FILE - IL Speaker Michael Madigan 4-23-18

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan speaks at a press conference on Monday, April 23, 2018.

House Speaker Mike Madigan’s levers of power – his ward machine, his control of the Illinois House of Representatives and money for the Democratic Party of Illinois – are notoriously opaque.

But authorities have obtained phone calls and emails from a key player in all three spheres. 

Now that information is leaking, including the speaker’s nickname among insiders.

The Chicago Tribune reported Thursday on several leaked emails sent by Mike McClain, formerly a powerful Commonwealth Edison lobbyist who has been Madigan’s most trusted advisor and ally for decades. The FBI reportedly wiretapped McClain’s phone, while the origin of the emails is unclear.

McClain often acted as the speaker’s hand. And the Tribune’s reporting on his emails points to a wide federal probe touching not just on McClain’s role at the Statehouse, but potential ghost-payrolling at ComEd and fundraising for at least 19 Democratic candidates for office in Illinois.

What prompted the probe? 

It may have been the #MeToo movement. 

Madigan in February 2018 fired his top ward operative, Kevin Quinn, following allegations of sexual harassment from campaign worker Alaina Hampton. 

But after Quinn’s fall, a curious thing happened. Checks started showing up in the mail. They totaled around $31,000, according to the Tribune, and they came from lobbyists with ties to ComEd and Madigan. New emails show those payments were orchestrated by McClain. And McClain wanted them secret.

“I cannot tell you how important it is to keep all of this confidential,” McClain told Quinn via email. “These men are sticking their necks out knowing full well if it goes public before you are exonerated they will get the full blast from the ‘MeToo’ movement. So, please honor the confidentiality.”

Madigan denied any involvement in the Quinn payments. “If a group of people were attempting to help Kevin Quinn, the speaker was not a part of it,” a spokeswoman told the Tribune. Federal authorities are reportedly looking into other instances in which individuals were paid by ComEd for little actual work in order to curry political favor for the utility giant.

Around the same time McClain was marshaling payments for a shamed Madigan political operative, he was soliciting funds for the 2018 election cycle on behalf of the speaker. In one leaked email to a group he called “The most Trusted of the Trusted,” McClain says he has reviewed a “magic Excel sheet” listing supporters of 19 key Democratic campaigns and Madigan’s campaign committees. In addition to being chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois, Madigan serves as chairman of Friends of Michael J. Madigan and Democratic Majority. It is through these committees that he funds the races necessary to protect his majority in the Illinois House of Representatives.

When these individuals send money, McClain describes, a Democratic political operative will ensure their name is entered into the magic spreadsheet.

“Although many people are contributing to the 19 targets … (and/or) some of HIMSELF’s Committees, there are some gaping holes too. So, anything you can do to ramp up your wonderful efforts would be appreciated!!!!!”

An inside source told Tribune reporters that federal investigators have found a number of emails from McClain and others referring to Madigan as “Himself” or “Friend.”

In Irish English, “himself” can be used in place of “he.” After knocking at a neighbor’s front door, one may ask, “Is himself in?” These reflexive pronouns, “himself” or “herself,” are often used to indicate importance.

“Again, we know you have millions of things to do and your ‘special’ effort here goes a long way in helping the Caucus and HIMSELF,” McClain wrote.

Himself is in hot water.

Madigan is the only legislative leader in the nation to also serve as chairman of his state political party, something good government advocates have long warned against due to the intersection of pure politics and policy choices.

Divorcing the two roles is just one example of a structural reform long-needed in Illinois. Rather than another commission on corruption, state lawmakers should push this spring for anti-corruption reforms that cut deeper than simply disclosure. 

Reforms should aim to reduce and distribute the absolute power that reigns over the House, not simply reveal its source: Himself.

Austin Berg is a Chicago-based writer with the Illinois Policy Institute who wrote this column for The Center Square. Austin can be reached at aberg@illinoispolicy.org.

Contributing Columnist

Austin Berg's award-winning work has been featured in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, and he has appeared on ABC 7 Chicago and WTTW. Berg was also the writer of the documentary film “Madigan: Power. Privilege. Politics.”