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Federal prosecutors will be in court with an Illinois political corruption case

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Illinois, another political corruption case is making its way to federal court. It revolves around a long-time kingmaker in the State House. From member station WBEZ in Chicago, here's Dan Mihalopoulos.

DAN MIHALOPOULOS, BYLINE: Democrat Michael Madigan was the Illinois House speaker for 36 years, making him the longest serving legislative leader in U.S. history. Former federal corruption prosecutor Patrick Collins says Madigan not only controlled just about every bill at the state Capitol, he also installed his loyalists in patronage jobs across the state.

PATRICK COLLINS: What's uniquely Illinois about the Mike Madigan story is the depth and breadth of his influence and control throughout the machinery of government.

MIHALOPOULOS: Ex-Speaker Madigan once used his full power as state Democratic Party chairman to help elect his daughter as Illinois attorney general. But now the soft-spoken Chicago politician, known as the Velvet Hammer, has become a criminal defendant, the boss of what U.S. Attorney John Lausch calls the Madigan Enterprise.

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JOHN LAUSCH: The indictment accuses Madigan of leading, for nearly a decade, a criminal enterprise whose purpose was to enhance Madigan's political power and financial well-being, while also generating income for his political allies and associates.

MIHALOPOULOS: This marks the biggest corruption case here in a decade, since Governor Rod Blagojevich was convicted of auctioning President Barack Obama's old Senate seat to the highest bidder. Blagojevich was the fourth Illinois governor to end up in prison, though President Donald Trump released him early. U.S. Attorney Lausch says even now, prosecutors marvel at the seemingly never-ending examples of wrongdoing in Chicago and Illinois politics.

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LAUSCH: I think we all shake our heads sometimes when we think that there's another corruption case that's happening. And that's why I've defined our problem as a very stubborn one.

MIHALOPOULOS: Michael Madigan's downfall began when the state's largest utility, Commonwealth Edison, admitted bribing him. In exchange for favorable legislation, ComEd hired Madigan's cronies for do-nothing consulting deals. The federal investigation led to Madigan finally losing his speaker's gavel a year ago. And he'll appear in court today for the first time to face 22 counts, including racketeering and bribery. After the indictment was unsealed last week, Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker said investigators had talked to him about Madigan, but the governor looked to distance himself.

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J B PRITZKER: Michael Madigan must be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law. Ultimately, every person in elected office is responsible for doing the right thing and not lining their own pockets.

MIHALOPOULOS: But Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin charges Democrats, who have largely dominated state politics, do not take corruption seriously.

JIM DURKIN: I can't even keep all the Democrats straight who are now defendants in the federal courthouse.

MIHALOPOULOS: Democratic lawmaker Kelly Cassidy and 18 others finally helped end Madigan's reign as speaker by withholding their support for him last year.

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KELLY CASSIDY: There were some pretty dark moments. I remember at the very beginning, just even talking about being frustrated and wanting to say something and people recoiling, you know, like, I had something contagious.

MIHALOPOULOS: Ex-Speaker Madigan denies wrongdoing. In a statement, he says prosecutors are trying to blame him for simply providing the constituent service of making job recommendations. And he's already spent almost $5 million of his campaign funds on defense lawyers.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Mihalopoulos in Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS' "INTO SPARKS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.