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Utility’s indicted CEO considered Madigan when hiring, witness says

Hannah Meisel
/
Capitol News Illinois

Ex-top lawyer’s 2nd day of testimony delves into ComEd’s hiring practices

In April 2017, a top staffer in then-Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan’s office was looking to leave his job after a combined nearly 18 years working for the speaker’s office and as his political director.

Will Cousineau applied for a high-level job with electric utility Commonwealth Edison, and the director of ComEd’s human resources department was getting ready to make him an offer, according to emails shown to a federal jury Wednesday.

One email sent by HR to two of the utility’s top attorneys asked them to review the hire before HR formally offered Cousineau the job of government and legislative affairs director, what would’ve been a new position within ComEd.

But when the utility’s general counsel, Tom O’Neill, raised concerns about the “optics” of ComEd hiring Cousineau directly from the speaker’s office, he said he got pushback from his boss, ComEd’s then-CEO Anne Pramaggiore.

“She indicated to me she felt it was important to the speaker,” O’Neill said Wednesday under cross-examination from Pramaggiore’s attorney.

Pramaggiore, along with three ComEd ex-lobbyists, stands accused of orchestrating a years-long bribery scheme to influence Madigan with jobs and contracts for his allies in exchange for help with the utility’s legislative agenda in Springfield.

O’Neill’s “concern” over the optics of “a purely political hire” ended up being irrelevant, as Cousineau never accepted the job; O’Neill testified Wednesday that ComEd couldn’t match Cousineau’s salary expectations. Cousineau went on to become a contract lobbyist, and his firm listed ComEd as a client in 2018 and 2019, according to state records.

Over 11 hours of testimony on Tuesday and Wednesday, O’Neill repeatedly said he got the impression that Madigan’s influence was at work during key hiring and other strategic legislative periods at ComEd. At times, like in considering Cousineau’s hire, O’Neill testified that Pramaggiore explicitly said her decisions were calculated with the powerful House speaker in mind.

Under cross-examination from defense attorneys, O’Neill consistently acknowledged there is nothing inherently illegal about giving, receiving and heeding job recommendations. But the utility’s former top lawyer said he grew uncomfortable when those recommendations came with increasing pressure in the form of check-in emails from ComEd’s former top contract lobbyist, Mike McClain, who is on trial along with Prammagiore.

On Tuesday, O’Neill testified that Madigan seemed to be McClain’s “primary client,” which prosecutors had confirmed by playing recordings from McClain’s wiretapped cell phone in which McClain himself said the same. They also showed a letter McClain wrote Madigan in 2016 where he’d said the speaker was his “real client.”

Read more: ComEd’s former top lawyer paints Madigan confidant as ‘double agent’ in testimony

McClain’s attorney, Patrick Cotter, acknowledged his client could be persistent to a fault when following up on items he deemed important. That list included ComEd’s retention of and eventual contract extension for an outside law firm run by a political ally and top Madigan fundraiser.

“Mike could be a pest, couldn’t he?” Cotter asked, eliciting a smattering of laughter in the courtroom.

“If you say so,” O’Neill replied. “I’d agree with that.”

With the help of O’Neill’s testimony, prosecutors detailed McClain’s monthslong push in 2016 to get the Reyes Kurson law firm’s contract with ComEd renewed with terms favorable to the firm, including a guaranteed number of billable hours per month.

According to the government’s narrative, McClain felt O’Neill wasn’t moving fast enough on the contract’s renewal, so he went over O’Neill’s head directly to Pramaggiore. In an email to the then-CEO, McClain asked Pramaggiore to get involved, or risk “provok(ing) a reaction from our Friend” – a nickname McClain used often when speaking of Madigan.

In the fall of 2011, O’Neill said he was made aware that the speaker was interested in having ComEd retain Reyes Kurson, which is headed by longtime Madigan ally and fundraiser Victor Reyes.

But Cotter made O’Neill clarify that while the original contract was inked the day before the passage of ComEd’s major legislative priority – the Energy Infrastructure Modernization Act, also known as “Smart Grid” – O’Neill didn’t view the two as connected. He said he believed both Madigan and the Senate president were committed to overturning then-Gov. Pat Quinn’s veto on the bill.

“Did you intend to bribe Mr. Madigan by hiring Reyes Kurson?” Cotter asked.

“I did not,” O’Neill replied.

Pramaggiore’s attorney, Scott Lassar, drilled down on this point even further.

“You did not go to Anne and say ‘Anne, I’ve lost my head and I’ve just bribed Mike Madigan by hiring (Reyes Kurson)!’” Lassar asked, deadpan.

O’Neill confirmed he had not.

Prosecutors also used O’Neill’s two days of testimony to drill down on one of their four main pillars of their bribery theory: the near two-year effort to place former Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority head Juan Ochoa on ComEd’s board of directors.

Ochoa was the only name considered after former board member Jesse Ruiz stepped down in late 2017 in preparation for his campaign for Illinois attorney general. O’Neill confirmed that those involved in replacing Ruiz were interested in appointing another Latino to the $78,000-per-year job.

According to emails shown to the jury Wednesday, Ochoa had sent his resume to a Madigan staffer named April Burgos, who in turn forwarded it directly to Pramaggiore.

“Hi Anne, Speaker Madigan asked me to send this to you,” Burgos wrote in a Nov. 14, 2017, email with Ochoa’s resume attached. “Please confirm receipt. Thanks, April.”

Once again, O’Neill testified that he was worried about “the optics” of ComEd hiring someone who came to the utility via the speaker’s office.

Although a “due diligence” background check conducted on Ochoa also pulled up items from Ochoa’s past – including a property he owned that was foreclosed upon after he’d stopped paying the mortgage – O’Neill said those concerns weren’t top of mind.

O’Neill said he was more concerned with a person close to Madigan having access to exclusive information about ComEd that the utility’s executives only disclosed to board members in their quarterly meetings.

But in a call with Pramaggiore and the CEO of ComEd’s parent company, Exelon, O’Neill said Pramaggiore acknowledged “the Madigan connection,” and said she was “for that.”

“She wanted to go forward (with Ochoa’s appointment),” O’Neill said. “She thought it was important.”

Lassar, however, sought to deflate any notion that Ochoa was only being pushed by Madigan, pointing out that Ochoa was an ally of then-Congressman Luis Gutierrez and his successor, U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia – and was also recommended to ComEd’s board by Chicago’s then-mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The trial continues 10 a.m. Thursday.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide, as well as hundreds of radio and TV stations. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

Hannah Meisel is a reporter at Capitol News Illinois, based in Springfield. Email: hmeisel@capitolnewsillinois.com

She’s had a number of assignments covering the Statehouse and Illinois government since the 2014 legislative session, most recently serving as Statehouse editor for NPR Illinois from 2020 until after the November 2022 election. Prior to that, Meisel worked at The Daily Line, Law 360 and Illinois Public Media in addition to various assignments for other outlets.