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Chicago Tribune

ComEd board appointment allegedly pushed by Madigan to offer glimpse into Illinois’ strange political bedfellows

By Jason Meisner, Ray Long, Chicago Tribune,

2023-03-14
Juan Ochoa, former CEO of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, in 2012. Alyssa Pointer/Chicago Tribune/TNS

One of the central allegations in the “ComEd Four” bribery conspiracy trial, expected to begin Tuesday with jury selection, promises a fascinating look at how the unending struggle over the reins of political power in Illinois can create some odd alliances.

According to the indictment, then-House Speaker Michael Madigan participated in a two-year effort to get a onetime political nemesis, Juan Ochoa, appointed to a lucrative position on Commonwealth Edison’s board, part of a larger scheme by the utility to harness the Democratic speaker’s influence in Springfield.

Ochoa, a businessman, failed political candidate and former boss of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, has not been charged.

Instead, he’s expected to be a star witness for prosecutors, giving his insider account of how the appointment came about, beginning with meetings with Madigan, the now-indicted longest-serving speaker in American history, and several other elite members of Chicago’s political class, including two powerful Latino congressmen and a former mayor.

Buttressed by wiretapped phone calls and emails, Ochoa’s testimony is expected to give jurors a blow-by-blow of how he overcame his ruptured relationship with Madigan to ascend to the cushy, $78,000-a-year position on ComEd’s board despite significant pushback from utility executives who had questions about his resume.

An attorney for Ochoa, Ricardo Meza, declined to comment for this story, but has previously told the Tribune that Ochoa “will testify truthfully about everything he knows.”

Charged in the ComEd Four case were Madigan’s longtime confidant, Michael McClain, 75, of downstate Quincy, former ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore, 64, ex-ComEd lobbyist John Hooker, 73, and Jay Doherty, 69, the former head of the City Club of Chicago. All of the defendants have pleaded not guilty.

Another ComEd official, former Vice President Fidel Marquez, pleaded guilty in September 2020 and is expected to testify against his former colleagues about the scheme to influence Madigan as well as conversations he recorded for the FBI.

The charges allege McClain, a former Democratic legislator and lobbyist whose connections to Madigan go back to their time in the Illinois House during the 1970s, orchestrated a scheme to funnel jobs and hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments and other perks from the utility to Madigan-approved consultants in exchange for the speaker’s assistance with legislation the utility giant wanted passed — or blocked — in Springfield.

Included in that overarching scheme, prosecutors alleged, was the plan to install Ochoa on ComEd’s board, which started in November 2017 with Ochoa’s reach-out to a then-U.S. congressman. According to a recent filing by prosecutors, Ochoa believed the congressman was owed a political favor by Madigan because the congressman had endorsed the speaker in the previous election,

Though the filing didn’t identify the congressman, the Tribune has previously reported that he is former U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a Chicago Democrat and longtime friend of Ochoa’s.

Sources told the Tribune that Gutierrez and Ochoa met personally with Madigan to push the idea, as well as with then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Copies of Emanuel’s official calendars from the time, released to the Tribune via an open records request, show that Emanuel met with Ochoa and Gutierrez at City Hall on Nov. 17, 2017.

Two months later, Madigan called Ochoa himself and advised he “would be contacted by someone at ComEd” about the appointment, prosecutors alleged. But the plan allegedly hit a snag later in 2018 when Pramaggiore reported she was getting negative feedback from others at ComEd about Ochoa’s qualifications and issues in his background.

On May 2, 2018, Madigan called McClain to discuss the problem.

“Yes, so, they’ve got just a little bit of push back,” McClain allegedly said on the call, which was being recorded by the FBI. “I guess (Ochoa) has had some financial problems in the past and stuff like that.”

McClain said that Pramaggiore had floated an idea to him of finding a job for Ochoa within ComEd that would pay the same as a board position, as long as it wasn’t that important to Madigan for him to actually be on the board of directors, according to an FBI search warrant affidavit filed during the investigation and unsealed last year.

“If it is, she’ll keep pushing, and if it’s not, you’re just trying to help him out, then she’ll try to find something that would compensate him equally with that,” McClain said, according to the affidavit.

“And Mike, a board member gets paid how much?” Madigan asked. According to the affidavit, when McClain replied it was $78,000 a year, Madigan laughed and said, “Maybe I’ll take the appointment.”

“Yeah Mike, I would suggest that we continue to support (Ochoa) …. but keep me advised as to how much pushback there is,” Madigan was quoted in the affidavit as saying.

Two weeks later, Madigan again called McClain to discuss the situation. Again, the speaker said to “go forward with Ochoa” even with his apparent baggage. “If the only complaint about him is that he suffers from bankruptcy twice, so did Harry Truman,” Madigan allegedly quipped.

