GOP leader files charge against longtime Illinois speaker

The top Republican in the Illinois House filed a breach of public trust charge Thursday against Democratic Speaker Michael Madigan, the longest-serving legislative leader in U.S. history, as a special committee began investigating Madigan’s alleged role in a decade-long bribery scheme at the state Capitol.

Republicans asked the committee to probe Madigan’s activities in the scheme centered on ComEd. The utility entered a criminal agreement with the Justice Department in July to pay a $200 million fine for its role in a bribery conspiracy in exchange for cooperation in U.S. Attorney John Lausch’s ongoing investigation. As part of the agreement, the utility giant admitted that it engaged in bribery with the House speaker in exchange for favorable legislation.

Jim Durkin of Western Springs, the House Republican leader, formally entered the charge against Madigan into the record on Thursday.

“Rep. Madigan engaged in conduct unbecoming to a legislator or which constitutes a breach of public trust” as outlined in the ComEd agreement, Durkin said. He said it includes “engaging in a bribery scheme and extortion scheme, conspiracy to violate federal and state laws, among other misconduct and misuse of the office.”

The Chicago Democrat, who as House speaker for most of the past 40 years has organized several similar investigating committees, including one that led to former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s impeachment, was not present at the inaugural session of the panel directing its attention at him. He later issued a statement reiterating that he never made improper legislative decisions nor sought no-work jobs for anyone and has engaged in no wrongdoing. He has rebuffed requests from prominent Democrats, as well as Republicans, to resign.

If the committee, whose GOP memberships includes officeholders facing difficult November re-election races, finds grounds for the charge, a second committee is chosen to conduct a hearing on potential discipline, which could include reprimand, censure or expulsion.

Partisan tensions arose early over the insistence of Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch, the Hillside Democrat serving as chairman of the panel, that the committee contact Lausch to ensure no interference with the criminal investigation. Republicans feared Welch was suspending the process while awaiting an answer from Lausch.

Welch took offense at the suggestion, but ultimately recessed the committee without setting the next hearing date, saying he would do so after contact from Lausch. Durkin noted he has informed Lausch about his plans. A Lausch spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

Madigan has not been charged with a crime, a point made by Democratic committee member Natalie Manley of Joliet. She said that the committee would be reviewing “criminal activity that has not been charged” against Madigan.

The Republicans’ lawyer, former federal prosecutor Ron Safer of Chicago, said the committee need not rely on a criminal charge.

“In a court of law, a jury is instructed that a charge is evidence of nothing,” Safer said. “This, in contrast, is direct evidence, the deferred prosecution agreement contains actual evidence, actual admissions” by ComEd.

Committee members referred to use of the process only once before, in 2012 when the House expelled Chicago Democratic Rep. Derrick Smith for which he later was sentenced to five months in prison. But a similar process was used in 1905 to oust Rep. Frank Comerford, also a Chicago Democrat, for accusing his colleagues of corruption without evidence.

Following the December 2008 arrest of Blagojevich on political corruption charges, a House committee, co-chaired by Durkin, convened a similar process that led to the Democrat’s impeachment and removal from office a month later.