Do you believe in ‘magic’ lobbyists? Illinois businesses stick by Madigan-connected lobbyists.
Federal prosecutors used a colorful piece of evidence known as the “Magic Lobbyist List” to help convict four former Commonwealth Edison executives and lobbyists in May of bribing ex-speaker Michael Madigan to boost the power company’s legislative fortunes.
More than two dozen lobbyists were on that ever-evolving handwritten registry that Madigan’s now-convicted consigliere, Michael McClain, memorialized on a sheet of hotel stationery with input from the longtime top House Democrat.
Those on the list all had long, Madigan-centric resumes and were first in line, testimony showed, to cash in on an endless and lucrative supply of business from groups wanting to pass or kill legislation in the former speaker’s legislative chamber.
Despite being publicly identified in the ComEd corruption case, none of the other “magic” lobbyists are facing charges as a result of that investigation. One other entry on the list, a former lawmaker, has been charged with tax fraud, but her indictment makes no connection to the ComEd case.
And a WBEZ/Chicago Sun-Times examination of state records shows that these lobbyists appear to have faced no employment fallout from the scandal. In fact, many of the Madigan-favored lobbyists continue to maintain impressive portfolios of blue-chip corporate and non-profit clients.
Nearly eight weeks after the trial’s slam-dunk conclusion against McClain and the other defendants, the Chicago Cubs, the Illinois Health & Hospital Association, the University of Chicago, Walmart and even Commonwealth Edison, to name a few, keep writing checks to the favored lobbyists Madigan and McClain were interested in marketing at the Capitol, state records show.
That’s despite one “Magic Lobbyist” having had his home searched by federal agents investigating the Madigan bribery scheme.
Another was a Madigan fundraiser who was the beneficiary of a valuable ComEd legal contract that prosecutors repeatedly characterized as an illegal favor to the ex-speaker.
Those two lobbyists and a third one on the list collectively and secretly funneled hundreds of thousands of ComEd dollars to no-work Madigan subcontractors at McClain and Madigan’s direction — another main pillar in the prosecution’s case.
One other “magic” lobbyist testified at trial under protection from federal prosecution.
And, finally, another lobbyist that ComEd once had in its stable and who was an entry on the infamous McClain “magic” list is under federal indictment for tax evasion and is set to go to trial in August – and still has lobbying clients.
For this group of mostly legally unscathed, Madigan-blessed lobbyists, it’s almost as if the politically explosive trial never happened.
“I’d like to say I’m surprised by that,” said the jury forewoman in the ComEd trial, Sarah Goldenberg, when told how little the trial appears to have impacted the “magic” lobbyists.
“But knowing we’re in the state of Illinois, I’m not as surprised by that just because our state has always been riddled with corruption,” she said.
Last month, Acting U.S. Attorney Morris Pasqual stopped short of giving a clean legal bill of health to Reyes and to those uncharged lobbyists who employed the ComEd ghost subcontractors pushed by Madigan and McClain.
“I’m going to no-comment that and just make the observation it’s our policy not to comment on why particular charging decisions are made or not made,” Pasqual told reporters after the verdicts.
No lobbyist on the “magic” list responded to WBEZ inquiries. But one top government watchdog said absent action by federal prosecutors, inspectors general at the state, county or city level should pick up where the feds left off and take a hard look at those on the “Magic Lobbyist List.”
So far, there’s little, if any, evidence that’s happening.
“We’ve heard a lot of names of people who haven’t been charged. We know some form of investigation was done. Some were even the subject of search warrants, which means there was substantial evidence to establish probable cause — that there would be proof of crimes at the place that was searched,” said former Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson, who is a former federal prosecutor.
“The question is, are we using the rest of the system to actually conduct basically a vetting and screening of the rest of these folks?” he continued. “And it’s unclear.”
ComEd continues to employ Madigan loyalists
For its part, ComEd undertook a partial house-cleaning of its lobbying corps in 2019, the year before it entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with the Justice Department and paid a $200 million fine to avoid being charged with bribing Madigan.
But the utility company still employs three Madigan loyalists named on the “Magic Lobbyist List,” including a firm co-owned by the ex-speaker’s long-time lawyer, Michael Kasper; former top Madigan staffer Gabriel Lopez; and Frank McNeil, state records show.
Asked why the company has maintained relationships with them in light of the verdicts, ComEd spokeswoman Shannon Breymaier did not directly answer, other than to say “all of ComEd’s lobbyists are subject to enhanced due diligence before they are retained.” She said the company’s external lobbyists also face twice-annual reviews of their work and are barred from subcontracting, among other things.
In any other world, some of the disclosures at trial involving unindicted lobbyists on McClain’s list and captured on government wiretaps would represent a staggering, reputational body blow. But, as one Democratic lawmaker posited to WBEZ privately, this is Illinois.
