Jim Dey | Madigan sticks to script

Jim Dey | Madigan sticks to script

Owing to his unrivaled political power, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan has a habit of dominating the news in Chicago and Springfield.

But last week was truly something special.

Even by Madigan standards, the all-powerful Chicago Democrat made a big splash.

First, there was the news that FBI investigators looking into corruption involving Chicago city officials had tape-recorded conversations in which Madigan was a participant.

The revelation produced screaming headlines, rampant speculation and a typically low-key response from Madigan.

"To my knowledge, I am not under investigation by the office of the U.S. attorney, and I have not been contacted by the U.S. attorney relative to Dan Solis," Madigan said in a written statement that referred to a city alderman working undercover for the FBI.

As is his customary practice, Madigan declined to speak with reporters. One of his surrogates, lawyer Heather Weir Vaught, amplified Madigan's statement with one of her own.

She allowed that Madigan has attended "several" meetings with Solis "over the past five years," including some involving potential clients.

"The speaker has no recollection of ever suggesting that he would take official action for a private law firm client or potential client," Vaught said.

Of course, if Madigan did recall any such incident, he would say so, right?

Madigan says as little in public as he can get away with. Even when he speaks, his declarations are intentionally vague.

One source of Madigan's unrivaled power — House speaker and chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party — is his practice of playing his cards close to the vest, no matter what the format.

That, once again, became clear as the result of the second Madigan revelation of the week — the disclosure by The Chicago Tribune of a deposition Madigan reluctantly gave in a politically related lawsuit.

The federal lawsuit was filed by Jason Gonzalez, who unsuccessfully ran against Madigan in the 2016 Democratic Party primary.

Gonzalez's lawsuit alleges the Madigan campaign recruited two phony candidates to join the race as a means of diverting votes from Gonzalez.

"I study returns, and you know that in my case not every applicant for a ballot in the Democratic Party is going to vote for me. And, therefore, in a primary election, it's advantageous for me to have multiple candidates," Madigan said in the deposition.

The Speaker's campaigns have been linked over the years to the recruitment of phony candidates, usually Republicans, to run again him in the general election. Other than allowing their names to be put on the ballot, they are invisible, spending no money and making no effort to campaign.

Given that Madigan's odds of losing in his 22nd House district are, at best, miniscule, this tactic reflects Madigan's reputation as a man who leaves nothing to chance.

Regarding the 2016 Democratic primary, Madigan denied any knowledge as to how the two phony candidates — laborer Joe Barboza and truck dispatcher Grasiela Rodriguez — got on the ballot. He insisted that was the case even though Madigan aides acknowledged in their depositions to playing key roles in collecting signatures and filing petitions for the two.

Asked why he would drive Rodriguez's petitions from Chicago to Springfield when he was a Madigan supporter, Shaw Decremer replied, "Because someone asked me to."

Who?

"I don't know. I don't recall," DeCremer said.

Madigan, usually a master of detail, was equally vague in his responses.

The Tribune reported that he claimed memory lapses ("I don't recall." "I have no memory." "I don't know.") more than 100 times during a five-hour deposition.

In one exchange, Madigan denied — kinda, sorta — asking his associates to line up phony candidates to run against him as a means of undermining Gonzalez's campaign.

"I don't remember that," he said.

"Is it possible you did," his questioner asked.

"No," Madigan said.

"So you're certain that you didn't?" his questioner asked.

"I don't remember," Madigan said.

Slippery fellow he.

Madigan's not the kind of politician inclined to run his mouth to impress others.His nickname is the "velvet hammer." So does he need to threaten unpleasantness if his subordinates, including Democratic legislators, resist his blandishments?

Does he need to tell potential clients that he can — and will — use his political muscle to advance their interests if his associates make that exact point for him?

Others may talk, but Madigan sticks carefully to his script. After all, power brokers like him never know for sure who's listening in.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-351-5369.

-