Prosecutors rest case in ComEd bribery trial as former CEO plans to take stand in her defense
By HANNAH MEISEL
Capitol News Illinois
CHICAGO – Federal prosecutors on Wednesday rested their case against three ex-lobbyists and the former CEO of electric utility Commonwealth Edison in a trial where the four stand accused of orchestrating a yearslong bribery scheme to influence Illinois’ most powerful politician.
On Thursday, the jury will likely begin hearing from one of the four defendants, ComEd’s former CEO Anne Pramaggiore, who will take the rare and risky step of testifying in her own defense. The other three defendants have not yet decided whether they’ll do the same, their attorneys said Wednesday.
Pramaggiore and the three lobbyists allegedly arranged for ComEd jobs and contracts for allies of longtime Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, several of whom performed little to no work for their monthly subcontracting checks of $4,000 to $5,000. In exchange, prosecutors say, Madigan made the utility’s typically uphill battle for legislation in Springfield less difficult.
The government built its case over 15 days of testimony from nearly 40 witnesses. They showed jurors hundreds of emails and played dozens of wiretapped phone calls, in addition to a handful of secretly recorded videos made by a ComEd executive-turned-cooperating witness.
In the final wiretapped recording played for the court, defendant Mike McClain, who spent decades lobbying for ComEd and was also a close confidant of Madigan, was speaking with Will Cousineau, Madigan’s longtime political director who was in his second year of contract lobbying.
“Will, at one point in time I had maybe five consultants working for me, and all they really ever did was give me pieces of paper,” McClain said on the Aug. 2018 wiretapped call, explaining the no-work contracts that have been a central point in the government’s case.
Cousineau testified under immunity earlier in the trial and acknowledged that McClain had hoped he’d follow in his footsteps as the utility’s top outside lobbyist.
“Not saying that will happen to you in the future, but it helps you to be flexible,” McClain explained, referring to requests for job placements that Madigan would make.
“Yeah, ‘Just for a few months can you hire him for a few months?’” McClain said of Madigan’s requests. “So…you want to be nimble enough to say, ‘of course, of course.’”
Pramaggiore’s attorneys are presenting their defense first, while McClain’s case will be last in the trial that began March 14. It was originally expected to last anywhere from six to eight weeks.
The first witness for Pramaggiore on Wednesday was Val Jensen, a now-retired executive from ComEd and its parent company, Exelon, who worked closely with Pramaggiore for more than a decade.
Jensen testified that when he first met Pramaggiore, she “seemed unlike any utility executive” he encountered over a decades-long career spent in utility regulation and renewable energy consulting.
“In my experience, they’re not always the most awesome guys to hang out with…but she was described as very different,” Jensen said – a prediction he testified was borne out over the course of their relationship.
“I think she’s very honest,” he said. “I was never in a situation where I felt like she wasn’t being honest.”
Jensen spent the bulk of his testimony recounting ComEd’s hard-won legislative battles from Pramaggiore’s time as CEO, reminding the jury that Madigan had a reputation for disdain of utility companies.
Jensen testified to the concessions the company was forced to make while negotiating with top attorneys for the speaker’s office, who engaged in similar processes for many consequential pieces of legislation.
In 2011, for example, ComEd’s signature “Smart Grid” legislation was pared down through months of negotiations. Jensen echoed other witnesses who’ve testified that Madigan’s attorneys forced ComEd to cut down favorable bill language in four key areas.
One included agreeing to a five-year sunset for a provision called the “formula rate” – a new way in which ComEd could get higher electric rates approved by state regulators after a period of financial hardship for the utility. ComEd was seeking to invest millions in rebuilding its electric grid. In negotiating with Madigan’s attorneys, the company agreed to high-stakes conditions that would require it to meet certain reliability metrics included in the law or risk losing their formula rate.
Jensen testified that while ComEd didn’t want provisions like an automatic expiration for their formula rate in addition to caps on the utility’s profits, but at the end of the day he understood that Madigan didn’t trust utilities – and came to appreciate the concessions as accountability measures.
“Even though we may not have liked these…[the provisions Madigan’s attorneys forced] established accountability,” Jensen said. “[They were] a way to show our customers and the legislature we were serious about this work we were proposing to do.”
Pramaggiore’s attorneys also called to the stand two of the attorneys ComEd negotiated with in 2010 and 2011.
Prior to his 2014 election as an appellate justice in Cook County, David Ellis had been special counsel in Madigan’s office, and in 2011 had been chief counsel and head negotiator on the Smart Grid bill. Ellis acknowledged that Madigan had been “very instrumental” in helping him get on the bench. But he said apart from a brief and friendly phone call in which Madigan called to poke fun at Ellis’ outdated photo in a Northwestern University alumni magazine profile about the judge’s successful side career as a mystery novelist, he hadn’t spoken to the former speaker in “probably five or six years.”
Ellis testified that he knew of Madigan’s distrust of utilities and approached his job negotiating the Smart Grid bill with that same skepticism, emphasizing that one of his areas of specialty was consumer protection. He said he viewed Smart Grid “the quintessential consumer protection bill.”
Asked if Madigan ever told him to give ComEd special treatment, Ellis said no, and he also denied being briefed by the speaker or his allies on what ComEd wanted.
“I was not concerned for what ComEd wanted at all,” Ellis said of his negotiations on Smart Grid. “I was just trying to make the bill better.”
Justin Cox, another top attorney in Madigan’s office, said the same of the 2016 negotiations on the Future Energy Jobs Act, a law driven by ComEd’s parent company, Exelon.
“My goal was not to pass the bill, but did we convene the meetings? Yes,” Cox said. “And did we participate in negotiations? Yes.”
Pramaggiore’s attorneys closed out Wednesday with three character witnesses who heaped praise on Pramaggiore for her generosity and integrity.
Jan Hickman, Pramaggiore’s former speechwriter, said she made a personal appeal to work with her after hearing for years about Pramaggiore – a rising star in the world of utilities where Hickman spent her career.
“Her integrity is unparalleled,” Hickman told the jury. When she sees something wrong, she stops it. When she sees something right, she encourages it. Of all the people I’ve worked for, Anne’s is by far the most solid.”
On cross-examination, Assistant U.S. Attorney Diane MacArthur subtly reminded the jury to take the character witnesses’ words with a grain of salt.
“Do you know what Ms. Pramaggiore’s major was in college?” MacArthur asked Hickman.
“She was a theatre major,” Hickman replied.
The trial continues at 10 a.m. Thursday.
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.