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When it came to a scheme to try to influence the speaker of the Illinois House, a politician so deft and powerful that he is known as the “Velvet Hammer,” a lobbyist had some plain advice for his client, Commonwealth Edison, the state’s largest electric utility, prosecutors say.
“I would say to you, don’t put anything in writing,” the lobbyist warned a senior executive of the utility. “All it can do is hurt ya.”
Whatever officials from Commonwealth Edison did to avoid leaving a trail, it apparently didn’t work. On Friday, federal prosecutors in Chicago announced that they had filed a single bribery charge against the utility, which agreed to admit that it arranged for jobs and contracts for some of the speaker’s political allies and to pay a $200 million fine in hopes of having the bribery charge dismissed in three years.
Even by the standards of Illinois’s famously corrupt politics, the tale laid out by federal prosecutors was stunning.
To win favorable electric-rate legislation that could give the utility more than $150 million in benefits, prosecutors said it carried out a decade-long program to give jobs and contracts to political supporters of Michael J. Madigan, who has served as the state’s speaker of the House for all but two years since 1983 and is the chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party.
Prosecutors said that the program included little- or no-work jobs for precinct captains who have helped Mr. Madigan stay elected in his district on Chicago’s Southwest Side. Prosecutors said Mr. Madigan’s associates indirectly received $1,324,500 from the program between 2011 and 2019.
Mr. Madigan was not specifically named in court documents filed on Friday, but prosecutors refer to him as “Public Official A,” who is the state speaker of the House.
“These payments,” prosecutors said in a statement of facts agreed to by Commonwealth Edison, “were intended to influence and reward Public Official A in connection with the advancement and passage of legislation favorable to ComEd in the Illinois General Assembly.”
Mr. Madigan, who is 78 and is seen as one of the state’s most powerful politicians, has not been charged with any crime. In a statement, his political office said that he has been subpoenaed for documents “related to possible job recommendations,” and that he is cooperating.
In the statement, Mr. Madigan emphatically denied wrongdoing.
“The speaker has never helped someone find a job with the expectation that the person would not be asked to perform work by their employer, nor did he ever expect to provide anything to a prospective employer if it should choose to hire a person he recommended,” the statement read. “He has never made a legislative decision with improper motives and has engaged in no wrongdoing here. Any claim to the contrary is unfounded.”
Prosecutors described their investigation as ongoing, and a news release from the United States Attorney’s Office in Chicago stated that to win dismissal of the bribery charge, the utility must help with “investigations of individuals or other entities related to the conduct described in the bribery charge.”
Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, a fellow Democrat, said Friday that he was infuriated by the allegations, and that Mr. Madigan must resign if they are true.
In court filings, prosecutors quoted plain-spoken descriptions of the arrangement from what they said were conversations between utility executives and their lobbyists.
“We had to hire these guys because [Public Official A] came to us,” one of the utility’s lobbyists said to another one, according to the filings. “It’s just that simple.”
The corruption reached the highest levels, prosecutors say: As part of its efforts to win over the speaker, Commonwealth Edison, a unit of Exelon Corp., even named an associate of Mr. Madigan to their board of directors over the objections of some inside the utility.
Exelon’s chief executive, Christopher M. Crane, characterized the misconduct as the past actions of a small group. He apologized for “conduct that didn’t live up to our own values.”
The deferred prosecution agreement, which must be approved by a Federal District Judge, calls for prosecutors to seek to dismiss the bribery charge in three years if Commonwealth Edison abides by its terms and continues to cooperate with prosecutors.
“A small number of senior ComEd employees and outside contractors orchestrated this misconduct, and they no longer work for the company,” Mr. Crane said in a statement.
Robert Chiarito contributed reporting.