ComEd bribery scandal draws in state’s top regulator

Source: By Jeffrey Tomich, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, July 30, 2020

Illinois’ top utility regulator defended her role in helping to oversee the state’s largest utility, Commonwealth Edison Co., after the Chicago company admitted to arranging patronage jobs and using bribes to secure passage of energy legislation in Springfield.

Illinois Commerce Commission Chair Carrie Zalewski was asked by fellow a commissioner, Sadzi Oliva, to recuse herself from the ComEd review given ties among Zalewski’s father-in-law, the Chicago utility and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D), who’s at the center of the ongoing federal public corruption investigation.

ComEd admitted earlier this month to arranging jobs, contracts and payments to associates of Madigan in return for helping pass legislation in 2011 and 2016 that provided the utility with more than $150 million in benefits (Energywire, July 20). The company acknowledged its role under an agreement with federal prosecutors under which the charge will be dropped in three years if it meets certain conditions.

The ICC chair, an appointee of Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D), hasn’t been accused of any wrongdoing. Nor is she referenced in court filings that detail $1.3 million in payments by ComEd to Madigan associates.

But her father-in-law, former Chicago Alderman Michael Zalewski, is identified in news reports as being the Madigan ally described in court papers as “Associate 3,” who was hired as a ComEd subcontractor for $5,000 a month at the speaker’s request.

Chicago radio station WBEZ has reported that Madigan, who is also chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois, recommended Carrie Zalewski to Pritzker for appointment to the commission.

Pritzker last week defended Zalewski, calling it “unfair to hold against her something that has to do with someone else.”

But Oliva, a 2017 appointee of former Gov. Bruce Rauner (R), questioned whether the commission could restore the public’s trust in ComEd and ICC’s oversight of the utility with Zalewski in charge of the process.

“Ratepayers are looking to the commission to have effective and transparent oversight,” said Oliva, a former state assistant attorney general. “I feel that not expressing my concern to the public and on the record makes me complicit in failing to restore the public’s trust.”

According to WBEZ, Oliva had also sought Zalewski’s recusal in a letter to ICC’s general counsel and chief ethics officer days after ComEd admitted to the bribery charge.

ICC spokeswoman Victoria Crawford declined to provide a copy of the letter, citing attorney-client privilege.

The ICC chair bristled at Oliva’s request that she recuse herself from matters involving ComEd.

“I haven’t done anything wrong,” Zalewski said during yesterday’s meeting. “To suggest otherwise is both disingenuous and irresponsible. I perform my duties ethically, honestly, with integrity.”

The exchange came as ComEd CEO Joe Dominguez and utility lawyers prepared to brief ICC on ethics reforms the company is implementing around its lobbying efforts.

Dominguez and Verónica Gómez, ComEd’s general counsel, also ensured regulators that none of the $200 million fine it will pay under the deferred prosecution agreement will come from ratepayers.

Gómez said the fine would be paid by Exelon Corp. from cash on hand and ComEd would reimburse the parent company out of ComEd shareholder profits.

“There are no excuses for our conduct, and I will offer none today,” Dominguez said. “We know that we must give the commission, our customers and all stakeholders confidence that what has occurred will never happen again.”

Dominguez spent much of his time, however, defending energy laws that ComEd pushed to pass in 2011 and 2016. The laws included formula ratemaking provisions and a requirement to bolster the Chicago-area distribution grid and install smart meters on homes and businesses.

The investments have improved ComEd reliability by 70% since 2011, Dominguez said, all while electric rates are 20% lower on an inflation-adjusted basis than they were a decade ago.

Critics point out that ComEd rates have dipped not because of the energy laws passed in the last decade; instead, higher electric delivery rates have been muted by a steep decline in wholesale power prices related to a glut of shale gas.

Utility executives are set to appear tomorrow morning before a Chicago City Council committee to answer questions about the company’s lobbying practices.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has likewise called for reforms at ComEd, which is seeking to renew its franchise agreement with the city.