CAPITOL RECAP: Madigan indicted on 22 counts
Capitol News Illinois recaps the week in state politics and government
MADIGAN: Longtime Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan was indicted Wednesday by a federal grand jury on 22 counts for allegedly using his position as the top House Democrat to solicit “personal financial rewards” for himself and his associates, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Northern District of Illinois.
The former leader of the Democratic Party of Illinois served as Illinois House speaker for all but two years from 1983 until his unseating in January 2021. Throughout that time he was widely viewed as a more powerful political force than anyone in the state, including its governors.
Now, Madigan, 79, is accused of “nearly a decade” of running “a criminal enterprise whose purpose was to enhance Madigan’s political power and financial well-being while also generating income for his political allies and associates,” according to a news release from the Chicago-area U.S. attorney’s office.
“The indictment alleges a long-term, multifaceted scheme to use public positions for unlawful gain, including no-show or low-show jobs for Madigan's political workers and private gain for Madigan himself,” U.S. Attorney John Lausch, whose office led the investigation, said at a news conference. “The schemes describe involvement of a leader of state government, one of his close confidantes, top management of a large public utility, consultants and others.”
Madigan’s longtime confidante, Michael McClain, whose home was raided by the FBI in May 2019 in what was one of the first public acts of a long-running federal investigation, was also named in the indictment.
McClain, who was at one time a lobbyist for utility giant Commonwealth Edison, “carried out illegal activities at Madigan’s behest,” according to Lausch’s office.
Madigan, widely known as the state’s most careful politician, famously avoided use of electronic communications such as email and cellphones.
Lausch did not directly answer a question as to whether wiretaps were used in investigating the ex-speaker.
“We use all the investigative tools that we can…Those aren't spelled out specifically in the indictment,” he said. “But what you do have are words that are used in conversations. You do have words that are used in documents or on emails that are spelled out throughout the indictment. And that's the core of our evidence in this case. It's the words that are spoken by people. It is the things that show up on documents, and those are the things that actually formed the basis for the charges that we brought.”
According to the indictment, Madigan also used his position as committeeman for Chicago’s 13th Ward, chairman of both the Illinois Democratic Party and the 13th Ward Democratic Organization, and position at the Chicago law firm of Madigan & Getzendanner to “further the goals of the criminal enterprise.”
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EZIKE TO RESIGN: Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike will resign on March 14 after three years leading the agency and two years navigating a deadly pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 32,000 Illinoisans.
Ezike, a mother of four, was appointed IDPH director in 2019, became a widely recognized public figure in the state as the COVID-19 pandemic upended daily life across the globe.
“There is something particularly heroic about the service of an extraordinary individual who did not seek greatness, but found it anyway,” Gov. JB Pritzker said, proclaiming Tuesday, March 1 “Dr. Ngozi Ezike Day” in Illinois.
Beginning with daily updates in March 2020, Ezike appeared at more than 160 COVID-19-related news conferences alongside the governor, putting a public face on the medical side of the state’s executive branch-driven pandemic response.
Pritzker said the department will be led in the interim by Dr. Amaal Tokars, an IDPH top deputy who has at times appeared next to the governor at his news conferences as well.
Ezike thanked her family for “tolerating the absences” over the past two years.
An emotional Ezike thanked the governor and the people of Illinois for giving her strength in a difficult time.
“I acknowledge and mourn with the families of all the lives lost not just to COVID, but to gun violence, to suicide, to drug overdose, to racism, to cancer, and all the other diseases and ills that public health officials and all of our partners work tirelessly to curb,” she said.
Ezike also said that while the statewide indoor mask mandate was lifted as of Monday, it’s important to be respectful of Illinoisans who still choose to wear face coverings for medical or other reasons.
Ezike said declining COVID-19 transmission rates and hospitalizations, as well as increasing vaccination rates, are leading to a lull in the pandemic that created a window for her to step down.
“I'm hoping that with all the vaccinations and the therapeutics that are available that we will have, you know, a quiet spring. Spring and summer have typically been stable times. So this is my chance,” she said.
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TEACHER REIMBURSEMENT: The Illinois House passed a bill Wednesday that would reimburse public school teachers for tuition and mandatory fees paid to a public institution of higher education.
In a 70-42 vote, with no Republican support, the House passed House Bill 4139, which would require the Illinois Student Assistance Commission to establish and administer a teacher reimbursement grant program that provides eligible applicants an annual reimbursement of tuition and fees.
Rep. Sue Scherer, D-Decatur, said the bill addresses a dire need for teachers and incentivizes teachers to remain in Illinois public schools for at least 10 years.
To be eligible for reimbursement, applicants must have attended a public Illinois university and completed a state-approved educator program. Scherer said while they are employed at an Illinois public school, they will get reimbursed one-tenth of the amount they paid in tuition and fees for up to 10 years.