Here’s a look at who’s on the “Magic Lobbyist List,” how they came up at trial and whom they’re now representing.
Shaw Decremer, Madigan aide
Former Madigan aide Shaw Decremer, for example, lists more than a dozen clients on his 2023 state lobbyist registration. The group includes Major League Baseball, the powerful Illinois State Medical Society and the Gun Violence Prevention Action Committee, a gun-control advocacy organization.
In 2019, federal agents executed a search warrant at his North Side condo and removed a cache of documents and personal effects, including tax papers, a weathered black-and-white photo of a youthful Madigan and records related to former state Rep. Edward Acevedo and 13th Ward political operative Edward Moody.
Prosecutors identified both Acevedo and Moody as no-show ComEd subcontractors, whom Decremer paid more than $130,000 from his own checks he received, starting in 2016, as a lobbyist for the utility company.
A co-defendant in the case, former ComEd lobbyist and City Club of Chicago President Jay Doherty, was convicted and faces prison time for being a pass-through for four Madigan-chosen ghost subcontractors at ComEd. Decremer, by contrast, hasn’t been charged.
Decremer’s payments to Acevedo and Moody ended in February 2018, evidence presented in the trial showed, after losing his ComEd lobbying gig and being dismissed as a political operative from the Madigan-led Democratic Party of Illinois. That upheaval was the result of Decremer being accused of abusive behavior by DuPage County Board Chairwoman Deb Conroy, then a state representative, and several staffers in a 2016 legislative campaign.
Decremer did not respond to WBEZ, nor did MLB or G-PAC. A spokeswoman for the Illinois State Medical Society, which represents physicians throughout the state, declined comment about its continued use of Decremer as a Springfield lobbyist.
John Bradley, former state legislator
Former state Rep. John Bradley lists 15 clients on his current lobbyist registration, including the University of Chicago and the University of Chicago Medical Center. The university did not respond to a WBEZ inquiry about its continuing relationship with Bradley.
Prosecutors contended that Bradley, a ComEd lobbyist until 2019, took over the job of siphoning off the top of his utility company lobbying paycheck to pay Acevedo and Moody for their no-work jobs after Decremer was ousted. Over nine months in 2018, Bradley paid the pair $95,000, evidence at the trial showed. Bradley has not been criminally charged.
Prosecutors at one point outlined how Bradley appeared to understand neither Acevedo or Moody were doing anything to justify being paid.
On one government wiretap played at trial, Bradley told McClain about how he didn’t “hear much out of” either Madigan ghost worker “unless Eddie Acevedo doesn’t get his check within 12 hours of when he thinks he’s supposed to get it.”
The dig at Acevedo, who later was convicted of federal tax evasion and began drawing his legislative pension last year and while in prison, triggered laughter on the recording between Bradley and McClain.
Victor Reyes, Madigan fundraiser
A seeming refuge for a whole stable of “magic” lobbyists is with the main mouthpiece for Illinois hospitals, the Illinois Health & Hospital Association.
“These are reputable firms with many years of legislative consulting experience, and they have provided valuable assistance to the IHA in communicating hospital interests to the General Assembly,” association spokeswoman Paris Ervin said in a prepared statement.
Of the seven contract lobbyists currently representing the organization, most were on the McClain list, including a consulting business tied to former Madigan fundraiser Victor Reyes.
Reyes’ law firm, Reyes Kurson, was the beneficiary of a ComEd favor aimed at Madigan, the trial showed.
Prosecutors outlined how the ex-speaker and McClain relentlessly went to bat for Reyes’ law firm in its bid to increase its billable hours representing the power company – even though ComEd’s top internal lawyer insisted the company’s law department didn’t have enough work to farm out to Reyes Kurson to justify more hours. Eventually, Reyes Kurson got its billable hours boosted by ComEd with aid from the company’s now-convicted former CEO, Anne Pramaggiore.
Additionally, Reyes’ consulting firm, Roosevelt Group, served as a pass-through in 2017 for $10,000 in payments to Acevedo for his no-work ComEd subcontracting gig, prosecutors showed.
At trial, jurors heard Reyes’ voice on one secretly recorded conversation with McClain, where the two were coordinating where Reyes was to drop off $90,000 in campaign contributions he accumulated for Madigan.
“Tell Emily that this goes on the ‘magic’ list,” McClain told Reyes, referring to an unidentified Madigan assistant and spurring laughter between both men.
“I got it,” Reyes answered.
Prosecutors have not charged Reyes with a crime.
Will Cousineau, former Madigan aide
Other lobbyists on the “magic” list whose firms represent the hospital group include Republican Nancy Kimme, who was a former adviser to Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and aide to the late state Treasurer and Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka; Kasper; and former Madigan aide Will Cousineau.
