed Ochoa’s appointment to the ComEd board as Madigan’s reward to Gutierrez and Garcia, with whom Ochoa had co-founded the Latino Leadership Council in 2018.

Pramaggiore’s attorney, Daniel Craig, sought to downplay Madigan’s role in Ochoa’s appointment. He emphasized that Ochoa was the one who asked Gutierrez and Garcia to set up meetings with not only the speaker, but also then-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, asking for their recommendations.

“Do you feel like you did the best you could to represent the Latino community on the ComEd board?” Craig asked Ochoa on Thursday.

“Given the circumstances, yes,” Ochoa replied.

The trial resumes at 11 a.m. on Monday.

 

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide, as well as hundreds of radio and TV stations. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

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