Unidentified congressman in federal ComEd conspiracy documents is mayoral candidate US Rep. Jesús 'Chuy' García, sources say

  • In US
  • 2023-01-20 21:05:00Z
  • By Chicago Tribune

Mayoral challenger Jesús "Chuy" García is an unidentified member of Congress referenced in federal court filings detailing an alleged scheme by then-Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan to appoint one of García's political associates to a lucrative position on Commonwealth Edison's board of directors, the Tribune has learned.

García is not accused of wrongdoing, and through a spokesman, denies he played any role in the push by Madigan to appoint Juan Ochoa to the utility's board, which is one of the centerpiece allegations in the ComEd bribery conspiracy case set for trial in March.

But García's name surfacing - even superficially - in one of the biggest political corruption investigations in Illinois history could make waves in the upcoming city election, where García is running as a progressive and is widely considered to be the strongest challenger in a crowded field seeking to unseat Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

It also highlights a particularly thorny political problem for García, who has tried to distance himself from Madigan's old-school politics even though he'd formed a yearslong alliance with Madigan that helped them both strengthen their spheres of influence.

In an email response to questions from the Tribune, a spokesman for García's campaign said García "has never been asked to speak with any 'federal authorities,' including the FBI, federal prosecutors or anyone in the US Attorney's Office about anything related to ComEd, Madigan, or Ochoa, nor has he done so."

García's campaign also said he does not anticipate he will testify in any of the ComEd-related trials.

"Rep. García has never been asked to provide any information to federal investigators about this matter, and has no knowledge of it other than what he has read in news sources following the announcement of the ComEd plea agreement. He has no information to provide, as he was completely unaware of the misconduct alleged in those cases," the statement said. "Rep. García is not involved in this or any related investigation in any manner."

Ochoa is expected to testify in the ComEd Four case about a meeting he tried to set up with a U.S. congressman and Madigan in February 2019, more than a year after Madigan allegedly agreed to lean on ComEd to put Ochoa on the board, according to a prosecution filing last week. The purpose of the meeting was to talk about a political action committee that the congressman and Ochoa had recently started, but Madigan apparently thought Ochoa was upset over the board appointment taking so long.

Madigan allegedly directed longtime confidant Michael McClain to reach out to Ochoa and assure him the wheels were still in motion, prosecutors have alleged in court filings. In a secretly recorded phone call, Ochoa told McClain it was a misunderstanding, but acknowledged he "probably would have" brought up the board appointment when he and the congressman got in to see the speaker, according to prosecutors.

Federal investigators referred to the mix-up in both a search warrant affidavit made public last year and a court filing last week detailing evidence in the case. In the affidavit, García's name was blacked out, while in the more recent filing he was referred to only as "a member of Congress," multiple sources with knowledge of the case told the Tribune.

García isn't the only congressman to surface in the probe. Last week, the Tribune reported that Ochoa also is expected to testify how he enlisted the help of former U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a close ally of García's, to repair Ochoa's tattered political relationship with Madigan and lobby for his appointment to ComEd's board.

In the emailed statement Friday from García's campaign, the campaign spokesman said the congressman had no role in getting Ochoa appointed to the ComEd board and didn't ask Madigan to put Ochoa on the board.

"With regard to Juan Ochoa and his appointment to the ComEd board, Rep. García was informed by Juan Ochoa, that Madigan was supporting Ochoa's effort to be appointed to the board," the statement said.

Lightfoot already has sought to take advantage of the García-Madigan relationship, seeking to make the indicted ex-speaker a political albatross that could weigh down the García campaign.

The mayor has launched a television attack ad featuring a cartoon García dancing with Madigan and FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried, two unpopular defendants linked to political contributions to García.

Lightfoot doubled down following a candidate forum Sunday, telling reporters she found it "astounding" that García would say to the audience that he defeated the Democratic machine in the past when he stayed aligned with Madigan as more recent scandals unfolded.

"What's clear in looking at his background is that he decided after his defeat in 2015, that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em," Lightfoot said, though she sought García's endorsement four years ago.

The mention of Democratic heavyweights such as García and Gutierrez in the ComEd case could also lend credence to what's expected to be a key element of the defense: That the machinations behind Ochoa's appointment, as well as other allegations of wrongdoing, were nothing more than legal, time-honored political logrolling.

In fact, Madigan wasn't the only power broker they were pushing. Ochoa is expected to testify that he and Gutierrez also met with then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel about the appointment in November 2017, the Tribune reported last week.

Madigan hinted at his defense when he was indicted last year, writing in a statement that prosecutors were "attempting to criminalize a routine constituent service: job recommendations."

McClain's lawyer, Patrick Cotter, has made similar arguments, saying in a statement when the case was first indicted that in their "zeal" to get Madigan, prosecutors were attempting "to rewrite the law on bribery and criminalize long-recognized legitimate, common, and normal lobbying activity into some new form of crime."

Madigan's legal team declined to comment for this story, as did Cotter.

