A fall campaign season where ethics was going to be one of the campaign issues took a new turn last week with the move by House Republicans to form a committee to look into House Speaker Michael Madigan’s dealings with Commonwealth Edison.
Madigan called the move a "political stunt" and issued a lengthy, strongly worded statement highly critical of House Republican Leader Jim Durkin.
At the same time a special committee will be investigating Madigan, lawmakers expect to hold hearings on a long-awaited package of ethics reform measures that lawmakers from both parties have been demanding since three legislators in quick succession faced federal charges for a variety of wrongdoing. A fourth lawmaker has since been charged.
House Majority Leader Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, said last week the plan remains to have ethics reform proposals put out for discussion this fall with the idea the General Assembly could vote on them during the veto session. Harris is co-chair of the Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform.
Harris said he doesn’t think the activities of the Special Investigating Committee looking into Madigan will have any effect on the ethics reform proposals. Although the commission hasn’t met in months, Harris said it had already accumulated testimony from various interest groups that will be used to help formulate ethics recommendations.
He also doesn’t expect any potential partisan rancor over the Madigan investigation to carry over to the commission’s work.
"On the ethics commission, the Republican members, the Democrat members, the public members, we’ve all worked very well together and very collaboratively," he said. "Obviously, there will be potentially some differences on what the end product should be, but I don’t think the other activities will impact our working together."
Just how the committee investigating Madigan will work is being developed. A first meeting is planned for Thursday. Committee Chair Rep. Emanuel "Chris" Welch, D-Hillside, said he’s not sure how many times the committee may meet or how long the process will take.
"Number one, our guiding post has to be that Speaker Madigan, just like any other member of the House, is entitled to due process and a fair process," he said. "What that looks like we don’t know. We have to discuss this as a group."
ComEd agreed to pay a $200 million fine after federal prosecutors charged the utility with one count of bribery. They said ComEd gave contracts and jobs to Madigan associates in an attempt to curry favor with the Speaker. The bribery count will be dropped in the future if ComEd continues to cooperate with prosecutors in their on-going investigation.
Madigan has not been charged with anything and has denied any wrongdoing.
Like Harris, Welch doesn’t think the Madigan investigation will get entwined with the work of the ethics commission.
"It is two separate committees. We are going to follow the House rules for this special committee," Welch said. "I believe those are two separate things."
With the committee evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, it is unlikely the votes will materialize to take action against Madigan. Even if the committee were to recommend charges, the issue goes before another panel which decides if it should go to the full House. Finally, it would take a three fifths vote of the House to reprimand or censure Madigan and a two-thirds vote to expel him.
Retired University of Illinois-Springfield political scientist Kent Redfield said he’s not even sure what kind of case House Republicans will be able to make against Madigan. The U.S. Attorney’s office has said it is continuing to investigate political corruption issues. When news of the investigating committee surfaced, Durkin said the U.S. Attorney’s office was notified of it and that it will not interfere with the federal investigation.
Based on that, Redfield said he’s not sure where the House committee investigation is headed.
"It’s not clear to me what they are going to look at or who they’re going to talk to," Redfield said. "The U.S Attorney doesn’t want the ComEd people answering questions and going on the records on things that might come up in some kind of trial."
He said it is doubtful that any potential targets of the feds will want to testify to state lawmakers about things federal investigators may be interested in. Moreover, a defense attorney wouldn’t allow a client to put himself in jeopardy by testifying, he said.
"I’m not sure what happens with this beyond a flurry of headlines before the election," he said. "If you could get the speaker in there to take the Fifth Amendment before the election that would not be good. But I don’t know how they make that happen."
Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, said there are more than headlines to be had from the House investigation.
"I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s ethics related legislation that comes out of that," he said. "I certainly think the potential is there to have bi-partisan legislation (from the hearings)."
At the same time, Democrats have to be careful in how they approach the issue, Redfield said. They can slow-walk the proceedings and have people complain about their tactics or they can bring people in and watch them plead the Fifth Amendment.
"It does put the Democrats in a double bind," said Redfield. "They’re either going to look like they’re obstructing things or the people under suspicion are going to have to refuse to cooperate."
The offshoot of it all may be to motivate Democrats to an even greater degree to get behind meaningful ethics legislation. Redfield said it would be an important step toward rehabilitating the party’s image in the wake of four Democratic lawmakers facing federal criminal charges in a little over a year and the cloud now hanging over Madigan.
Whether it gets done during the veto session is unclear given the push by the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus to pass comprehensive legislation promoting racial equality and criminal justice reform. But Redfield also said it could be an effective first act for the General Assembly that is seated in January.
Contact Doug Finke: email@example.com, 788-1527, twitter.com/dougfinkesjr