Less than an hour after that conversation, McClain called Pramaggiore to tell her Madigan “would appreciate it if you would keep pressing,” the affidavit alleged. “Okay, got it,” Pramaggiore replied. “I will keep pressing.”

Two more months went by before the next phone call referred to in the FBI records. On July 17, 2018, Pramaggiore, who had just moved over to serve as chief executive for ComEd’s parent company, Exelon Utilities, told McClain the utility was “moving forward” with the Ochoa appointment pending a meet-and-greet dinner and some final hurdles.

And, illustrating how they seemingly worked in tandem, Pramaggiore told McClain to let Madigan know he could be the one to inform Ochoa that ComEd was closing in on the deal.

“So, yeah, that one was a little, you know, took a little bit, but um, yeah, we’re all good,” Pramaggiore allegedly said.

“It’s interesting, how long some things take, isn’t it Anne?” McClain responded, according to the affidavit.

Later that day, McClain called Madigan to give him the good news. Meanwhile, when Pramaggiore called Marquez that evening, they both agreed that getting the Ochoa deal done was “huge” for Madigan. “That’s huge. That’s huge,” Marquez, who was not yet cooperating with the investigation, allegedly said on the recorded call.

But the work wasn’t quite over. In early September, Pramaggiore reached out to McClain by phone, saying she didn’t want to put her update “in writing,” according to the affidavit. She told McClain that “barring anything bizarre,” the deal would still get done, but there were still legal forms and final approvals.

Pramaggiore also expressed frustration with some potential hang-ups her colleagues still had about Ochoa.

“He had a foreclosure or something? I’m like get over it, you know, just get over it,” Pramaggiore told McClain, according to the affidavit. McClain told her he appreciated the effort.

“Of course,” Pramaggiore allegedly responded. “You take good care of me, and so does our friend (Madigan), and I will do the best that I can to take care of you. You’re a good man.”

McClain quipped, “Well, don’t let that out.”

It would be five more months before there was any more movement. In February 2019, Pramaggiore called McClain to tell him the Ochoa appointment was finally happening. McClain asked if Madigan could call Ochoa directly, but Pramaggiore said the bosses at ComEd would like to do it themselves.

What wound up happening, according to court records, was a classic Chicago political mix-up.

On Feb. 19, 2019, Madigan was recorded telling McClain that Ochoa had left a message at his office that morning asking if he and U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia could have a meeting with the speaker, according to the FBI search warrant affidavit. At the time, Garcia, who last month lost his bid for Chicago mayor, had formed an unlikely political alliance with Madigan.

“OK, so you see there’s a request from Ochoa, and Ochoa being Ochoa, the message reads, ‘Ochoa and Congressman Garcia,’” Madigan told McClain, according to the affidavit. “So I called Chuy, and Chuy really didn’t know anything about it. … But Chuy knew there was some delay in the appointment of Ochoa.”

García, whose mention in the phone calls was first reported by the Tribune in January, is not accused of wrongdoing, and he has denied he played any role in the push by Madigan to appoint Ochoa to the utility’s board.

According to the affidavit, Madigan then directed McClain to call Ochoa and assure him that the wheels were in motion.

McClain allegedly placed that call about 20 minutes later, telling Ochoa, “I wanted to keep any angst down, you know? ... This has taken quite a while.”

Ochoa agreed it had been “over a year” since his benefactors first initiated the arrangement, but said his call to Madigan earlier that day was really to get a meeting about a political action committee that Garcia, Gutierrez, Ochoa and other Latino power brokers had recently formed, the affidavit stated.

“So I called (Madigan’s) office today to see if (Chuy) and I can go see him,” Ochoa said, according to the affidavit and sources who identified Garcia’s redacted name. “But it actually has more to do with the ah, with the Latino Leadership Council organization that we formed, we just wanted to brief him on it.”

“Oh, OK, (Madigan) interpreted that you were calling because you were frustrated that this appointment hasn’t been made,” McClain said.

Ochoa said, “probably I would have brought it up, but that was not the intention.”

Two months after that call, on April 25, 2019, Pramaggiore sent McClain a short text message saying, “Just sent out Board approval to appoint Juan to ComEd board,” records show.

The next day, ComEd made it official, writing in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that Ochoa would get the position.

Ochoa received roughly $78,000 in pay and meeting fees for about a year on the board, according to ComEd. He quietly stepped down in April 2020.

Three months later, the U.S. attorney’s office dropped a bombshell : ComEd had admitted to the bribery scheme — including Ochoa’s appointment — in a deferred prosecution agreement that identified Madigan as “Public Official A.”

jmeisner@chicagotribune.com

rlong@chicagotribune.com

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