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office also had no comment.

Ochoa, a former Marine who heads the Riverside-based facilities management firm Miramar Group, Inc., could not be reached. His lawyer, Ricardo Meza, had no immediate comment.

The Ochoa scheme was just one aspect of bombshell allegations that first came to light in July 2020, when the U.S. attorney's office unveiled a criminal complaint charging ComEd with a yearslong bribery scheme involving jobs, contracts and payments to Madigan allies.

Under the terms of a deferred prosecution agreement with the government, ComEd agreed to pay a record $200 million fine and cooperate with investigators in exchange for the charges being dropped in 2023.

In November 2020, an indictment was unsealed charging McClain, former ComEd CEO Anne Prammagiore, lobbyist John Hooker, and consultant and former City Club of Chicago President Jay Doherty with bribery conspiracy. They're scheduled to go on trial March 6.

Another ComEd official, former Vice President Fidel Marquez, pleaded guilty in September 2020 and is expected to testify against his former colleagues about the scheme to influence Madigan as well as conversations he recorded for the FBI.

Madigan and McClain were both charged in a separate indictment last year with racketeering conspiracy alleging they participated in a range of corrupt schemes, including the ComEd conspiracy as well as similar allegations involving AT&T Illinois.

The scandal helped end Madigan's reign as the nation's longest-serving speaker in January 2021. Madigan later resigned from the Illinois House and as Illinois Democratic Party chairman.

Before Madigan allegedly became the fervent proponent of putting Ochoa on the ComEd board of directors, he had not always been a fan.

In fact, Madigan spared little criticism after Ochoa, a former head of the relatively obscure Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, was appointed in 2007 by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich to lead the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority of Chicago, a large, quasi-governmental body that was overseeing hundreds of millions of dollars of tourism, trade shows and other revenue streams at McCormick Place and Navy Pier.

Ochoa is expected to testify that in September 2007, he personally fired a McPier employee even though he "knew that terminating this individual might upset Madigan, because the employee was associated with Madigan. and had previously served as a legislative assistant in the General Assembly," prosecutors wrote in their court filing last week that laid out expected evidence in the ComEd conspiracy.

After the employee's termination, Ochoa hit a brick wall when it came time to negotiate for House approval of legislation to refinance McPier's high-interest bonds in early 2008.

According to the prosecution filing in the ComEd case last week, when Ochoa tried to arrange a meeting with Madigan to discuss the legislation, Ochoa's assistant got a sarcastic message in response saying "the employee that (Ochoa) terminated should schedule the meeting with Madigan."

"(Ochoa) therefore understood that Madigan would not meet," the filing stated.

Blagojevich, meanwhile, was arrested on federal corruption charges in December 2008, a little over a year into Ochoa's time at McPier. After the governor was impeached and booted from Springfield, Madigan pushed legislation to overhaul McPier, a measure that effectively replaced the chief executive position that Ochoa held. Ochoa announced his resignation the week the bill passed the House.

Ochoa is expected to testify that he resigned because he felt the debt-refinancing would never pass if he stayed on, according to the prosecution filing.

Five years later, his relationship with Madigan still "toxic," Ochoa first asked Gutierrez to help him repair the damage, the filing alleged. Ochoa tapped Gutierrez because he had endorsed Madigan for reelection and Ochoa "felt Madigan owed the member of Congress a political favor," according to the filing.

Shortly thereafter, Ochoa "received a telephone call from Madigan and met with him at his office," the filing stated.

In 2017, Ochoa asked Gutierrez to help him win Madigan's approval for the ComEd board seat appointment. The two met with Madigan at the speaker's office, where Madigan agreed to recommend Ochoa for the $80,000-a-year position, according to the filing.

On Nov. 14, 2017, Ochoa emailed his resume to Madigan's 13th Ward assistant, who immediately forwarded it to Pramaggiore with the note, "Hi Anne, Speaker Madigan asked me to send this to you. Please confirm receipt," according to the FBI search warrant affidavit, which was filed in January 2019 and unsealed in redacted form last May. Pramaggiore then allegedly forwarded the resume to ComEd's legal department.

At about the same time, Ochoa also asked Gutierrez to set up a meeting with "another public official" to discuss the board appointment, the court filing last week alleged. Prosecutors have not named that official, either, but sources told the Tribune he is Emanuel.

Mayoral calendars obtained by the Tribune via an open records request show that Emanuel and two of his aides met with Ochoa and Gutierrez at City Hall on Nov. 17, 2017.

Emanuel has not responded to requests for comment.

It wasn't until 15 months later, after delays due to pushback from ComEd over Ochoa's qualifications, leadership changes at the utility, and regulatory hurdles, that the appointment was finally close to being finalized.

On Feb. 19, 2019, at Madigan's direction, McClain called Ochoa to talk about the situation and Ochoa's mysterious request for a meeting with García.

"So I called (Madigan's) office today to see if (Chuy) and I can go see him," Ochoa allegedly said. "But it actually has more to do with the ah, with the Latino Leadership Council organization that we formed, we just wanted to brief him on it."