If the grant program were to serve everyone eligible, it would require about $1.4 billion over 18 years, according to a fiscal note attached to the bill at the request of a Republican lawmaker. In fiscal year 2023, it would cost about $88.3 million altogether and grow each year until annual costs peaked in years nine and 10 at about $140.2 million and declining thereafter. It would impact an estimated 65,160 Illinois teachers, including an estimated 53,460 current teachers.
The bill does not appropriate any money for the program, however, so lawmakers would have to include funding in future state budgets for it to have any effect.
Rep. Avery Bourne, R-Morrisonville, noted that ISAC had concerns about the bill and filed a witness slip in opposition to it.
Bourne said due to the lack of income requirements in the bill, state taxpayers could be on the hook for tuition that a wealthy family member had already paid to the public university. For that reason, she said. the bill does not help the people it is intended to help.
The bill is supported by the state’s major teachers unions.
The bill now heads to the Senate for further discussion.
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TEACHER COVID LEAVE: The Illinois House passed a bill Tuesday that would give teachers, professors and other educational employees paid leave if they miss work for COVID-19-related issues, but only if they’ve been fully vaccinated.
The House voted 70-28, with only Democrats voting in favor, to advance House Bill 1167, which would make the benefit retroactive to the start of the 2021-22 academic year.
The bill is similar to one that lawmakers passed with broad bipartisan support during last year’s fall veto session, but which Gov. JB Pritzker vetoed in January because it did not include a vaccine requirement.
“Well over 90 percent of teachers and staff would see a great, positive impact from this bill and I know they would all appreciate your support to pass this bill,” Rep. Janet Yang Rohr, D-Naperville, said during floor debate on the proposal.
But the vaccine requirement turned the new bill into a harshly partisan issue with Republicans calling it an unfair “vaccine mandate.”
The bill would apply to vaccinated K-12 and higher education employees who take time off because they or a family member contracts COVID-19. It would also apply to employees who miss work because the school where they work is forced to close due to a COVID-19 outbreak, unless those days are later rescheduled.
Republicans, however, argued that the bill unfairly discriminates in the way employee benefits are provided to educators on the basis of vaccination status because it provides a greater benefit to a vaccinated worker than an unvaccinated one even if neither contracts the virus.
The bill will head to the Senate for further consideration before it can head to Gov. JB Pritzker.
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IDOC BUDGET: Illinois Department of Corrections Director Rob Jeffreys appeared before the Senate Criminal Justice Appropriations Subcommittee on Tuesday, March 1, to ask for approval of the department’s $1.6 billion budget, a 6 percent increase from the current fiscal year.
Although the prison population is the lowest it has been since 1989, Jeffreys told legislators that he is moving IDOC from a punitive position to a therapeutic and rehabilitative model.
IDOC aims to accomplish that by conducting reentry assessments for those leaving IDOC and offering resources, such as higher education opportunities, to current inmates. The department is also assisting discharged inmates in obtaining state identification and enrolling in Medicaid.
That approach, coupled with decreasing admissions, has caused the IDOC population to shrink from 38,000 in 2019 to about 27,000 today.
He also answered questions about staff vaccination rates, commissary shortages and the future of Vandalia and Pontiac prisons.
As of Tuesday, 71 percent of IDOC staff is vaccinated, Jeffreys said. In late December, an arbitrator found IDOC could require employees to be vaccinated.
IDOC continues to face commissary shortages due to procurement issues and supply chain problems, but Jeffreys said those issues are being addressed. In June 2021, Keefe Group was awarded the contract for the entire IDOC system. The contract award is being contested by another vendor that was not awarded the contract.
To maintain products in commissaries without a vendor contract in place, IDOC entered into five emergency contracts with vendors.
Jared Brunk, chief of administration for IDOC, said he expects bids for a new contract to go out within the week, eventually leading to the first competitively procured vendor in more than three years.
With a dwindling inmate population and mounting maintenance bills on prison buildings at correctional centers across the state, IDOC developed a plan which may include significant downsizing at the Vandalia and Pontiac correctional centers.
A copy of the proposed plan showed IDOC planned to close Pontiac’s medium security unit, dropping its population from 1,740 beds to 642 and reducing the beds at Vandalia Correctional Center from 1,001 to 401.
“We are meeting with the union next week to discuss those plans that somehow got out to everyone,” Jeffreys said. “We are in constant discussions about what the future is for the Pontiac and Vandalia facilities.”
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MASK GUIDANCE: Facial coverings are now optional in most public places in Illinois, including schools, after Gov. JB Pritzker issued new guidance Monday to comply with new U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
Under a new executive order issued by Pritzker on Monday, Feb. 28, masks are no longer required in most indoor public places, including K-12 schools and day cares. But schools and private businesses can continue to require masks at their own discretion.
Face masks are still required in health care settings and on public transportation such as buses, trains and airplanes, as well as transportation hubs like airports and bus stations.
Those developments came after the Illinois Supreme Court on Friday declined to hear the state’s appeal of a temporary restraining order issued Feb. 4 by a Sangamon County judge, calling the issue “moot.”
