Week in Review: Battling corruption, flu shot, jobs & more

ETHICS
House Special Investigating Committee to hear from ComEd. The Chicago electric utility holding company is one of the focal points of the Committee’s investigation into allegations that House Speaker Michael J. Madigan allegedly took part in conduct worthy of potential disciplinary action. Commonwealth Edison has already agreed to a Deferred Prosecution Agreement with the Office of the U.S. Attorney that includes the payment of $200 million. Announcement of the payment in July 2020 coincided with reports that ComEd was cooperating with federal prosecutors. Now, one or more ComEd executives will be called as witnesses by the Committee.
House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, who filed the petition calling for creation of the Special Investigating Committee (SIC), sent a letter Thursday to Chairman Chris Welch, stating that Durkin and/or his counsel will be questioning the ComEd executives at the next hearing of the SIC, scheduled for Tuesday, September 29.

On July 17, 2020, the United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois released a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (“DPA”) with Commonwealth Edison (“ComEd”) in Case Number 1:20-cr-00368, where ComEd acknowledges and agrees that ComEd engaged in a bribery scheme with Public Official A and individuals closely associated with Public Official A from 2011-2019. In the DPA, Public Official A is referred to as the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Michael J. Madigan was the Speaker of the House from 2011-2019 and is still the Speaker today. ComEd admits to corruptly providing, offering and agreeing to give things of value, namely jobs, vendor subcontracts, and monetary payments associated with those jobs and subcontracts for the benefit of Madigan and his associates, with the intent to influence and reward Madigan. ComEd admits to bribing Madigan and his associates with jobs, contracts and payments in an effort to influence Madigan to assist ComEd with respect to legislation concerning ComEd and its businesses.

As part of the DPA, ComEd agreed to pay $200 million to resolve a federal criminal investigation into a years-long bribery scheme, which implicates Speaker Madigan. On the same day ComEd agreed to pay the fine, Madigan’s office received a subpoena from a federal grand jury for documents concerning an ongoing investigation.

A former ComEd corporate vice president, Fidel Marquez, was indicted in early September and charged with alleged bribery. Prosecutors said at the time that the allegation was connected to an overall pattern of alleged influence peddling between ComEd and Public Official A.

The Office of the U.S. Attorney has authorized the House Special Investigating Committee to call witnesses. Based on the progress of the ongoing federal investigation, there may be limits on what witnesses can discuss with the SIC. The terms of ComEd’s deferred prosecution agreement could be part of overall progress towards a possible future outcome. Observers point to the probability that ComEd is currently cooperating with law enforcement in a manner that is satisfactory to prosecutors. In that case, the $200 million payment announced in summer 2020 could be translated into a criminal fine, and additional individuals could be charged and prosecuted with offenses that could include federal felonies.

BUDGET
S&P Global Ratings explains Illinois’ negative debt outlook, suggests junk bond rating possible. The New York City-based global credit rating firm has already rated Illinois general-obligation (GO) bonds at BBB-, the lowest investment grade possible. Any further credit downgrade by S&P would push Illinois’ GO bond rating into “junk bond” territory, labeling the State as a borrower with serious risk of default. Characterization of debt as “junk” makes the debt unsuitable for many investment purposes, including pension funds.

In a report published this week, S&P looked at the State of Illinois’ structural budget deficit, which has been worsened by spending pressures and tax yields created by the COVID-19 pandemic. More than $130 billion in unmet pension obligations and more than $7.6 billion in unpaid bills are among the fiscal burdens that have built up over many years in Springfield. Comparatively weak demographic trends, with an aging population and significant outmigration of young adults to more job-friendly states, were also tagged by S&P.

As a response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Democrat-controlled General Assembly authorized Gov. Pritzker’s administration to borrow billions of dollars from the U.S. Federal Reserve’s Municipal Liquidity Facility, an emergency lending window created by Congress in spring 2020 as a provider of short-term cash to public-sector borrowers who cannot get credit from the private sector. These Municipal Liquidity Facility loans are supposed to be short-term loans that will be paid back within three years.

