Jury selection begins in trial of McClain and three others

MCCLAIN SUNTIMES

Michael McClain arrives at the U.S. Dirksen Courthouse on March 14, 2023, on the first day of the "ComEd Four" bribery conspiracy trial. McClain, 75, a former Democratic legislator and lobbyist from Quincy, is one of four charged. Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times

CHICAGO — For the first time since their indictment on corruption and bribery charges in November 2020, three former lobbyists and one former executive of electric utility Commonwealth Edison appeared at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in Chicago on Tuesday – the first day of what’s expected to be a six-to-eight-week trial.

It’s Illinois’ biggest public corruption trial since ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s two rounds in front of a federal jury more than a decade ago. The so-called “ComEd Four” are charged with seeking to influence powerful longtime Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan in a yearslong bribery scheme through which legislative wins were allegedly traded for jobs and contracts for Madigan’s allies.

The trial began Tuesday with U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber and attorneys for both the government and the defense trying to narrow down a pool of 94 potential jurors to the 12-person jury that will hear the case.

Over the next two or so months, the jury is slated to hear from approximately 70 witnesses. At the heart of the question before the jury is whether longtime Madigan confidant Mike McClain, his co-defendants and fellow former lobbyists Jay Doherty and John Hooker, along with ex-ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore, acted in a way that amounts to criminal bribery, or – as the defense maintains – their actions were part of business-as-usual and perfectly legal lobbying efforts.

Capitol News Illinois’ Hannah Meisel watched Tuesday as the potential jurors sat through questions from Leinenweber and attorneys. More than 30 were excused after they told the judge that serving on the jury would present a hardship for them – mostly related to their employers’ policies on paid time off or their inability to find child care for the duration of trial.
 
Potential jurors were not always excused when they told Leinenweber they had vacation scheduled during the next two months. Another man remains in the pool despite telling the judge he could technically serve during business hours but would have to complete his job responsibilities during early mornings and nights, equating to “an 80-plus-hour workweek.”
 
Wednesday will see the jury pool further winnowed down after both the government and defense get the chance to strike some they view as potentially biased.

Those who weren’t excused – but may have piqued the interest of either the government or the defense for possible strike – included a man who said he listens to the podcast of former Chicago Tribune columnist and longtime Madigan critic John Kass and a man who said he posts comments online every day.

Also on Tuesday, Leinenweber sided with attorneys for the Tribune, Sun-Times and WBEZ, ruling that recordings of wiretapped phone calls involving the defendants will be released to media after they’re played in court. That decision is a reversal of his ruling last week, and it went against the objections of the defense, which claimed media would only “play the greatest hits.”

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