Stay tuned: Federal probes may show how right Rauner was

  • Dan McCaleb

    Dan McCaleb

 
By Dan McCaleb
Guest columnist
Posted8/1/2019 1:00 AM

Bruce Rauner wasn't a very good governor, but he was mostly right on policy issues.

Rauner, who's been virtually silent since leaving office in January, wanted to amend the state constitution to allow for a reduction of expenses associated with the state's five employee pension systems, underfunded by more than $135 billion. He wanted to reform the state's costly workers' compensation system -- the most expensive in the Midwest.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The one-term governor pushed for tort reform to cap jury awards in personal-injury lawsuits, and he wanted term limits for lawmakers and legislative leaders.

Every one of these reforms, had Rauner been successful in achieving them, would have helped put Illinois on much better financial footing.

He accomplished none of them.

Some of that is because he didn't communicate his policy positions well. Some, because he wasn't an effective leader.

But Rauner's biggest obstacle to success was the Democrat-dominated legislature working against him on most everything. That primarily means powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan, who allowed a two-year budget impasse to take place because he refused to give Rauner any of his reforms.

Rauner went so far as to liken Madigan and the Chicago political machine to an organized crime family.

The House speaker's "been in control for 35 years. He's totally integrated in a family empire," Rauner told the Chicago Sun-Times in January. "It's like a Mafia empire. It's his family business and it's totally corrupt and rife with conflicts."

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Madigan's business is the Illinois House, the state Democratic Party that he also chairs, and a law firm that specializes in corporate property tax reductions in a state with among the highest property taxes in the country.

Critics say combining any two of these "businesses" is a conflict of interest that opens the door to the kind of corruption that federal agents appear to be investigating in Illinois.

Combine all three and, well ... maybe Rauner was on to something.

According to court documents released Tuesday, longtime Chicago Teamsters head John T. Coli has pleaded guilty to extortion in pay-to-play schemes involving more than half a million dollars. Like several other recent targets of federal corruption investigations in Illinois, Coli has close ties to Madigan and other powerful Democrats, including former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and former Gov. Pat Quinn.

Coli also has agreed to cooperate with federal investigators in exchange for a lighter sentence, which means he's talking.

In May, federal agents raided the homes of former ComEd lobbyist Mike McClain, former Madigan political operative Kevin Quinn, and former Chicago Alderman Michael Zalewski. Each has close relationships with and political ties to the powerful House speaker.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Part of the federal investigation focuses on payments McClain and other lobbyists for ComEd made to Quinn after Madigan was forced to fire him following allegations of sexual harassment. Quick history lesson: Madigan helped lead efforts in 2016 to bail out two nuclear power plants owned by ComEd parent Exelon.

ComEd said it is cooperating with federal investigators, so company officials are talking.

In January, longtime Chicago Alderman Ed Burke, another close ally of Madigan's, was charged in a federal corruption case in which he was accused of attempting to extort a developer who wanted to build in his district. As part of that investigation, Madigan was secretly recorded by the FBI as he pitched his services to a separate developer who wanted to build a hotel in Chicago's Chinatown neighborhood.

Former Chicago Alderman Danny Solis helped the feds in their investigation of Burke. He's been talking for years -- or so we've learned, as parts of the investigation slowly become public.

Madigan hasn't been charged with a crime, nor has he been questioned by investigators -- as far as anyone in the media knows. No such interactions have been reported by any outlet in Illinois, or anywhere else. But with so many of his close allies in the feds' crosshairs, it's reasonable to wonder if Madigan is next.

"This stuff is common knowledge in the business community," Rauner said of the corruption allegations he leveled against Madigan in that Sun-Times story earlier this year. "This has been and is like Mafia behavior. Victims don't talk about it because you fear retribution.

Whether they're victims or in some other way connected, people are talking now.

Dan McCaleb, dmccaleb@thecentersquare.com, is the executive editor of The Center Square, a project of the Franklin News Foundation, headquartered in Chicago.

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