Week in Review: Ethics, COVID-19, budget and more

ETHICS

House Special Investigating Committee questions ComEd about Madigan bribery scheme; former ComEd VP pleads guilty in federal court.  An executive from Commonwealth Edison, Chicago’s largest electric utility, testified to the Committee on Tuesday, September 29, on admissions that ComEd had engaged in a multi-year bribery scheme to influence Public Official A (Speaker Michael J. Madigan) with jobs and a board seat for Madigan associates.

The Committee heard testimony from ComEd vice president David Glockner on what the firm had paid to get its voice heard in Springfield.  When asked if ComEd had paid at least $1.3 million, in part to influence Michael Madigan’s actions as Speaker of the House, Glockner responded, “Yes.”  The payments included campaign contributions, job hirings for persons who were recommended by the Madigan organization, and the selection of persons tied to Speaker Madigan to serve as “consultants” to ComEd and its electricity ratepayers.  

Glockner told the Committee that he was the executive who had executed the July 2020 Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA), which serves as the point of standing that binds together ComEd with the U.S. Attorney’s office, which is continuing its investigation into this pattern of activity.  As the ComEd executive with current responsibility for overseeing and implementing ComEd’s side the agreement, Glockner has acquired a working knowledge of the moneys and non-cash payments that were made by his firm.  Glockner made clear that he had been hired by ComEd subsequent to the conduct described in the DPA.  On the same day as ComEd was testifying before the Committee, a former ComEd vice president, Fidel Marquez, pleaded guilty to his role in the bribery scheme.  

State Representative Deanne Mazzochi, who serves on the Special Investigative Committee, issued the following statement after the conclusion of Tuesday’s hearing:

“The people of Illinois took a big step closer to the truth today.

“At the hearing, ComEd admitted critical facts in the Deferred Prosecution Agreement that evidence breathtaking public corruption involving the Speaker and his associates.  The witness for ComEd confirmed ComEd’s money went to Mike Madigan’s top precinct captain, and that they could not document any work he did for ComEd.  They also confirmed that their money went to Frank Olivo, and they could not document the work that he did for ComEd.  Olivo is believed to be a former Alderman for Madigan’s 13th Ward.  They admitted that ComEd employees agreed to let Mike Madigan tell former Chicago Alderman Mike Zalewski Senior he was getting $5000 a month of ComEd funds. ComEd identified Victor Reyes, a Daley patronage chief, as the lawyer who was so “valuable” to Madigan that if ComEd’s CEO didn’t get involved to “resolve” getting him paid “Our Friend” Madigan “will call me [Mike McClain], and then I will call you.  Is this a drill we must go through?”

“ComEd also acknowledged that there is documentation we don’t yet have directly evidencing that Mike Madigan had knowledge of the effort to get Juan Ochoa on the ComEd board, which the Deferred Prosecution Agreement describes in detail. 

“ComEd repeatedly admitted that all of this was done with the intent to influence and reward Speaker Madigan.  

“As for my Democrat colleagues, I don’t know what’s worse, that they attempted to frame the facts outlined in the DPA as lobbying business as usual; that they seem to be carrying the Speaker’s water by suggesting Mike McClain, Madigan’s longtime acknowledged consigliere, did not act as an intermediary between ComEd and the Speaker; or that they went out of their way to deny the committee members a vote on issuing a subpoena to Mike Madigan to testify.

Mazzochi reiterated that, “If the members of this Committee want sunshine and transparency, as I do, then the next step is to exercise the committee’s power to subpoena witnesses. That the Chairman refused a vote on this today only delays the process of getting to the facts. Are we an investigating committee or not?”

Representatives Wehrli, Demmer and Mazzochi Renew Call for Use of Subpoenas in Special Investigation into Mike Madigan.  Republican members of the Special Investigating Committee (SIC) into the conduct of Speaker of the House Michael J. Madigan held a press conference on Thursday and renewed their call for the use of subpoenas if the Speaker and others embroiled in the ComEd scheme do not voluntarily come forward to testify.

The six member, bipartisan panel is charged with determining if the Speaker of the House engaged in conduct unbecoming of a lawmaker, which constituted a breach of the public trust. At a meeting held on September 29, an attempt to approve the issuance of subpoenas to Michael J. Madigan and others was deemed “out of order” by SIC Chair Chris Welch. Republican committee members, frustrated by what they viewed as an attempt to cripple the committee’s ability to gather testimony, said the chair exceeded his statutory authority by blocking the issuance of subpoenas.

“The Illinois Constitution and the Illinois Compiled Statues are clear in the authority we have to use subpoenas to compel people to testify in an investigatory hearing,” said State Representative Grant Wehrli.

“The Illinois Constitution, in Article IV, Section 7, Sub-section C, is clear on this matter, and so is Illinois Compiled Statutes in 25/ILCS 5/4. Both articles of law grant subpoena power not just to the chair of a committee, but also to any member of a committee.”

