A couple weeks ago, Democratic Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan found himself in a public forum where he had little choice but to respond to reporters’ questions about ongoing multiple federal corruption investigations.
He was, as usual, clipped in his remarks. But not, as usual, cryptic.
“I’m not a target of anything,” he said.
That may be the case, although his emphatic answer raises questions about how the speaker would know such a thing. The feds, after all, aren’t exactly garrulous when it comes to discussing their criminal investigations.
But if Madigan is not a target of investigators — and he may well not be — there’s no doubt that an array of his political associates are.
That’s why tongues were flapping this week in Springfield, where legislators had gathered for the now-concluded fall veto session.
One of the hot topics of conversation was a Chicago Tribune story that quoted anonymous sources as saying that investigators are taking a real hard look at one of Madigan’s best political buddies — former state representative-turned-lobbyist Michael McClain.
Earlier this year, McClain’s Quincy residence was the target of an FBI search warrant. That’s bad news for anyone.
But the Tribune story piled on with another stunner of a revelation. With court authorization, the feds have been listening to McClain’s phone calls with what surely must be a who’s who of political heavyweights in this state, including Madigan.
Here’s the key factor when it comes to federal wiretaps: They have to be approved by top dogs in the U.S. Justice Department, as well as a federal judge. To get a wiretap authorization, investigators must provide proof “that a specific crime was being committed but also that the target was using a particular phone to do so.”
In other words, this is no fishing expedition.
There is, of course, considerable speculation as to what the feds are up to, and it’s not easy to read the tea leaves.
For starters, there are multiple investigations underway involving multiple political heavyweights in Chicago’s municipal government, Cook County government and various municipalities outside Chicago and the General Assembly in Springfield.
Heavy hitters already have been charged on the basis of wires worn by other heavy-hitters who were caught and agreed to cooperate. Where all this is going will be fascinating to see.
This chapter in the annals of public corruption in this state could be the all-timer.
McClain and others occupy a narrow but powerful niche in this Byzantine affair — the confluence of power, money and influence where the major players ask, “What’s in it for me?”
It involves Exelon/ComEd, an array of lobbyists like McClain, Madigan associates, and perhaps Madigan himself.
What’s the deal? Well, a couple years ago, Exelon/ComEd hired a small army of lobbyists to push a bailout bill through the General Assembly that was characterized as necessary to keep open two nuclear power plans — one at Clinton and the other near the Quad Cities.
After the feds issued subpoenas to Exelon/ComEd, two things happened. The company’s CEO suddenly decided, along with another top-ranking executive, that it was time to retire. At the same time, the company announced that it would cooperate fully with federal investigators under the leadership of outside directors and lawyers and disclosed to the Securities & Exchange Commission that it was the subject of a federal investigation.
So what happened with Exelon/ComEd, the Exelon bailout legislation and the army of close Madigan associates who lobbied for the bailout bill? Was the legislative process regarding the bailout another example of business as usual, an above-board effort to save good-paying jobs, or some combination of the two?
Inquiring minds want to know. But they won’t know until the feds are ready to drop a bomb — or a series of them — on these unusual suspects.
One more thing: The leak about the McClain wiretap had to be calculated to draw a response from those who are starting to get nervous about their futures. Are the feds advertising that it’s time to play “Let’s Make a Deal”?
The possibilities are endless, just like the patience of investigators who are hot on the trail of a passel of slippery Illinois politicians and their hangers-on.
Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is email@example.com.