SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — The top federal prosecutor overseeing the criminal corruption investigation into House Speaker Michael Madigan gave state legislators the green light to call witnesses to testify before a separate Special Investigative Committee, a bipartisan panel convened to determine whether the House might discipline or expel Madigan from the chamber.
House Minority Leader Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs) officially filed the charges in the House Special Investigative Committee last week, accusing Madigan of engaging “in conduct unbecoming a legislator or which constitutes a breach of public trust.”
In a highly anticipated letter delivered on Thursday, U.S. Attorney John Lausch reiterated in writing what he had already explained in a private phone conversation with state Representatives Chris Welch (D-Hillside) and Tom Demmer (R-Dixon) on Monday. Lausch’s letter also put to rest political squabbling over different interpretations of what he actually said in that call.
Due to the sensitive nature of the ongoing federal investigation that involves cooperating witnesses and grand jury testimony, Welch, who chairs the committee, had written to Lausch and requested that he set parameters on their inquiry so the committee could “obtain as much information as possible but [do] so without impeding your ongoing investigation.”
Republican members of the panel emerged from the Monday call with Lausch confident that his guidelines would allow ample room for witness interrogation, while Welch claimed the prosecutor’s input would mean “we can call witnesses, but we can’t really ask them any questions.”
“It’s clear that the Republicans did not get the answers they wanted from U.S. Attorney Lausch and are now attempting to reinterpret the details to fit their political strategy,” Welch wrote in a statement on Wednesday.
According to Welch’s original version of events, “while the U.S. Attorney’s Office had no objection to witnesses being invited to voluntarily testify as part of the committee’s work, they would object to witnesses disclosing material information or documents related to their federal investigation or grand jury deliberations – specifically information underlying the government’s deferred prosecution agreement with Commonwealth Edison.”
However, Lausch’s letter never stated that witnesses could not repeat the facts of their testimony or their recollection of events, only that they could not reveal whether or not they had already shared that same information with federal investigators, and also could not reveal what information federal investigators may have shared with them.
“We do not object generally to the witness explaining those same facts to the SIC,” Lausch wrote. “We object, however, to questions about whether the witness shared those (or any other) facts with prosecutors or federal law enforcement agents, as such questions could reveal confidential information about the course of our investigation and could deter cooperation with our investigation by that witness and others.”
After Lausch clarified his position in a letter on Thursday, Rep. Grant Wehrli (R-Naperville), who sits on the committee, said, “This is exactly how we interpreted the phone call. It is clear we can call witnesses and have testimony regarding the [deferred prosecution agreement]. The things [Lausch] requested we not ask about are things we have no intention of asking about.”
House Republicans said they intend to call Madigan, former ComEd lobbyists Mike McClain, Fidel Marquez, John Hooker, Jay Doherty, Michael Zalewski, and former ComEd CEO Anne Prammagiore to testify before the committee.
The Republicans on the committee have said they plan to invite the witnesses to appear “either through voluntary requests or subpoenas.” They would be allowed access to an attorney and would be sworn in before giving their testimony. If witnesses decline to appear, four of the six members would need to vote to approve a petition for a subpoena to order them to testify. Witnesses could also plead the 5th Amendment and decline to answer questions that might incriminate themselves.
The stakes could not be higher for Madigan, 78, who faces mounting calls from within his party to step down. Even the slightest stumble, misstep, or hesitation during the high intensity, made-for-TV hearings could further erode his support within his caucus and weaken his grasp on the gavel.
Seven House Democrats and three Senate Democrats, along with former Democratic gubernatorial candidates and several party leaders, have already called on Madigan to resign immediately. Governor J.B. Pritzker, who was once of Madigan’s biggest financial backers, and several other Democratic state legislators have said Madigan should resign if the details listed in ComEd’s deal with federal prosecutors are true.
A spokesman for Madigan would not immediately confirm whether or not he intends to accept an invitation to testify before the committee.