ComEd was pressured to hire politically connected law firm as it fought for key Illinois bill: testimony
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - ComEd’s financial future might have been on the line with a hard-fought bill pending before the Illinois legislature late in 2011, but the utility’s top lawyer at the time suddenly found himself under pressure to deal with another priority, he testified Tuesday.
Signing the law firm of political operative Victor Reyes to an unusual three-year contract with ComEd, which guaranteed Reyes’ firm 850 hours of legal work a year.
Thomas O’Neill, ComEd’s former general counsel, explained to jurors the pressure he felt in 2011, and again in 2016, to sign and renew the contract for the Reyes Kurson law firm. He said it largely came from lobbyist Michael McClain, who often seemed to be doing the bidding of then-Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan, a Reyes ally.
O’Neill said he was ultimately told to "just get it done" by Anne Pramaggiore, who rose to become ComEd’s CEO with a legislative strategy that amounted to "what’s important to the speaker is important to ComEd."
O’Neill explained this all during the trial of McClain, Pramaggiore and two other former political power players on trial for an alleged conspiracy to bribe Madigan.
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He said he first signed the deal with Reyes Kurson on Oct. 25, 2011 — but wasn’t aware at the time that Reyes also played a role in fundraising for Madigan. The deal was signed one day before the Illinois General Assembly passed a bill that turned around the fortunes of ComEd.
"I just felt there was a lot of persistent pressure to get it done," O’Neill said. "I had said I was going to do it. And so we went forward. I went forward."
On trial along with McClain and Pramaggiore are former ComEd lobbyist John Hooker and onetime City Club President Jay Doherty. O’Neill became the trial’s first witness to drill down into the heart of the allegations against the four, who are accused of arranging for jobs, contracts and money for Madigan allies while key legislation moved through Springfield.
Among the schemes alleged in the indictment was the effort to have ComEd hire and renew the unusual contract for Reyes Kurson.
McClain attorney Patrick Cotter promised jurors last week they would "hear no words" linking job recommendations from Madigan with any piece of legislation. The explicit connection has yet to be made, but prosecutors have seemed to work methodically to link the hiring pressure described by O’Neill to key bills.
The trial’s first few days featured testimony that painted McClain as a Madigan emissary, known to pass along the speaker’s demands. Now, jurors have heard how McClain bypassed O’Neill to keep ComEd from limiting the hours promised to Reyes Kurson.
And it happened while ComEd was in the midst of bill negotiations in Springfield.
"Mike went over my head to Anne [Pramaggiore] directly," O’Neill told jurors.
A ComEd headquarters building, July 17, 2020, in the 3400 block of North California Avenue in Chicago. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
O’Neill said the pressure campaign began as he was deep in the fight to pass the Energy Infrastructure and Modernization Act, or EIMA, in 2011. The bill had passed both chambers but had been vetoed by then-Gov. Pat Quinn.
Another ComEd executive has said EIMA and 2016’s Future Energy Jobs Act, or FEJA, took ComEd from the brink of bankruptcy to record earnings in 2022.
O’Neill said he began to hear from McClain and Hooker in 2011 about hiring Reyes Kurson. O’Neill said he’d met with Reyes in June of that year. But McClain began to pester him about it, and Hooker told him "you need to move" on the deal and "it’s important we get this done."
O’Neill said he "wanted to push it off when I had more time" because he was fighting to get EIMA passed. He said he acquiesced and hired the firm in part because of the pressure, but also because it was minority-owned and specialized in areas of interest to ComEd.
He said Reyes Kurson did not work its 850 hours in 2012, but as time passed it exceeded the guarantee in its contract. O’Neill said he made sure through his staff "that the work they were doing was of value to the company."
The contract was up for renewal again in 2016 — the year ComEd returned to the legislature to pass FEJA. But O’Neill said he’d heard from a ComEd lawyer that "850 hours is way, way too many. We just do not have that much work for them."
So O’Neill began pushing to reduce the hours for Reyes Kurson. That eventually prompted McClain, a ComEd lobbyist, to send an email directly to Pramaggiore, ComEd’s CEO. In it, McClain used his typical code for Madigan: "our Friend."
"Well, I hate to bring this to your attention but I must," McClain wrote. "Sorry. I am sure you know how valuable Victor is to our Friend."
McClain added, "I know the drill and so do you. If you do not get involve [sic] and resolve this issue of 850 hours for his law firm per year then he will go to our Friend. Our Friend will call me and then I will call you. Is this a drill we must go through?"
Pramaggiore wound up forwarding McClain’s email to O’Neill without comment. O’Neill said he also wound up forwarding a separate email to Pramaggiore, without comment, that discussed ComEd’s consulting contract with Roosevelt Group, Reyes’ separate lobbying firm.
"Because I felt he was double-dipping," O’Neill said.
O’Neill sent his email to Pramaggiore one minute after she sent hers.
Defense attorneys are expected to cross-examine O’Neill on Wednesday.
Also Tuesday, state Rep. Robert "Bob" Rita returned to the stand after telling jurors that Madigan ruled the Illinois House "through fear and intimidation." Defense attorneys had their chance to press the Blue Island Democrat further on that assessment.
"When you say fear, you’re not talking about physical harm?" Cotter asked. "You’re not saying that Mike Madigan was running around, waving a gun at you?"
Rita said no.
"When you say fear, you’re saying people feared the political consequences of their vote?" Cotter asked.
Rita responded, "Yeah. That and assignments on the state side."