The Illinois Constitution states“Either house or any committee thereof as provided by law may compel by subpoena the attendance and testimony of witnesses and the production of books, records and papers.”

Illinois law further states“The presiding officer of each house, and the chairman, or any member of any committee appointed by either house, or of a joint committee appointed by the two houses of the General Assembly, may administer oaths and affirmations to witnesses called before such house or committee for the purpose of giving evidence touching any matter or thing which may be under the consideration or investigation of such house or committee.”

“Speaker Madigan and others named in the Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA) between Commonwealth Edison and the US Attorney of Northern Illinois have relevant and useful information that is vital to the SIC’s ability to do its job properly,” said Wehrli. “Only by questioning these witnesses will we be able to build out a broader picture of what exactly transpired with regard to ComEd’s admission that they engaged in a bribery scheme to gain favor with Mike Madigan. It’s through getting people to testify under oath that we obtain a full and complete record.”

So far, the committee has only heard testimony from ComEd’s Chief Compliance Officer David Glockner, who is a new hire at ComEd; he was not working for ComEd while the illegal activities were taking place. Glockner was led through the DPA, and one by one, he reiterated each statement of fact as being true. He also admitted that the entire DPA is built around payments, jobs and a seat on the ComEd Board that were used to gain favor with Mike Madigan.

“Our investigating committee has a specific and important charge, and our process is separate from the ongoing federal investigation into political corruption in Illinois,” said Wehrli. “Our committee’s work is about protecting the integrity of the Illinois House of Representatives, and about holding our colleagues accountable for their actions. Speaker Madigan needs to come forward and testify.”

COVID-19

Region 1 under enhanced mitigation orders.  Under current State policy, the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) tracks several variables that the Department fears could mark worsening of the coronavirus situation in specific regions within Illinois.  These variables include hospital capacity within a region, the number of COVID-19 tests within a region, and the number of these tests that come back positive.  The percentage of “positive tests” is deemed to be a piece of inferential evidence for how active the virus is within a local area and how fast it is being transmitted from host patient to host patient.

One of the IDPH tracking regions is Region 1, a nine-county region in Northwestern Illinois.  The nine counties in the region are Boone, Carroll, DeKalb, Jo Daviess, Lee, Ogle, Stephenson, Whiteside, and Winnebago.  Major metropolitan areas within this nine-county region include DeKalb, Freeport, and Rockford.  Current numbers indicate that the rolling average test positivity rate within the region has trended above 8%, which indicates active viral spread under the overall policies currently being followed by IDPH and the State.  Another Illinois region, the Metro-East’s Region 4 in southwestern Illinois, has also posted similar numbers.

Under the Region 1 mitigation order, which is set to take effect on Saturday, October 3, bars and restaurants will be forbidden from serving food or alcohol to customers indoors.  Furthermore, outdoor customers for food or drink are required to make reservations ahead of time and to sit physically apart from each other, and each bar must stop serving no later than 11 p.m.

Restore Illinois monthly report submitted for September 2020.   The Restore Illinois Collaborative Commission (RICC), a bipartisan Joint Commission of the House and Senate, is tasked with oversight responsibilities over the Pritzker Administration and its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  The Administration’s Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) submits a monthly report to the Commission to describe this response.

The DCEO sent their October 2020 report to the Commission on Thursday, October 1.  The report details a variety of initiatives funded by the General Assembly for COVID-19 relief.  Some of these initiatives are moving faster than others.  Slow startups for contact tracing, and for aid to local governments, were particular focuses of the DCEO report.

The DCEO report to the RICC indicates particular problems with the Local CURE program, intended to help taxpayer-funded local governments with expenses related to coronavirus.  Many Illinois localities are facing sharp increases in their responsibilities for law enforcement, medical-related emergency response, and other pandemic-related expense categories in this unusual year.  However, less than 1% of the funds appropriated for this program – $1.35 million of $250 million – has been approved or paid out.  Other funds applications have gone into an approval pipeline, with no date certain for decisions on the outcome.  The Local CURE money is derived from funds appropriated by Congress of distribution to local governments through the 50 states, and if Illinois does not utilize these funds they will have to send the money back to Washington.  

BUDGET

CGFA reports on September 2020 State revenues.  The report from the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability (CGFA) covers State general-revenue cash flow for the final 30-day period of the first quarter of pandemic-affected FY21, the fiscal year that began on July 1, 2020.  Overall Illinois general revenues were flat, with total September 2020 cash flows notched at $3,609 million as compared to $3,574 million in September 2019 – a new increase of $35 million or 1.0%. 

