During federal court testimony last week in the trial of Oklahoma’s former senate president pro tem Michael Morgan, Nebraska-based power company Tenaska was identified as the firm that allegedly paid Morgan $5,000 a month for four years to help gain approval for a new power plant in Oklahoma. Tenaska wants Illinois lawmakers to approve an $8.7 billion tax credit to build a new power plant in Taylorville.
Prosecutors in the Oklahoma case say the money Morgan received between 2004 and 2008 was disguised as legal fees, though they say he apparently did no legal work for Tenaska. The indictment against Morgan said Tenaska stopped paying him when he left the Oklahoma Senate due to term limits.
A federal jury on Monday acquitted Morgan of criminal charges related to Tenaska but convicted him on one count of bribery related to $12,000 in payments by an assisted-living company hoping to influence legislation.
Prosecutors alleged during the trial that Tenaska and two other companies paid Morgan to influence legislation. None of the companies were accused of a crime.
Tenaska spokesman Dave Lundy pointed out that all Tenaska-related charges against a lobbyist and an attorney in Morgan’s case were dropped before the case when to trial, and all of the Tenaska-related charges against Morgan returned not-guilty verdicts.
Morgan originally faced 63 criminal counts, including two counts of conspiracy, one count of bribery, one count of extortion, and 59 counts of mail fraud. One count of conspiracy was dropped before Morgan’s trial. Jurors deadlocked the extortion charge and 27 counts of mail fraud, returning not-guilty verdicts on 33 additional counts.
Tenaska’s plan for a “clean coal” plant in Taylorville failed several times in recent years before being passed by the Illinois Senate in November in a tight 30-28 vote. It is awaiting action by the House and would require approval from Gov. Pat Quinn.
The bill’s sponsor, Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, has ties with former state senator James DeLeo, a Tenaska lobbyist. As recently as 2008, Cullerton and DeLeo owned interests in a Chicago restaurant, Tavern on Rush, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, which also reports that the two men are longtime friends.
DeLeo, who served in both the Illinois House and Senate between 1985 and 2010, was indicted in 1989 during the federal “Operation Greylord” case for allegedly failing to declare income he allegedly received as a “bagman” who collected bribes in Cook County courts. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge related to taxes. Dozens of other Chicago-area public officials were convicted of more serious crimes in the probe.
DeLeo’s lobbying firm, James A. DeLeo & Associates, contracts with lobbying firm Liz Brown-Reeves Consulting, Inc., which is registered with the Illinois Secretary of State to lobby on Tenaska’s behalf. Calls and an email seeking comment from DeLeo were not returned.
Rikeesha Phelon, spokeswoman for Cullerton, says the Senate’s rules governing conflicts of interest prevent a senator from sponsoring a bill for a family member or to benefit his or her own business partnerships.
“There are no provisions that basically make it unethical for someone that happens to be a friend, an associate or a past acquaintance to lobby a bill as far as a possible conflict of interest,” Phelon said in a phone interview. “On its face, there would not be anything illegal about it. As far as ethical guidelines we’re supposed to abide by, there isn’t really a connection.”
In a subsequent email, Phelon wrote that, unlike the former Oklahoma senator who is on trial, she didn’t see any opportunity for Cullerton to realize an economic gain connected to pending legislation in Illinois.
Clay Simmonds, spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Investigation office in Oklahoma City bureau, wouldn’t say whether any company involved in Morgan’s case is under investigation. Simmonds spoke prior to the verdict in Morgan’s trial.
“By policy, we don’t comment on cases,” Simmonds said.
Bob Troester, executive assistant U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Oklahoma, said he was not at liberty to discuss the case.
Contact Patrick Yeagle at email@example.com.