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Closing arguments begin in ‘ComEd Four’ bribery trial

According to federal prosecutors, the gang of former ComEd insiders leaned on ex-Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan in order to pass legislation benefiting the multibillion-dollar energy company's bottom line.

CHICAGO (CN) — Attorneys on Monday began their closing arguments in the criminal bribery trial of the so-called "ComEd Four," a quartet of former insiders with Illinois' largest energy utility, Commonwealth Edison.

The trial against the four defendants – ex-ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore, ex-ComEd executive John Hooker, former ComEd lobbyist Michael McClain and former City Club of Chicago President Jay Doherty, who also performed consulting work for ComEd – began in mid-March. U.S. attorneys indicted them on between six and nine conspiracy, fraud and securities violation charges each in November 2020, accusing them of helping facilitate ComEd's admitted bribery scheme in the Illinois Legislature between 2011 and 2019.

Federal prosecutors allege the four kept Mike Madigan, formerly the Illinois House speaker and chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party, happy by providing jobs and payments to a number of his political allies and underlings. In exchange, Madigan allegedly ensured that state lawmakers passed several bills which benefitted ComEd's bottom line - even at the expense of Illinois energy customers. ComEd admitted to the bribery scheme and paid a $200 million fine in 2020 in exchange for a deferred prosecution agreement.

A 111-page independent report from December 2020 subsequently found the company had pulled in $4.7 billion more in earnings from 2013 to 2019 than it would have had those laws not passed.

"Madigan asked, and ComEd gave," Assistant U.S. Attorney Diane MacArthur said Monday.

Madigan, who resigned as House speaker and Illinois Democratic Party chair in 2021, is the most important figure in the suit despite not being named as a defendant. Once one of the most influential politicians in Illinois, he now faces his own federal indictment on almost two dozen criminal conspiracy and racketeering charges, with trial set to begin in April 2024. He has pleaded not guilty on all counts.

MacArthur spent over two hours on Monday going over dozens of recordings and transcripts demonstrating the four defendants' alleged work in arranging jobs for Madigan's people. Very few of them, MacArthur argued, ever did any work commensurate to their payouts from the company.

Pramaggiore, Hooker, McClain and Doherty allegedly also made sure that Juan Ochoa, one of Madigan's former political rivals turned ally, would ascend to the ComEd company board in 2019 as part of the speaker's efforts to win over Latino voter support in Illinois. Ochoa would leave the board without fanfare only a year later, just a few months before ComEd reached its deferred prosecution agreement with the Northern Illinois U.S. Attorney's Office.

"I got that done," Pramaggiore said of Ochoa's imminent board placement in a 2018 phone call with former ComEd executive Fidel Marquez, a recording of which MacArthur played for the jury on Monday.

"Well, Anne, that should be huge for the speaker then," Marquez replied.

MacArthur also reminded the jury that the four allegedly falsified financial records to hide their tracks in bribing Madigan. Their plans, MacArthur said, involved creating contracts for third parties that in turn served as cover for the quid-pro-quo payments to Madigan's associates.

"These defendants knowingly... falsified the records of ComEd and [its parent company] Exelon," MacArthur said.

Among other examples, MacArthur focused on ComEd's contract for legal work with the Chicago law firm Reyes Kurson, which the defendants helped renegotiate in 2016. Reyes Kurson is the law firm of attorney Victor Reyes, a longtime Madigan ally, and MacArthur claimed that Madigan asked ComEd to retain Reyes Kurson in exchange for his help passing the 2016 Future Energy Jobs Act.

The passage of FEJA ensured, among other things, that two Illinois nuclear plants run by Exelon would stay open.

"This was not lobbying, this was not politics... This was using a bribe for the purpose of convincing Madigan to help them pass the bill they needed passed at that time," MacArthur said.

The defendants' attorneys conversely portrayed their actions as routine business practices.

McClain's attorney Patrick Cotter put forward "10 realities" to the jury that he said contradicted the government's conspiracy theory. Among them were that prosecutors had not proven a direct connection between the defendants' actions and the passage of any legislation, and that job recommendations from elected officials - like Madigan recommending residents of his political base in Chicago's 13th Ward for ComEd's summer internship program - are considered legal under federal law.

"If even one of these realities you find to be true... the government's theory is wrong," Cotter said, adding later that "there's nothing nefarious about getting job recommendations from Mike Madigan."

Cotter also said the government had failed to show Madigan ever illegally pressured lawmakers to pass any bills benefitting ComEd. U.S. District Judge Jorge Alonso, a Barack Obama appointee, reached a similar conclusion in September 2021 when he threw out a civil class action suit against Madigan.

"They made [Madigan] out to be a king, that he could pass a bill or kill it by raising his eyebrow," Cotter said.

The defense attorney instead argued that McClain and others had "worked their heads off" doing legal lobbying to get the bills passed - often despite what the attorney said was Madigan's personal antipathy toward ComEd as a company.

"That's how the bill passed, not because of half a dozen jobs spread over a decade," Cotter said.

Pramaggiore's attorney Scott Lassar, in his own closing statements, defended ComEd as a whole in addition to his client. He repeated Cotter's assertion that Madigan was no friend of the company, and denied - despite the company's 2020 admission of bribery in the Illinois Legislature - that ComEd had ever bribed Madigan directly.

"Anytime ComEd asked Madigan to do anything, he said no," Lassar said, later adding that "there is not a hint or a whisper that they have any influence with Madigan... nothing that would even make you suspect that ComEd was bribing Madigan."

"End this nightmare for [Pramaggiore]. Send her back to her family," Lassar told the jury before the trial concluded for the day.

Closing arguments from the other defendants' attorneys are expected to continue into Tuesday, after which jurors will begin their deliberations. All four of the defendants could face years in prison if convicted.

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Categories / Business, Criminal, Politics, Regional, Trials

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