ComEd made its first court appearance Tuesday since being hit with bombshell federal bribery charges involving House Speaker Michael Madigan’s political operation -- and if all goes as planned, it may be one of the company’s last.
In a brief hearing at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse, prosecutors and lawyers for ComEd agreed that after a formal arraignment next week, the company would not have to return to court until 2023, when a three-year deferred prosecution agreement with the government is set to expire.
ComEd has agreed to pay a record $200 million fine and cooperate in the ongoing probe of its lobbying practices in Springfield in exchange for the charges being dropped at the end of the agreement period.
In announcing the charges earlier this month, prosecutors accused ComEd of orchestrating a “yearslong bribery scheme” involving jobs, contracts and payments to Madigan allies. Prosecutors said the utility attempted to “influence and reward” Madigan by providing financial benefits to some close to him, often through downstate lobbyist Michael McClain, a key confidant and adviser at the center of the probe.
Madigan, the nation’s longest-serving speaker and Illinois Democratic Party chairman, has not been charged with any wrongdoing and is identified in court papers as “Public Official A.”
In court Tuesday, U.S. District Judge John Kness said this was his first new criminal case since his appointment to the bench shortly before the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Amarjeet Bhachu told the judge that due to the deferred prosecution agreement, ComEd does not have to enter a plea at its Aug. 5 arraignment. Reid Schar, lead attorney for ComEd, said if the company did enter a plea, it would be not guilty.
“There may be no need to come back short of the government ultimately dismissing the (charges) at the end of the three years,” said Schar, who as an assistant U.S. attorney a decade ago led the prosecution of Illinois’ previous “Public Official A,” former-Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
But while the charges against ComEd will likely sink into the background after the arraignment, the case is far from over. In announcing the case on July 17, U.S. Attorney John Lausch said the investigation is “vibrant, and it will continue.”
The investigation appears to go well beyond ComEd. In a subpoena sent to Madigan’s office on the day the ComEd charges were announced, authorities sought records related to AT&T, Walgreens and Rush University Medical Center. The subpoena also sought records related to Madigan’s political organization and law firm, as well as former state lawmakers and current or former Chicago aldermen.
Last week, the Chicago Tribune reported that AT&T had also been subpoenaed by federal prosecutors in relation to its Springfield lobbying, which involved many of the same Madigan-connected power brokers employed by ComEd.