SCOTUS ruling could upend federal corruption cases for Madigan, McClain and others

MCCLAIN MADIGAN

Former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and retired attorney/lobbyist Mike McClain of Quincy

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday narrowed the scope of a federal bribery law prosecutors have relied on in their cases against former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and several of his allies convicted of bribing him.

A jury last spring found those allies – former lobbyists and executives for electric utility Commonwealth Edison – guilty on all counts, while a judge earlier this year pushed Madigan’s trial to October in order to wait for the high court’s decision on the federal bribery statute.

In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority ruled that the federal bribery statute – referred to as “Section 666” – does not criminalize “gratuities” given to a state or local public official after he or she has already performed an official act. 

The high court’s decision narrowing the scope of Section 666 only to bribes, which require a quid pro quo, bolsters defense arguments made during last spring’s ComEd case. 

Prosecutors alleged the utility bribed Madigan with jobs and contracts for the speaker’s allies in exchange for favorable legislation in Springfield. But attorneys for the “ComEd Four” argued the utility’s legislative wins were due to a multi-year strategic campaign, including spending big to contract with some of Springfield’s most influential lobbyists.

Read more: Madigan trial delayed until October for SCOTUS review of bribery statute

An attorney for close Madigan confidant Mike McClain, a longtime Springfield lobbyist who is a defendant in both bribery cases, predicted Wednesday that the ComEd case will have to be retried.

“We will be asking the court to vacate the conviction at a minimum,” attorney Patrick Cotter told Capitol News Illinois.

As for the case in which McClain is a co-defendant with Madigan, Cotter said his legal team would likely challenge the charges that rely on the federal bribery statute and may make other arguments, including that the grand jury indicted Madigan and McClain under an “incorrect” law.

Former U.S. Attorney Scott Lassar, who represents former ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore, had vowed to appeal the case after the trial concluded last spring, but a delay in the ComEd defendants’ sentencings has prevented that so far.

“The Supreme Court decision makes clear that what Anne Pramaggiore was charged with is not a crime,” Lassar told Capitol News Illinois.

Read more: ‘ComEd Four’ found guilty on all counts in bribery trial tied to ex-Speaker Madigan

An attorney for Madigan did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Wednesday’s high court decision stems from a 2021 conviction of a northwest Indiana mayor who accepted $13,000 from a company that had recently won contracts to sell garbage trucks to the city. Former Portage, Indiana Mayor James Snyder argued that payment was a “gratuity” and not a bribe.

Writing for the majority, Justice Brett Kavanaugh said when crafting the law, Congress was deliberate in its use of the word “rewarded.” He gave a hypothetical example of a bribe where a quid pro quo agreement was made before the official act but the payment was made after the act.

“An official might try to defend against the bribery charge by saying that the payment was received only after the official act and therefore could not have ‘influenced’ the act,” Kavanaugh wrote. “By including the term ‘rewarded,’ Congress made clear that the timing of the agreement is the key, not the timing of the payment, and thereby precluded such a potential defense.”

He also wrote that a gratuity offered and accepted “may be unethical or illegal under other federal, state, or local laws” but treating it the same as a bribe would set “a vague and unfair trap for 19 million state and local officials” who are often given gifts.

The court’s three liberal justices dissented, with Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson writing for the minority that the Justice Department’s reliance on Section 666 has not been “the dragnet for public school teachers, soccer coaches, or trash collectors that the majority conjures.” 

“Rather, the real cases in which the Government has invoked this law involve exactly the type of palm greasing that the statute plainly covers and that one might reasonably expect Congress to care about when targeting graft in state, local, and tribal governments,” Jackson wrote. “After today, however, the ability of the Federal Government to prosecute such obviously wrongful conduct is left in doubt.”

The high court’s acceptance of the bribery case in December, in addition to health issues faced by U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber, who oversaw the ComEd trial, indefinitely delayed the ComEd defendants’ sentencings originally scheduled for January.

Leinenweber died earlier this month after a battle with lung cancer and the case has been transferred to U.S. District Judge Manish Shah. On Wednesday, Shah scheduled a status hearing in the case for July 9.

Cotter told Capitol News Illinois he didn’t “have an opinion” about whether the scheduled Oct. 8 start date for Madigan and McClain’s trial would have to be pushed.

But he said in both cases, Wednesday was “a good day” after the Supreme Court’s decision.

“It’s been a very long war and it’s not over by a longshot, but today we won an important battle in that war,” Cotter said. “But it doesn’t mean the war is over.”

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