Former Madigan political director details push by speaker’s office for key ComEd bill
CHICAGO (WGEM) - As was the case with many big legislative efforts in Springfield, former Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan’s staff was deeply involved in negotiations over what would become the Future Energy Jobs Act in 2015 and 2016.
FEJA had many backers in environmental circles and organized labor – two key constituencies for Democrats in Illinois. But it also had many critics, including those who said the law was essentially a state-funded bailout for Exelon, the energy generation company that was also the parent company of electric utility Commonwealth Edison.
The controversial law’s passage through the General Assembly in late 2016 is one of the core tenants of federal prosecutors’ theory that three ex-lobbyists and the former CEO of ComEd were behind a yearslong bribery scheme aimed at currying favor with Madigan. The foursome – lobbyists Mike McClain, John Hooker and Jay Doherty, as well as ex-CEO Anne Pramaggiore – were indicted in Nov. 2020 on nearly two dozen counts of bribery and racketeering. Prosecutors allege they arranged jobs and contracts within ComEd for Madigan’s political allies in exchange for help with the utility’s legislative priorities in Springfield.
And on Thursday the jury got a peek inside Madigan’s office at the time, via four hours of testimony from Madigan’s former political director, along with recordings of wiretapped phone calls and emails among top staffers for the speaker.
Now a contract lobbyist in Springfield for Washington, D.C.-based firm Cornerstone Government Affairs, Will Cousineau had previously spent nearly 18 years in Madigan’s orbit. He worked his way up from a district office staffer in the late 1990s to political director for the state’s Democratic party and finally a senior advisor to Madigan until mid-2017.
Six months before his departure, Cousineau had been an integral part of the strategy behind passing FEJA. On Thursday – under an immunity agreement with prosecutors – he recounted for the jury the final stretch before lawmakers voted on the bill.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Diane MacArthur showed Cousineau an email he received from another top staffer in Madigan’s office on the first day of the General Assembly’s annual fall veto session in mid-November 2016.
The email concerned third-term state Rep. Michelle Mussman, of suburban Schaumburg, whose district was considered “swingy,” as Cousineau testified, making her vulnerable to a Republican opponent. Mussman, along with other mostly suburban and downstate members of the House Democratic Caucus, was often referred to as being “on the target list,” meaning Madigan’s staffers kept a close watch on their legislative positions in order to protect them from votes the speaker and his team considered politically risky.
“Mussman is the vice-chair of the energy committee and the Exelon/ComEd bill is posted for tomorrow,” fellow staffer Craig Willert wrote in his email to Cousineau. “I don’t know if we plan to vote on it, but should we sub off Mussman?”
Cousineau confirmed to MacArthur that Mussman ended up getting temporarily removed from the House Energy Committee during the panel’s vote on FEJA. Cousineau testified that was a common strategic move by Madigan’s office – either because they knew a certain committee member didn’t support a bill important to the speaker, or to protect members from having to take a politically risky vote.
In this case, Cousineau said part of the speaker’s office’s political calculation on FEJA also had to do with a third factor: Gov. Bruce Rauner. At that point, Madigan had been battling with the one-term Republican governor for nearly two years, and Illinois was locked in the middle of an extended impasse, resulting in the state going without a budget for 736 days.
“We were conscious of making sure House Democrats didn’t look like we were standing in the way of something Gov. Rauner wanted,” Cousineau said of FEJA. “We had been battling [with the governor for a number of years but] this is something we strategically decided we wanted to look like we were being cooperative with the governor.”
Right before lawmakers returned to Springfield post-Thanksgiving, Cousineau and two other top staffers in Madigan’s office received an email from McClain, ComEd’s top contract lobbyist – and a very close friend of the speaker.
“As usual we are losing some members for next week,” McClain wrote, listing four House members who were scheduled to be gone by the end of the three-day session. “If it is appropriate and you feel comfortable tendering the other names that may not be in Springfield…I would appreciate it.”
Cousineau replied with an additional name of a House member whose attendance was up in the air.
On Thursday, Cousineau testified that he didn’t believe FEJA had the votes to pass, and he had a phone conversation with Madigan telling him so. He then advised the speaker that his office needed to directly engage with caucus members who were on the fence about voting for the bill.
“I don’t remember the exact words, but essentially after some back and forth (Madigan) asked me to go and work the bill,” Cousineau testified, adding that he believed McClain had been with the speaker at the time of the call.
MacArthur asked Cousineau who it was that “House members understood the real message to be coming from?”
“They knew I worked for the speaker,” Cousineau replied, confirming members would’ve known he and his fellow top staffers were working at his direction.
In the end, FEJA passed with 63 votes in the House – three more than the minimum threshold needed – and had a mix of Democrat and Republican support. After passage in the Senate, the bill went to Rauner, who signed it less than a week later.
On cross-examination, McClain’s attorney took issue with MacArthur’s insinuations during her line of questioning about the call where Cousineau was directed to “work the bill.”
“So in this big dramatic call, essentially what happened was the speaker asked you to do your job, just as you’d done many times before,” McClain attorney Patrick Cotter said. “It wasn’t drama, it was Tuesday. It was just another day at work for you.”
Cousineau confirmed, with a small qualifier.
“Yes,” he said. “I mean, this was a big vote but there were plenty of big votes.”
MacArthur had also questioned Consineau about why McClain – a private lobbyist who wasn’t employed by the speaker’s office – had been included as a member of the strategic group that met regularly about FEJA in 2015 and 2016.
Cousineau replied that he believed McClain was included in those emails, meetings and calls because he was both a representative for ComEd and because he’d been a trusted friend and advisor to Madigan for decades.
MacArthur also played for the jury a recording of a wiretapped call from McClain’s cell phone in late 2018. In that call, the speaker and his three top staffers had been strategizing around committee chair assignments and leadership roles within the House Democratic Caucus before the start of the new General Assembly in January 2019.
Also included in that call were McClain, Cousineau and Madigan’s former chief counsel, who had left the speaker’s office earlier that year to lobby. By this time, Cousineau had been a private lobbyist for nearly a year and a half.
In another tape played for the jury from a wiretapped call in April 2018, McClain asked Cousineau how he was finding “the dark side,” a term he used frequently to refer to lobbying, particularly if the lobbyist had left government service.
Counsineau replied that it was “stressful, but in a different way,” adding that years of campaign work had been “good training.”
“As long as we remember who our real client is – " McClain said.
“Oh, yeah,” Cousineau interjected.
“It’s not easy, but it mollifies it,” McClain continued.
Asked who McClain was referring to in that call, Cousineau confirmed the “real client” was Madigan. The jury had heard in previous recordings and seen in previous letters that McClain had often referred to the speaker as his “real client.”
On cross-examination, McClain’s attorney attempted to contextualize the recording for the jury, questioning Cousineau about a key tenet of lobbying work: relationships.
“You didn’t need to do anything unlawful or wrong to have a good relationship with Speaker Madigan because you already had a relationship with him based on your 18 years,” Cotter said.
Cousineau affirmed Cotter’s assertion, having already agreed with the attorney that having a good relationship with “the most powerful person in the General Assembly,” as Cotter put it, was critical to the success of any lobbyist working on major bills.
“And Mike McClain had 40 years of friendship,” Cotter said, pausing his line of questioning for effect.
The trial continues at 10 a.m. Monday.
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide, as well as hundreds of radio and TV stations. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.
Copyright 2023 WGEM. All rights reserved.