By: Brad Weisenstein
Editor, Illinois Policy Institute.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker made an unqualified demand for state Sen. Tom Cullerton’s resignation after he was indicted on bribery charges. He made an unqualified demand for state Sen. Martin Sandoval’s resignation as a committee chair after his office was raided by federal agents. He made an unqualified demand for state Rep. Luis Arroyo’s resignation as a committee chair after he was charged with bribery.
On the day federal prosecutors revealed Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan was at the center of a massive bribery scheme, Pritzker’s response July 17 was more nuanced, a qualified call for a resignation – if true.
“If these allegations of wrongdoing by the Speaker are true, there is no question that he will have betrayed the public trust and he must resign therefore,” Pritzker said.
Pritzker in January explained his standard, saying he called on Cullerton, Sandoval and Arroyo to resign when there was “clear” evidence of targeting by criminal investigators. “That’s the point at which folks should step aside,” he told Springfield political blogger Rich Miller.
The Madigan “if” came from Pritzker after federal prosecutors released details about Commonwealth Edison agreeing to a $200 million fine for a bribery scheme intended to influence Madigan and obtain his support on key bills. The scheme included $1.3 million in contracts and payments to Madigan cronies, as well as hiring Madigan’s picks for ComEd jobs from meter reader on up.
Madigan’s office was also served July 17 with a grand jury subpoena for documents related to the federal probe.
Only two Democrats, state Sen. Melinda Bush, D-Grayslake, and Rep. Anne Stava-Murray, D-Naperville, called for Madigan’s resignation without “if true” statements. State Sen. Heather Steans called on Madigan to resign from his leadership posts as speaker and chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois, writing:
“Some will argue that the Speaker is innocent until charges are filed and he’s proven guilty. But those are not the standards that should apply to his leadership role. Serving as Speaker is not a right; it’s a privilege.
“A leader’s actions must avoid even the perception of wrongdoing. Speaker Madigan repeatedly has violated that trust.”
Fifteen members of Madigan’s caucus were more “iffy” on his resignation, just like Pritzker.
Despite campaigning on a pledge of independence from Madigan, Pritzker has repeatedly shown deference to the “Velvet Hammer,” hiring or appointing at least 35 people from Madigan’s “clout list” to jobs of their choosing.
Madigan is the nation’s longest-serving statehouse speaker, solidifying his power over what becomes law or what is spent during 35 years in the job. He was mentored in the ways of Chicago politics and patronage by the late Mayor Richard J. Daley.
Besides the ComEd probe, federal agents have for several years been closing in on Madigan, raiding homes and offices of six people with ties to Madigan. An FBI informant was wearing a wire during a conversation at Madigan’s law office.
AT&T also received subpoenas this year as part of the federal probe of its ties to Madigan, with the utility hiring many of the same Madigan staffers and state lawmakers that ComEd hired. AT&T’s Illinois president once worked for Madigan.
Madigan has weathered other scandals, including sexual harassment allegations involving his staffers and allies. ComEd lobbyists funneled at least $30,000 to a Madigan state and political aide, Kevin Quinn, after he was fired for repeated unwanted sexual advances to a female campaign worker. About $875,000 from Madigan’s funds was paid to the young worker, her lawyers and Madigan’s lawyers to settle the case. Quinn’s home was one of the six raided by the FBI.
Illinois’ culture of corruption costs the state at least $550 million a year in lost economic opportunity, and that’s just the illegal acts. Legal corruption, including cronyism, costs the state much more and is part of the reason Illinois ranks as second-most corrupt state in the nation.
Reform is possible, but it requires changing the Illinois House Rules that allowed Madigan to gather so much power that even governors fear speaking out against him. Illinois should:
Stop killing bills in the Rules Committee
Stop letting one person appoint committee chairs
Stop letting one man choose who votes in committee
Put an end to shell bills as a way to rush major legislation
Stop letting one man decide when to call bills for a vote
Put term limits on the House leadership
Much more can be done to reform Illinois’ culture of corruption, but so far state leaders seem resigned only to keep things as they are.