Cousineau now heads up the Springfield office of Cornerstone Government Affairs, which lists nearly three dozen clients in its 2023 lobbyist registration with the state. Besides the hospital group, Cornerstone’s clients include Walmart, Loyola University Medical Center and the Illinois Road & Transportation Builders Association.
During the ComEd trial, Cousineau testified as a witness for the prosecution after having gotten an immunity letter from the government. Like Reyes and Bradley, Cousineau’s voice was captured on federal wiretaps.
In one 2018 recording, Cousineau agrees with McClain that, as lobbyists, they really have only one “real client.” Cousineau told jurors that he understood McClain’s reference to mean Madigan was his real client.
Annazette Collins, former state legislator
Former state Rep. and state Sen. Annazette Collins is the only name on the “Magic Lobbyist List” under indictment. Collins is awaiting a scheduled August trial on federal tax evasion charges.
Her current lobbyist registration has two entries: one a social service provider and the other a firm headed by former state Corrections Director Howard Peters III that represents Aetna and CVS Health, among others.
Michael Thomson, former Madigan aide
Listed first on at least three versions of the “Magic Lobbyist List” that prosecutors presented at trial was former Madigan aide Michael Thomson, whose namesake lobbying firm, Thomson Weir, represents more than 30 clients this year, including the Chicago Cubs.
Thomson’s name didn’t surface at trial outside of being consistently the highest-ranked of McClain’s favored lobbyists. Madigan feted Thomson for his “strategic and tactical brilliance” and “rapier wit” in a 2009 resolution he sponsored when Thomson left Madigan’s state staff to become a lobbyist.
A Cubs’ spokesman similarly sang Thomson’s praises.
He “has represented the team for a number of years based on a track record of great work. He has always operated with professionalism and integrity when he has worked on our behalf in Springfield,” team spokesman Julian Green said.
Three weeks after the trial’s verdict, state lobbyist expenditure reports show, Thomson purchased meals for House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, and his leadership team. And on the actual day of the ComEd verdict, Thomson’s firm sprung for more than $400 worth of food and supplies for the annual House and Senate softball game, state records show.
Thomson faces no criminal charges.
Despite the call from Chicago’s former top ethics watchdog for an investigatory scrub of the “magic” lobbyists, there are no signs of any such activity from city or state inspectors general queried by WBEZ.
In fact, the state’s legislative inspector general, former federal judge Michael McCuskey, said he lacks the authority to initiate that kind of inquiry without first getting a written complaint.
“We have had no complaints filed…for corruption [or] fraud, and that would involve, at least when you look at the Northern District prosecutions, lobbyists,” McCuskey said.
“We investigate written complaints. So if there are no written complaints, we do not go out looking for things in the newspaper, things that are on TV, until we receive a written complaint. We’re merely an investigative agency. We’re not a prosecutor. We’re not the FBI, the IRS. We don’t have that authority,” he said.
Likewise, the legislature ended its spring legislative session last month without doing anything to heighten scrutiny of lobbyists, who, not surprisingly, rarely face sanctions from the state.
“Everybody that’s been tried and now convicted has been tried and convicted on laws that already are on the books,” Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker said late last month, when asked about the lack of legislative movement on any trial-driven ethics reforms.
Between 2019 and 2021, the secretary of state’s inspector general’s office logged 22 complaints for “improper lobbying activity,” but wound up resolving all but one without fines or other penalties.
The exception was a 2021 sexual harassment case involving a lobbyist for Exelon, ComEd’s corporate parent, who was fined $6,000.
“What are the expectations for the conduct of lobbyists and the work that they do? I think all of it is fair game, and there should be urgency surrounding it based on these verdicts in federal court,” said state Rep. Ryan Spain, R-Peoria, ranking Republican on the House Ethics & Elections Committee.
“The magic list really shows me an insight to the Madigan model, and Madigan’s model was all about the preservation of his own power, a disinterest in what the right policy outcomes ought to be for the state of Illinois and making sure that he could provide jobs and rewards to those who were helpful to him,” Spain said.
That pattern of inertia in Springfield effectively leaves the U.S. Attorney’s office in Chicago as the highest-profile and arguably most effective enforcer of right and wrong in Springfield, and Ferguson said putting such a burden on federal prosecutors isn’t right.
“Their job is simply to prosecute federal crimes for which they have proof-certain. And they have other things they have to tend to, as well. So, they leave it to the state. They leave it to the county. They leave it to the city and the [inspectors general] at all of those levels,” he said.
“What you’re raising here,” Ferguson told WBEZ, “is the question of whether we’re doing anything at those levels and, if not, why? It’s a really, really good question, the answer to which probably tells us why Illinois and Cook County and Chicago are known for corruption.”
Dave McKinney covers Illinois government and politics for WBEZ and is the former long-time Springfield bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.