A special investigative committee of the General Assembly will begin meeting at the Capitol next week to decide the fate of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.
Madigan, a Chicago Democrat and the longest-serving legislative speaker in U.S. history, was implicated in a bribery scheme in July when officials from the utility giant Commonwealth Edison admitted to federal prosecutors that, over a period of years, they awarded lobbying jobs and contracts to close associates of Madigan as part of a concerted effort to curry his support for legislation that would benefit the company.
Madigan has not been charged with any crime and has insisted that he did not engage in any wrongdoing.
But for Republicans in the House who called for the investigation, the fact that Madigan has not been formally charged is beside the point.
"The federal bodies are investigating criminal and civil misconduct," said state Rep. Grant Wehrli, R-Naperville, who will serve on the panel. "We as a legislature have to hold ourselves accountable to a high ethical and professional standard. So we're not looking for criminal violations of statute or federal code. We are looking at the behavior of legislators in their official roles."
The Illinois Constitution gives each chamber of the General Assembly authority to determine its own rules, to "judge the elections, returns and qualifications of its members" and to name its officers.
Under Illinois House rules, disciplinary proceedings against a member can be commenced whenever three or more members sign a petition with the speaker and minority leader spelling out allegations which, if true, may subject the member to disciplinary action.
House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, invoked that rule on Monday when he and two other Republicans, Reps. Ryan Spain and Andrew Chesney, filed such a petition. Madigan immediately recused himself from the process and delegated the decision to House Majority Leader Gregory Harris, D-Chicago.
In recusing himself, however, Madigan issued a blistering statement calling the request "a political stunt only months away from one of the most consequential elections of our lifetimes." He also argued that there is no rule against legislators recommending people for jobs and that the legislation ComEd was seeking when it hired Madigan's associates passed the General Assembly with broad bipartisan support.
The special investigative committee will be made up of six members, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. It will have the authority to call witnesses and issue subpoenas for documents and testimony, and to determine whether "reasonable grounds" exist to authorize charges against Madigan that can result in discipline.
Besides Wehrli, the two other Republicans are Reps. Tom Demmer, of Dixon, and Deanne Mazzochi, of Elmhurst. The Democrats include Reps. Elizabeth Hernandez, of Cicero, Natalie Manley, of Joliet, and Emanuel "Chris" Welch, of Hillside, who will chair the committee.
A majority vote of the committee is needed to authorize charges, so at least one Democrat would be needed for this to occur.
Speaking in a separate interview, Welch said the first meeting of the panel will mainly be for organizational and scheduling purposes and to decide on how the process will unfold. But he said it is uncertain whether the committee will hear testimony from Madigan himself.
"Under the rule, the committee has the right to call witnesses and issue subpoenas. I anticipate talking about all of that with the committee next week when we organize," he said. "Speaker Madigan certainly will have that right (to testify) if he so chooses. He certainly has a right to also have legal counsel, if he so chooses. I can tell you what I'm committed to. And that's giving Speaker Madigan due process and a fair hearing, and the opportunity to participate if he so chooses."
But the rules do not specify what constitutes a chargeable offense, something Wehrli said the General Assembly needs to address.
"If you look at our rules, it's basically 'conduct unbecoming' and things like that. It's very vague and nebulous, which is once again another reason why we've been pushing for ethics reforms is to highlight and make it crystal clear what goes beyond the pale when it comes to ethics," he said. "Ethics can be very personal to each individual, and we can each interpret them differently. But what we need to do is make sure that the public has set a standard for us to adhere to, which is why I think the ethics reform is probably one of the most pressing issues we can do in Springfield."
If the committee does recommend charges, then a second, 12-member select disciplinary committee would be formed to conduct what amounts to a trial on the charges. If a majority of members on that panel finds Madigan at fault, it would then vote on whether to recommend a reprimand, censure or expulsion from the House. It could also recommend not to take any disciplinary action.
That committee's report, including each charge and recommended action, would then be forwarded to the full House where a three-fifths majority, or 71 votes, would be needed for adoption.
In the last 20 years, Welch said, the process has only been used twice – in 2012, when former Democratic Rep. Derrick Smith was expelled from the House after being indicted on bribery charges; and in 2019, after former Rep. Luis Arroyo was indicted for attempting to bribe an unnamed state senator. Arroyo resigned just hours before the special investigative committee in his case was about to meet.
"And so this instance is very different in that Speaker Madigan hasn't been indicted or charged with any criminal wrongdoing," Welch said. "However, three Republicans have invoked the rule and we have to go through our process. This is a very solemn and serious process. And I'm going to treat it as such as the chair of this committee. And we're going to give Speaker Madigan his due process, which he's entitled to as any other member of the House is."
The first hearing is scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 10, at 9 a.m.
Full interviews with Welch and Wehrli are available on CapitolCast, a regular podcast of Capitol News Illinois.
Contact Peter Hancock at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.