This flat pattern, however, concealed significant shifts in subtotals garnered by individual tax flows.  Personal income taxes, largely derived from moneys subtracted from paychecks and automatically forwarded to the State, dropped by $69 million in the context of continued double-digit Illinois unemployment.  Other tax revenues rose by $94 million to more than make up for this loss, with the increase led by sales taxes (up $33 million) as Illinois residents “caught up” on purchasing activity that had been suspended during earlier months of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. 

The overall picture of State revenues presented in this month’s CGFA report remains highly contingent on future events.  The successful rollout of preventative public-health actions against the virus, particularly a vaccine, could be a key element in shaping Illinois’ future economic recovery and ability to regain stable revenue streams.  Meanwhile specific subsets of State revenue that are already earmarked for specific purposes, such as motor fuel taxes and taxes levied on Illinois casino riverboats, remain badly hit by the pandemic and these tax shortfalls will affect the purposes for which these taxes are earmarked.

CRIMINAL LAW

McDermed: ISP’s ‘Checkpoint’ a Huge Step for Victims’ Empowerment.  The Illinois State Police (ISP) have finally put in to place a system to bring some peace of mind to sexual assault victims, according to State Representative Margo McDermed, who championed the issue throughout her tenure in the Illinois House.

The ISP just announced the launch of a statewide sexual assault tracking system. Dubbed the CheckPoint system, it will allow survivors of sexual assault to monitor the status of their evidence throughout the entire process, from collection at the hospital, through law enforcement pick-up and submission to the forensic lab, and ultimately to the State’s Attorney’s office where final results are received. To ensure privacy, the system will use unique case numbers and passwords to limit access to survivors and law enforcement.

“CheckPoint is the culmination of years of work from a lot of stakeholders including legislators like myself, the Illinois State Police, women’s rights group, and many others that were dedicated to making this happen,” Rep. McDermed said.

Rep. McDermed passed legislation in 2017 to create the Sexual Assault Evidence Tracking and Reporting Commission with the goal of determining how to implement an electronic evidence tracking system. The commission, chaired by McDermed, made a number of recommended changes to law and policy to help implement such a system, which were then incorporated into legislation sponsored and passed by McDermed in 2019.

“We need to continue to do more to address the rape kit backlog, including giving ISP the tools and manpower, but CheckPoint is a massive step in the right direction that should be celebrated,” Rep. McDermed continued. “What’s important is that victims now have the power of transparency and accountability.”

ENERGY

Vistra Energy issues plan to close company’s four remaining Illinois coal plants.  The plants, located in southern and central Illinois, operate steam-driven turbines to generate commercial electricity.  Changes in technology and global energy standards have made it increasingly difficult to sell coal-fueled electric power in the interstate power marketplace, and the plants had been known to be nearing a decision of this type.  Vistra announced the pending closures on Tuesday, September 29.  In an earlier announcement, the Vistra-owned E.D. Edwards Power Plant in Peoria County, Illinois, had already been slated for closure no later than the end of 2022.

The four plants affected by this week’s announcement include several of the largest remaining coal-fired turbine generating plants in Illinois.  The Vistra-owned Baldwin Power Plant in Randolph County, and the firm’s Joppa Power Plant in far-southern Massac County, will close no later than the end of 2025.   Tworemaining Vistra coal-burning plants, located in Kincaid (Christian County) and in Newton (Jasper County) are slated to close no later than the end of 2027.  After these closures are completed, Vistra will end its coal-burning activities within Illinois.   

These closures will remove more than 4,500 megawatts of generating capacity from Illinois, but engineers believe this power can be replaced from power from other sources.  Electricity generated from natural gas and wind-powered turbines has come on line throughout eastern North America in recent years. 

JOBS

Almost 800,000 Americans filed for first-time unemployment in the week most recently ended.  The nationwide total filings included thousands of Illinoisans.  In the previous week, which ended September 21 and is broken out by state, more than 29,000 Illinoisans filed for unemployment insurance (UI) benefits.  The Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES) is reporting a stable pattern of between 20,000 and 30,000 new Illinois UI claims every week. 

The UI claims activity is closely related to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.  The job losses are especially severe in service jobs related to transportation, hospitality, and food service.  Restaurant service is being sharply cut back pursuant to public health orders in many regions of Illinois, and a lot of business and pleasure travel has been curtailed or cut back.  The American Hotel and Lodging Association warned of major continuing layoffs unless there is a resumption of federal stimulus funds to help the hospitality industry.  As of August 2020 the Illinois leisure and hospitality sector, which includes hotels, motels, restaurants and bars, supported 477,700 payroll jobs.  This was a sharp drop from 621,400 jobs supported by this sector in August 2019, a decline of 143,700 positions.  While employment in every Illinois sector has been hit hard by the pandemic-related downturn, jobs have taken a bigger hit in the leisure and hospitality sector than any other.   

WEEK IN REVIEW

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