By JASON MEISNER CHICAGO TRIBUNE |SEP 29, 2020
Former Commonwealth Edison executive Fidel Marquez could have faced years behind bars for his role in a massive bribery scheme that directed illicit payments to allies of powerful Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan.
Instead, by cooperating with prosecutors, Marquez is in line to avoid prison altogether.
Marquez, 58, a longtime lobbyist and former senior vice president of governmental affairs at ComEd, pleaded guilty Tuesday to one count of bribery conspiracy, marking the first criminal conviction in an ongoing investigation that has shaken the Illinois political landscape and threatens Madigan’s decadeslong hold on power.
“I plead guilty your honor,” he told U.S. District Judge Mary Rowland via a video link from Tucson, Arizona, where he moved after stepping down from the utility last year.
Prosecutors said in a plea agreement that they intend to ask for probation for Marquez when he’s sentenced after the case is over — a huge break given the length of the scheme and that ComEd allegedly reaped tens of millions of dollars in illegal benefits.
The judge set a status hearing for Jan. 7.
ComEd was charged with bribery in July and has entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with the government, agreeing to pay a record $200 million fine and cooperate with investigators in exchange for the charges being dropped in three years.
The fact that Marquez is now also working with investigators significantly ramps up the pressure against others who have been implicated — but not yet charged — in the scheme, including former ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore; lobbyist and former ComEd executive John T. Hooker; Jay Doherty, a consultant and former President of the City Club; and Michael McClain, a former lobbyist for the utility and one of Madigan’s closest confidants.
The plea also made a reference for the first time to McClain’s wife, noting that McClain and his “spouse, operated an entity … that provided lobbying services.”
The Chicago Tribune has exclusively reported that McClain arranged for payments to be made from current and former ComEd lobbyists to Kevin Quinn, a longtime Madigan political operative. The speaker publicly fired him in early 2019 amid accusations that Quinn had sexually harassed a female campaign worker.
Records show that McClain gave a $1,000 check to Quinn, and it was signed by McClain’s wife from the couple’s joint account.
Reached by phone Tuesday, McClain’s attorney declined to comment.
Marquez’s guilty plea came on the same day a special legislative committee in Springfield heard testimony about the scheme from a current ComEd executive. The committee has also sought the testimony of Madigan and a number of lobbyists and former ComEd officials implicated in the bribery case, but all have declined.
Marquez’s attorney had asked that the request for Marquez’s testimony be postponed due to his required appearance in federal court.
His plea agreement with prosecutors largely mirrors facts that were laid out two months ago when ComEd admitted to the bribery scheme.
According to the plea, from 2012 to 2019 Marquez conspired with others to corruptly solicit jobs, contracts and monetary payments for the benefit of Madigan — identified as Public Official A — and his associates with the intent of influencing legislation beneficial to ComEd.
“As Speaker, Public Official A had the ability, using procedural mechanisms in the House of Representatives, to prevent legislation that Public Official A opposed from moving forward,” the plea stated. “Conversely, Public Official A could also serve as a very powerful and persuasive force to move legislation forward.”
Many of the illegal payments allegedly were arranged by McClain, a key confidant and adviser at the center of the probe, according to court records. The Tribune reported in November that the FBI had tapped McClain’s cellphone, and some of the conversations were previously detailed by prosecutors in ComEd’s deferred prosecution agreement.
According to the plea, McClain, who is identified only as Individual 1, told Marquez in 2013 that he wanted to shift the payments from the lobbying firm he co-owned with his wife to Company 1, which was owned by a longtime ComEd consultant. Marquez agreed to facilitate the shift, the plea stated.
Neither the consultant nor the company were named in court records, but testimony in Springfield on Tuesday confirmed it is Doherty and his firm, J.D. Doherty & Associates. A call seeking comment from a lawyer for Doherty, Michael Gillespie, was not immediately returned Tuesday.
In 2018, Pramaggiore — identified as CEO-1 — told Marquez that McClain had contacted her to ask that a different Madigan associate be hired, resulting in “a stream of monthly payments” from the utility that were disguised to appear like they were coming from Doherty’s company, according to the plea.
Those details appeared to match allegations in the deferred prosecution agreement with ComEd stating that Pramaggiore had been asked by Madigan, through McClain, to hire an associate of the speaker who was leaving the Chicago City Council. Pramaggiore agreed to pay the associate $5,000 a month as a subcontractor, according to ComEd’s admissions in court.
The Tribune has identified the council member as 23rd Ward Ald. Michael Zalewski, whose home was raided by the FBI in May.
The ComEd agreement also described several conversations between Marquez and others allegedly involved in the scheme. In February 2019, for example, McClain advised Marquez on how to communicate with other ComEd officials about renewing the consulting contract for Doherty’s company.
“I would say to you, don’t put anything in writing,” McClain told Marquez, according to the document. “All it can do is hurt ya.”
A week later, Doherty told Marquez that two of Madigan’s associates had been put on his company’s payroll as do-nothing “subcontractors” and that ComEd should not tamper with the arrangement because “your money comes from Springfield,” the ComEd agreement states.
The new hires “keep their mouth shut,” Doherty allegedly said. “But do they do anything for me on a day-to-day basis? No.”
Doherty also warned Marquez that he had “every reason to believe” that McClain had spoken directly with Madigan about the deal, the document stated.
“(It’s) to keep (Madigan) happy (and) I think it’s worth it, because you’d hear otherwise,” Doherty told Marquez, according to the ComEd agreement.
In all, prosecutors put a value of at least $150 million on the legislative benefits ComEd received. The federal court documents specifically noted the 2011 passage of the Energy Infrastructure and Modernization Act, which “helped improve ComEd’s financial stability” by establishing rate guidelines and a smart grid overhaul.
ComEd has publicly apologized for its actions, but the company also has denied the scheme meant customers were unfairly charged.
Records show ComEd tried to clean up its lobbying operation in the midst of the investigation last year. One of those departing was Marquez. ComEd officially announced it on Sept. 23, saying only that Marquez was “retiring after 39 years of service.”
Chicago Tribune’s Ray Long and Dan Petrella contributed.