"Oh, OK, (Madigan) interpreted that you were calling because you were frustrated that this appointment hasn't been made," McClain said.

Ochoa said, "probably I would have brought it up, but that was not the intention."

Two months after that call, on April 25, 2019, Pramaggiore sent McClain a short text message saying, "Just sent out board approval to appoint Juan to ComEd board," according to the prosecution filings.

The next day, ComEd made it official, writing in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that Ochoa would get the position.

The peculiar political pairing of García, who touts roots in the Harold Washington progressive movement, and Madigan, a protege of Mayor Richard J. Daley and his machine-style politics, first startled the political world in 2016. It was the year after García lost a challenge to Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a runoff election.

While still a Cook County commissioner, García made a surprise endorsement of Madigan in a 2016 primary race against a well-funded Latino challenger, Jason Gonzales, for the Southwest Side House seat that Madigan had held for nearly half a century.

Despite their different political pedigrees, García alarmed some purists in his camp as he called Madigan a "progressive leader on issues of citizenship, parent mentoring, battling predatory lenders that have forced families into foreclosures, voter protections and better funding or our schools."

Along with campaign flyers featuring the smiling politicians, García also voiced his support for Madigan in robocalls, asking voters to "please join me in supporting Michael Madigan for state representative" and lauding the speaker's opposition to then-Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, according to a recording of one such call obtained by the Tribune.

Madigan won the 2016 primary with 65% of the vote.

García upped the ante in 2018 when he endorsed Madigan as the "clear choice" to remain as chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois, a position he held since 1998. García once against invoked his progressive credentials as he gave Madigan a vote of confidence in the middle of a major #MeToo scandal involving a top lieutenant.

"As a progressive Democrat, it is my intention to support a state party chair who will work with me to advance our most fundamental goals," wrote García. He backed Madigan as a partner in battles with Rauner and GOP President Donald Trump, calling it time to "stand together against their extreme agenda."

"My choice to join me in this fight is Michael Madigan," García wrote.

As García backed Madigan's handpicked 13th Ward Ald. Marty Quinn in 2019, Madigan backed some of García's political candidates. García called their ability to reach a political understanding a practical decision but insisted his hard work won him the growing influence that drove Madigan to deal with him.

"My organizing strategy for political engagement enhanced the ability for the traditional power brokers to recognize that the Latino community needed to be advanced, and that our winning of seats was inevitable," García said in an interview for a March 2021 Tribune story. "So, there was a constructive dialogue with the speaker in terms of what's happened on the Southwest Side."

García was given thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Madigan-controlled coffers, even as the scandals surrounding the speaker were in the news.

In November 2018, the year the speaker's organization was rocked by sexual harassment allegations involving misbehaving aides, García accepted a $5,000 donation from the Madigan-led Democratic Party of Illinois, election records showed.

García accepted another $5,000 from DPI in October 2020, less than three months after ComEd agreed to pay a $200 million fine in a case where prosecutors first labeled Madigan "Public Official A," records showed.

In November 2022, though, as García was launching his bid for mayor, he told WTTW-Ch. 11 that he was "surprised" by the charges lodged against Madigan.

"We all know that there was a great political organization with a lot of power that was wielded across the state of Illinois," García said. "I didn't know the depths of the practices that were going on that led to the indictment."

García's political connections to Ochoa, meanwhile, go back at least a decade, when Ochoa was running to unseat Cicero Town President Larry Dominick in 2013.

That year, García stood up with Gutierrez to call for an investigation into allegations of election fraud and intimidation of Hispanic voters, and also participated in a news conference with Ochoa calling for a federal investigation into Cicero's spending at a Berwyn hardware store that donated to Dominick's campaign.

Five years later, all three had a hand in launching the Latino Leadership Council, which was formed with a goal to raise money to back political candidates and tackle issues like immigration, neighborhood gentrification and income inequality.

García told the Tribune at the time that the idea for the group sprang out of discussions about how to build on higher voter turnout in the Hispanic community in recent elections that has been spurred in part by opposition to then-President Donald Trump.

The organization sought specifically to build on momentum around progressive positions, García said. "We recognize progressive values play an important part in the higher turnout," he said.

In a 2018 organization filing with the Illinois Board of Elections, the chair of the Latino Leadership Council was listed as Jesse Ruiz, the onetime Chicago Park District president whose position on ComEd's board Ochoa was eventually appointed to fill.

Some, however, criticized the council as just machine politics restyled. Among the group's touted members at the time of the launch was then-Ald. Daniel Solis, chairman of the City Council's Zoning Committee whose stunning cooperation in the federal investigations against Madigan and Ald. Edward Burke was still a closely guarded secret.

Solis announced his sudden retirement just weeks after the Latino Leadership Council was rolled out. He has since admitted to taking money in exchange for his influence over city business, and is expected to be a star witness at Madigan's trial, though he is not part of the ComEd allegations.




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