However, S&P’s analysts registered doubts as to whether the State of Illinois will be able to repay the Facility without further assistance. The debt-rating agency reached somber conclusions as to Illinois’ ability to solve its budget problems on its own. The accumulation of Illinois-unfriendly global economic trends, catastrophic news events, and poor Springfield fiscal policies carried out for many years appears to indicate that either Illinois must ask for, and get, significant additional federal aid over a multi-year period, or its debt rating will have to be further reduced in line with its current fiscal status and standing.

COVID-19
Illinois’ COVID-19 test count passes 5.0 million tests performed. The milestone was reached on Saturday, September 19. A growing network of test sites, including some test sites that can perform rapid-response tests, is making COVID-19 exposure information available to more and more Illinoisans. With the help of testing technology and rapid-response protocols developed at the University of Illinois and by other health professionals, Illinois has become a nationwide leader in coronavirus testing infrastructure. The number of COVID-19 tests performed in Illinois had further increased to 5.15 million by Monday, September 21.

The wide availability of Illinois COVID-19 test access and information is, at the same time, further reducing the usefulness of a key mitigation number, the “positivity rate.” The positivity rate used the percentage of positive cases, as a percentage of total tests, as an inferential gauge to estimate the contagiousness and spread rate of the COVID-19 coronavirus throughout Illinois, especially in specific geographic regions. However, the usefulness of the “positivity rate” as a standard gauge requires the population that is taking COVID-19 tests to remain stable over time. If the characteristics of the tested group change, for reasons including (but not limited to) the increased supply of testing capabilities, changes in the positivity rate could generate misleading (or even false) signals on how fast this virus is moving from person to person in Illinois.

Status of Will County-Kankakee County Region 7. Under current State policy, the status of each of the health regions within Illinois that are being monitored for COVID-19 infections is determined by a series of statistical numbers. These numbers include the percentage of local COVID-19 tests that come back “positive,” indicating probable infection with the virus. Positivity rates are thought to indicate how fast the virus is spreading, and regions with high positivity rates are subjected to additional public health controls. These controls can indicate additional restrictions, or even shutdowns, of local indoor activity in bars and restaurants.

Region 7, which includes Will and Kankakee Counties south of Chicago, has been released from certain positivity mitigation controls. Their residents’ virus spread rate, as measured by positive COVID-19 case reports as a percentage of total testing activity, has dropped. The Will/Kankakee positivity rate has dropped back down below 6 percent, indicating that the virus is no longer spreading as fast in these two counties as it had been doing earlier in late August 2020. The region has returned to the statewide Phase 4 level.

Other regions within Illinois continue to be challenged by the virus. The Metro-East’s Region 4 continues to post high positivity rates. The positivity rate is rising in Region 1, a group of counties in Northern Illinois centering on Rockford. Sections of Illinois that border other states, such as Region 1 (Wisconsin) and Region 4 (Missouri) are especially challenged by this virus and its controls, as not all U.S. states have the same COVID-19 rules at this time.

HEALTH CARE
Health dangers can be reduced by getting a flu shot. It is all too risky to play the odds with respiratory illnesses that can compound on top of each other. Lung lesions and inflammations can make it easier for other bacteria and viruses to get into the lungs. The flu shares many symptoms with COVID-19. For these and other reasons, doctors and health care providers urge Illinoisans to get a 2020-21 flu shot as early as possible. Many pharmacies and community centers offer flu shots at free or reduced rates.

The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) recommends that everyone aged 6 months and up get a flu shot prior to each flu season, which typically starts in October.

JOBS
Illinois’ local job markets affected by COVID-19 pandemic. In numbers released this week, the Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES) described August 2020 unemployment rates in metro areas throughout Illinois. The numbers revealed severe continuing layoff activity in greater Chicago, with joblessness estimated at 12.6% in August. For unemployment-counting purposes, metro Chicago includes all of Cook and DuPage Counties, but does not include Kane County (9.5% unemployment in August) or Lake County (8.3%).

