ComEd bribery trial: Defense casts charges as ‘honest, legal lobbying’

Michael Madigan
Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, listens to the final debate on Senate Bill 9, a tax hike bill, on the floor of the Illinois House during the overtime session at the Illinois State Capitol, Sunday, July 2, 2017, in Springfield, Ill. Photo credit Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register] Budget

CHICAGO — ComEd’s former top lawyer confirmed Wednesday that he — not ComEd executive Anne Pramaggiore — made the decision in 2011 to hire a law firm with political ties to Michael Madigan as ComEd tried to pass a key bill in Springfield.

So given that Pramaggiore is now on trial for an alleged bribery conspiracy revolving around Madigan, her defense attorney sarcastically asked Thomas O’Neill whether he then went to Pramaggiore, confessed and said, “I lost my head and I just bribed Mike Madigan.”

O’Neill confirmed he did not.

Still, the episode punctuated a day in which defense attorneys sought to flip the script on what they’ve characterized as the feds’ “dark theory,” for which Pramaggiore and three other former political power players are now on trial.

The four are accused of trying to bribe Madigan when he was Illinois’ powerful House speaker by arranging for jobs, contracts and money for Madigan’s allies in a bid to benefit ComEd.

The indictment outlines four alleged schemes. O’Neill served as a key witness for two of them, but primarily the effort to hire and renew a contract for the Reyes Kurson law firm where political operative Victor Reyes is partner. O’Neill also testified about a bid by Madigan to install former McPier boss Juan Ochoa on the ComEd board.

On trial with Pramaggiore are Madigan confidant Michael McClain, former ComEd lobbyist John Hooker and onetime City Club President Jay Doherty.

When O’Neill took the witness stand Tuesday, prosecutors sought to link the contract for Reyes Kurson to legislation that then passed and drastically improved ComEd’s financial position.

Defense attorneys did not get a chance to cross-examine O’Neill until Wednesday, though. Once they did, they tried to offer jurors a different perspective that revolved around “classic, honest, legal lobbying,” a multi-year campaign to pass legislation, and personal connections.

And when asked by Doherty defense attorney Gabrielle Sansonetti whether O’Neill believed the effort to hire Reyes Kurson “was connected to legislation,” O’Neill told jurors, “No, I did not.”

The legislation at issue was the Energy Infrastructure and Modernization Act or EIMA, which passed in 2011, and the Future Energy Jobs Act or FEJA, which passed in 2016.

Pramaggiore’s attorney, Scott Lassar, spent much of his cross-examination reviewing the major lobbying campaign ComEd launched to get the bills passed as it faced potential bankruptcy.

O’Neill agreed with Lassar there was “no guarantee” EIMA would pass in 2011. He denied that ComEd’s legislative strategy revolved around hiring people recommended by Madigan, and he said he “believed in the message” of EIMA.

O’Neill and another ComEd executive have testified that the legislation drastically improved service for ComEd customers.

The contract with Reyes Kurson was unusual in that it guaranteed the firm 850 hours of work a year. O’Neill sought to lower that guarantee around 2016. He said he ultimately did so, despite alleged pressure from Pramaggiore and McClain amid FEJA negotiations.

The contract was originally signed in 2011, one day before the Illinois General Assembly overrode a veto by then-Gov. Pat Quinn to pass EIMA. But O’Neill said he didn’t believe the bill was in danger.

Legislative leaders were committed to overriding Quinn, he said.

Finally, O’Neill said Reyes Kurson was only paid for work it performed.

Earlier, prosecutors asked O’Neill about the alleged push to add Ochoa to the ComEd board at Madigan’s request. O’Neill testified that Pramaggiore received Ochoa’s resume from Madigan’s office in November 2017. And O’Neill, who said he knew “nothing” about Ochoa, said he wanted to do his “due diligence” and run a background check.

“I had some concerns about someone from the speaker’s staff serving on the board because I felt that that would be somebody pretty close to the speaker who would be on the ComEd board,” O’Neill said, adding that Pramaggiore “wanted to go forward” with the appointment.

A background check found that Ochoa stopped making mortgage payments on a Berwyn property that later faced foreclosure; that he filed a lawsuit when he was running for Berwyn president; and that he received “bad press” for his lack of experience when he was appointed by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich to run the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority. His appointment was seen as a reward for being able to raise funds for Blagojevich — and as a way to connect with Hispanic voters.

But on cross-examination, Lassar asked O’Neill whether Ochoa was an “associate” of Madigan. “He was an associate of ‘Chuy’ Garcia and Luis Gutierrez, wasn’t he?” Lassar asked.

O’Neill, who ultimately gave a green light to the appointment, said he learned Ochoa and Madigan had a “falling out,” and he didn’t know “at the time” of his connections to Garcia, who now serves in Congress, and Gutierrez, who served in Congress when the alleged Ochoa scheme began.

“You didn’t say, ‘We can’t hire Ochoa because it would be a bribe of Speaker Madigan?” Lassar asked.

O’Neill responded, “I did not.”

(Source: Sun-Times Media Wire & Chicago Sun-Times 2023. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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Featured Image Photo Credit: Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register] Budget