CHICAGO - Three weeks after the indictment of former Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan, federal prosecutors told a judge they want to keep their Sept. 12 trial date in a related bribery case that involves Madigan co-defendant Michael McClain.
But in a surprise move during a status hearing Wednesday, McClain defense attorney Patrick Cotter told U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber the defendants in that case would prefer to have it go forward as a bench trial — decided by the judge — rather than as a jury trial.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Amarjeet Bhachu told Leinenweber it was the first he’d been made aware of the defendants’ preference. Leinenweber set another hearing for April 26 to give the feds time to consider the request. All sides would have to agree to it, a requirement that makes bench trials rare in federal court.
If prosecutors refuse to go along, Cotter told the judge the defendants would have a "number of motions related to the jury, etc." that they’d want to file ahead of the trial.
The request for a bench trial could signal McClain and his co-defendants believe they have a strong legal case that would be more appreciated by Leinenweber, a longtime judge in Chicago’s federal courthouse, than a jury. It might also be a sign of concern, given the publicity surrounding the years-long investigation of Madigan and his racketeering indictment March 2.
The case at issue in Wednesday’s hearing, filed in November 2020, deals with charges against McClain, ex-ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore, ex-top ComEd lobbyist John Hooker and former City Club President Jay Doherty. The four are accused of arranging for Madigan’s associates and allies to get jobs, contracts and money in order to influence Madigan as key legislation worked its way through Springfield.
Though the same scheme is charged in this month’s indictment of Madigan and McClain, McClain is only charged with the scheme in the November 2020 case. If that case goes to trial later this year as scheduled, it could serve as a preview of Madigan’s trial.
The request to argue the November 2020 case before Leinenweber comes a little more than a month after the judge declined to toss charges against the group. Doherty had asked Leinenweber in May 2021 to toss part of the indictment, calling the prosecution "shaky at best." His lawyer questioned if the grand jury that handed it up considered whether the jobs at issue were "bona fide" or in the "usual course of business."
Attorney Gabrielle Sansonetti wrote that one of the federal laws Doherty was accused of violating "prohibits any prosecution where the object of the bribe is a bona fide job in the usual course of business."
But Leinenweber wrote that the group allegedly "offered, or intended to offer, financial incentives as a bribe to a public official to influence state laws governing the public corporation that employed them."
"The fact that these incentives were laundered partially through jobs does not invalidate the indictment," Leinenweber wrote. "A company cannot use its payroll line on its accounting ledger to circumvent all Government oversight of public corruption."
The four defendants also argued last year that the indictment failed to allege a necessary "quid pro quo." Instead, they said, it "loosely strings together an assortment of events over a ten-year period of time — largely hiring decisions made by ComEd … at the recommendation of Public Official A — and alleges that, because such recommendations were made in the same decade that legislation affecting ComEd was passed, a crime must have been committed."
"Public Official A" refers to Madigan.
In his ruling last month, Leinenweber found a "quid pro quo" is not an essential element of the crime at issue.
Federal prosecutors also charged ComEd with bribery in July 2020. The utility entered into a three-year deal with prosecutors and agreed to pay a $200 million fine. Another former ComEd executive, Fidel Marquez, pleaded guilty in September 2020 to a bribery conspiracy.