As with Kane County and Lake County, many other Illinois metro areas are also counted separately, and in the final full month of summer 2020 they also displayed lower unemployment numbers than the immediate Chicago area. Other major Illinois areas included Bloomington-Normal (7.2% in August), Champaign-Urbana (7.4%), the East St. Louis area near St. Louis (8.6%), Peoria (9.6%), and Rockford (11.3%).

The Illinois statewide unemployment figure was 10.9% for August 2020. This was dramatically worse than the comparable number for August 2019, which in which Illinois had enjoyed “full employment” of 4.0% as a mark of recovery from the 2008-10 Great Recession.

SPORTS
Both Chicago Cubs and White Sox make MLB baseball playoffs. The unusual event marked the approaching end of the pandemic-shortened 2020 regular season in Major League Baseball (MLB). The Chicago White Sox in American League play, and the Chicago Cubs in National League play, both compiled a win/loss record that qualified them for postseason play. Under the schedule set forth by MLB, the 2020 postseason will follow one-time-only rules. The first round of postseason games, the wild-card round, will be played in home-team-only locations. Post-wild-card playoff games will be played in neutral California and Texas locations intended to maximize the probability of good weather and the likelihood that post-season baseball games will be aired on schedule.

This is the third time in MLB history that both Chicago teams have qualified for postseason play. Fans of Chicago sports will remember the playoff-qualifying play of both teams in 2008. More than one century earlier, the Cubs and White Sox met in baseball’s third World Series in 1906. The White Sox won that championship in what has become the two teams’ enduring rivalry. The Cubs came back in the following two years, 1907 and 1908, to win what is still the only back-to-back pair of world championships ever won by a Chicago baseball team.

The two-Chicago-team 2020 playoff lineup became official when the Cubs clinched their spot on Tuesday, September 22. Final regular-season play will determine locations for home-team-only play for the first round of the MLB playoffs. Sixteen MLB teams will qualify for the first round, with play locations predetermined and qualifications seeded by divisional standing and regular-season record. Playoff games will begin on Tuesday, September 29.

TRANSPORTATION
Drivers’ license deadlines further extended; no extension for vehicle license plates. Illinois motorists carry drivers’ licenses issued by the Office of the Secretary of State, but the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the ability of the offices that issue these licenses to scrutinize Illinois residents’ papers and put applicants through license tests. Most Driver Services Division offices remain open, but long waiting times to renew licenses are common.

Due to these challenges, Secretary of State Jesse White had announced a series of one-time-only extensions of the expiration dates of drivers’ licenses. This week, White announced a further extension. All such cards that are expiring will continue to temporarily be good for driving and identification purposes. The expiration date printed on the card has been extended until February 1, 2021. Holders of old Illinois drivers’ licenses that are currently expired, or are set to expire, will not have to renew their cards until the approach of that date.

The extension also applies to non-driver personal ID cards, which are also issued by the Driver Services division of the Secretary of State’s office in Illinois. Non-driver personal ID cards are used to identify a cardholder for security purposes; REAL-ID-compliant drivers’ licenses and ID cards can be used to enter a federal building or board a commercial U.S. airline flight.

Illinois drivers’ licenses had previously been extended until November 1, 2020. Nothing prevents Illinois drivers and cardholders from coming in to renew their cards sooner, and the Secretary of State’s office continues to urge Illinoisans to do so if they can.

The small decal stickers that Illinois drivers attach to their motor vehicle license plates to show that the car has been licensed are separate from drivers’ licenses. These car license plates and decal stickers have also been extended, but only until November 1, 2020, and no further decal sticker extensions will be granted. The Secretary of State’s office says that almost all Illinois motor vehicle decal stickers are ordered online or by mail, and the current pandemic is not changing the way these stickers are purchased and delivered.

WEEK IN REVIEW
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