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Mike Madigan, Who Ruled Illinois Politics for Decades, Indicted in Bribery Case

The Democrat stepped down from his leadership post last year. He faces 22 racketeering counts, becoming the latest in a series of speakers around the country to face corruption charges.

Former Illinois Speaker of the House Michael J. Madigan.
(Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune)
Mike Madigan ran the Illinois House with almost unquestioned authority for decades. On Wednesday, federal prosecutors announced that a grand jury has indicted him on 22 counts of corruption and racketeering.

The Democrat was in the state House for a half-century, serving as speaker for 36 of those years before finally stepping down from the leadership post last year. His control of the chamber was so absolute that Republican Bruce Rauner frequently referred to him as a “dictator” during his term as governor.

Madigan is accused of participating in a bribery scheme involving Commonwealth Edison, in which the utility giant allegedly paid thousands of dollars to lobbyists with ties to Madigan. He is also accused of soliciting business for his law firm as a bribe to use state-owned land in Chicago for a development project.

More than a half-dozen other Democrats have been indicted in related cases, including his longtime former chief of staff. Also charged Wednesday was Michael McClain, a former legislator who was a lobbyist and Madigan crony.

Madigan was enormously deft at keeping various factions within his party under control. When representatives got into trouble, they knew they could count on him — and his multimillion-dollar campaign treasury — to bail them out.

Although long anticipated, Madigan’s indictment still registered as an earthquake. Madigan was “somebody who has really shaped Illinois politics for 40 years, dominated almost every aspect of life, from a political standpoint, from a legislative standpoint,” said Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. “You better have a tight case because if you’re going to take the shot, you’re not going to want to miss.”

Only the Latest Speaker in Trouble

Madigan is the latest in a line of state house speakers who have faced criminal charges in recent years. In January, former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, died in federal custody, having been sentenced to six years for corruption. Republican Larry Householder of Ohio was arrested in 2020 and is awaiting trial in a large-scale corruption case.

Several other speakers have stepped down amid corruption charges over the past decade. This opens up the question of whether there is something in the nature of the job of speaker that makes corruption more likely to occur.

There are several potential explanations: The first, to state the obvious, is that speakers are powerful figures, often able to control their chambers in a hierarchical way not available to many other political leaders. “The speaker is at the top of that pyramid in a way that is rare even for the Senate,” Thom Little, research director for the State Legislative Leaders Foundation, told me in 2015, when a rash of speakers were being indicted. “The power is greater pretty much than any other legislative office.”

Speakers can kill a bill quietly simply by assigning legislation to hostile committees. Governors, by contrast, may need to issue veto messages, but speakers can do much of their work secretly.

And, while speakers are powerful, they receive comparatively little media attention. Most people can name their state’s governor, but few people know who the speaker is. “Legislative leaders have a great deal of power but face very little scrutiny,” said Brendan Nyhan, a government professor at Dartmouth College who studies scandals. “That’s a combination that can certainly lead to corruption, especially in states where that tends to be more of a problem.”

Facing Less Scrutiny

Speakers not only receive less media attention than governors, they also answer to fewer voters than any comparably powerful politician. Madigan was the most powerful politician in Illinois for decades, but only had to answer to voters in a district that held 118th of the state population. “They’re elected locally, but their impact is statewide,” said Pam Wilmot, vice president of state operations for Common Cause.

Not only are their districts small and generally safe, but often the majorities they lead are safe as well. Charges and allegations have come in states such as Illinois, Massachusetts and South Carolina where partisan control hasn’t changed in years. “When you have one chamber controlled by the other party, they’re looking at everything you do,” Little said.

Speakers are able to direct enormous sums of campaign money. And, in an era where caucus leadership PACs can dominate legislative campaign fundraising, they also need enormous sums of money. “Speakers have enormous power and the duty to raise large amounts of political money,” said former North Carolina Speaker Joe Hackney.

Yet, he notes, the job itself doesn’t pay that much. “The confluence of those three things make it really dangerous territory.”

Hackney himself became speaker after his predecessor, Jim Black, became embroiled in a set of corruption scandals.

Not all speakers go looking for trouble. But the nature of the job is making deals, so a politician with that job has plenty of opportunities to cut himself in. “There is a lot more deal-making in the legislative process than there is in the executive branch,” said Wilmot, the Common Cause official.

Making public corruption cases stick is always tough for prosecutors, but elected officials nonetheless make tempting targets for ambitious prosecutors — particularly those as prominent as a state house speaker.

“Prosecutors may choose to go after the big fish,” Nyhan said. “They may choose to target the most powerful legislators in places where corruption is a problem, both as punishment and as a signal to others.”
Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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