In its ruling late Friday, the court, in a 5-2 vote, echoed a 4th District Court of Appeals decision from a week earlier that said the issue of the TRO was moot because the emergency rules that the Illinois Department of Public Health had issued in September had expired and the legislative Joint Committee on Administrative Rules voted Feb. 15 not to renew them.
Because the issue of the TRO was moot, the state’s high court said Friday, the order itself was vacated and the case was remanded back to Sangamon County to be heard in its entirety.
Justices Michael J. Burke and David K. Overstreet dissented in the decision. The court said a written dissenting opinion would be forthcoming.
The Supreme Court’s ruling was one that left both sides in the dispute claiming victory.
“I’m gratified that the Supreme Court vacated the lower court’s restraining order, meaning that if a school mask mandate needs to go into effect in the future, we continue to have that authority,” Pritzker said in a statement released by his press secretary.
But Republican lawmakers who have questioned Pritzker’s use of executive orders and criticized the Democratic majority in the General Assembly for not exercising oversight, said the ruling will serve as a check on the governor’s powers.
“The Illinois Supreme Court found the governor’s mask mandate moot and not enforceable thanks to a bipartisan group of legislators who decided to strike it down earlier this month,” Senate GOP Leader Dan McConchie, of Hawthorn Woods, said in a statement.
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NUTRIENT LOSS BILL: A bill meant to stem nutrient pollution resulting from farm runoff has met opposition from a formidable foe – the Illinois Farm Bureau – as negotiations on a final package continue.
The state aimed to reduce nitrates and nitrogen by 15 percent and phosphorus by 25 percent by 2025, but the latest Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy Implementation Report showed that nutrient loss increased by 13 percent and phosphorus losses increased by 35 percent, compared with a baseline period from 1980 to 1996.
The bill, Senate Bill 3471,creates the Healthy Soils and Watershed Initiative that would be administered by the Department of Agriculture in cooperation with the state’s soil and water conservation districts, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, and the University of Illinois Extension program.
The Department of Agriculture would create guidelines to help with soil and water conservation districts to create a plan and establish funding levels with “measureable, cost-effective and technically achievable goals” to reduce nutrient loss.
The Initiative would then produce a study every two years, beginning in 2023, outlining efforts to combat nutrient loss and their overall effectiveness. It would also measure the overall picture of nutrient loss and whether the state was moving towards goals set out in the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy.
Supporters say the bill creates a baseline to gauge the scope of the problem and identify appropriate spending limits and strategies that work, and it also provides accountability to taxpayers.
The information collected by the agencies would also make it easier to obtain federal monies set aside to combat nutrient loss, said Maxwell Webster, Midwest Policy Manager for America Farmland Trust, a proponent of the bill.
The Illinois Farm Bureau voiced opposition to the bill in committee hearing because they say it is duplicative, complicated and bureaucratic.
The Farm Bureau said the bill put various state and federal agencies, authorities, and programs under one umbrella, making it difficult to implement. Adding provisions to already existing laws, like the Soil and Water Conservation Act, would make the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategies less confusing and eliminate bureaucracy, said Lauren Lurkins, Director of Environmental Policy for the Illinois Farm Bureau.
Advocates for the bill said they are hopeful it will be able to move when the Senate returns next week, as the deadline for its passage was extended to March 11.
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APPELLATE BACKLOG ‘SOLVED:’ A backlog of cases before the Illinois Office of the State Appellate Defender that the agency’s leader once described as a “crisis in the criminal justice system” has largely been resolved, State Appellate Defender James Chadd told a state Senate committee Tuesday.
Chadd told a Senate judiciary appropriations subcommittee that the backlog of cases at one time reached 3,759 amid a two-year budget impasse and extensive periods of underfunding. There are now fewer than 500 cases with complete records before the office, he said.
The Office of the State Appellate Defender represents the state’s most disadvantaged individuals as they appeal criminal charges.
Chadd, who was appointed state appellate defender in 2017 and seated in January 2018, attributed the success in reducing the backlog to the agency being fully funded and fully staffed for the previous four years.
“Fully funded” equates to a budget of roughly $26 million, a number he has requested from the General Assembly for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1. It’s roughly flat from the current year with a decrease of about $70,000.
It’s an increase from just under $24 million that was budgeted for the agency in Gov. JB Pritzker’s first year in office. It also marks about a 30 percent increase from OSAD’s budget at the height of the budget impasse which occurred from 2015 to 2017.
Chadd said another contributing factor to the decrease in the backlog was that OSAD was able to work effectively throughout the pandemic as the pace of court cases slowed at the trial court level. The agency expects to see an unspecified increase in cases as trial courts return to a normal pace following slowdowns attributable to the pandemic.
The $26 million budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which still needs approval from the General Assembly and the governor, should allow OSAD to handle any influx of claims, Chadd said. The funding will support 255 employees at the agency, including 195 attorneys.
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.