SPRINGFIELD –The chairwoman of the Illinois House Energy and Environment Committee said this week she will not hold hearings to examine what impact Commonwealth Edison’s lobbying and bribery practices have had on utility ratepayers, rebuffing a request from two Republican lawmakers.
Instead, Rep. Ann Williams, D-Chicago, said in a statement Thursday, July 23, that she plans to introduce “tough new amendments” to the proposed Clean Energy Jobs Act next year “to ensure that we hold utilities accountable and take the politics out of setting fair energy rates.”
“A legislative committee is not the appropriate place to investigate a criminal matter currently under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Attorney’s office,” Williams said this week. “As was the precedent during prior corruption cases, the House Energy and Environment (committee) will not hold hearings that could impede and interfere with an ongoing federal investigation.”
That statement came in response to a letter Monday from Republican Reps. David Welter, of Morris, and Keith Wheeler, of Oswego, to Williams and Rep. Larry Walsh, D-Joliet, chair of the House Public Utilities Committee. That letter requested the two committees hold joint investigative hearings.
Their letter was in reaction to ComEd’s public admission on Friday, July 17, that between 2011 and 2019, it awarded lobbying jobs and subcontracts to associates of House Speaker Michael Madigan as part of an effort to gain Madigan’s support for legislation beneficial to the utility.
Madigan has not been charged and has denied any wrongdoing.
But Welter and Wheeler argued that there is more at stake in the scandal than criminal matters.
“(T)he issue of what impact ComEd’s activities had on ratepayers and state policy needs to be investigated,” they stated in their letter.
Williams, who is the lead House sponsor of the Clean Energy Jobs act which aims at bringing the state to a 100 percent clean energy future, said in an open letter to her colleagues Thursday that she is working on amendments to that bill, including one that would end the automatic, formula-generated rate increases allowed in 2011 legislation.
“The era of utilities, nuclear and fossil fuel industries, and other big business groups dictating energy policy in Illinois are over,” she said. “We can no longer allow corporate profits to come before efforts to create affordable and clean energy sources.”
In a separate statement Thursday, Welter said he had spoken again with Williams in hopes of changing her mind about holding investigative hearings. He said that while there is bipartisan support for working on legislation to prevent future corrupt lobbying practices, he was disappointed that Democratic leaders were not willing to investigate the impact that past practices have had on ratepayers.
* * *
SPECIAL SESSION URGED:Republicans in the Illinois House on Tuesday, July 21, called on Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker to convene a special session of the General Assembly to focus on ethics reform.
During a video news conference, Reps. Grant Wehrli, Deanne Mazzochi and Dan Ugaste said there is an urgent need for ethics reform in light of the recent federal charges against utility giant Commonwealth Edison that implicated House Speaker Michael Madigan in a bribery scheme.
“Governor, lead. Call us back into session,” said Wehrli, of Naperville. “Let's address ethics collaboratively and in a bipartisan manner. To my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, you should be demanding that we get back into Springfield and address this.”
On Friday, July 17, federal prosecutors in Chicago announced charges against ComEd for allegedly giving jobs, vendor subcontracts and monetary payments to people associated with Madigan in exchange for Madigan’s support of legislation that benefited the utility.
ComEd effectively admitted its guilt by entering what’s known as a “deferred prosecution agreement” that defers any prosecution of the charges for three years, leading to a potential dismissal of charges, in exchange for ComEd agreeing to pay a $200 million fine and cooperate with the government’s ongoing investigation.
Later Friday, federal authorities issued a subpoena for documents in Madigan’s office related to job recommendations he may have made for people to work at ComEd. Madigan has not been charged. He has denied any wrongdoing and has said he is cooperating with the investigation.
The charges against ComEd are just one aspect of a long-running and sprawling federal investigation into public corruption allegations involving several high-profile Chicago-area Democrats.
* * *
COVID-19 STATISTICS UPDATE:The Illinois Department of Public Health on Friday, July 24, reported another 1,532 confirmed new cases of COVID-19.
Meanwhile, the state’s seven-day rolling positivity rate for COVID-19 tests remained at 3.4 percent Friday after four days of increasing. The 1,532 new cases reported were among 44,330 test results reported, making for a one-day positivity rate of 3.5 percent.
Hospitalizations remained roughly level near their pandemic lows, with 1,471 COVID-19-positive patients in hospital beds, including 325 in intensive care unit beds and 115 on ventilators.
The state announced an additional 19 deaths, bringing the total casualties since the pandemic began to 7,385 among 168,457 confirmed cases. More than 2.4 million tests have been conducted.
* * *
UNEMPLOYMENT REMAINS HISTORICALLY HIGH: another 35,938 Illinoisans filed first-time unemployment claims for the week ending July 18, according to the U.S. Dept. of Labor, a decrease of 2,323 from the week prior. There were 655,116 continued unemployment claims for the week, which was 9,647 less than the week before, according to the statistics.
Nationally, there were more than 1.4 million new claims filed during the week ending July 18, an increase of 109,000 from the week before.
The number of nonfarm jobs decreased in June, compared to last year, in all fourteen Illinois metropolitan areas, according to the Illinois Department of Employment Security’s release of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Six metro areas hit record low payrolls, according to the data.
Illinois’ unemployment rate was at 14.6 percent for June, according to IDES, which was a record for the month since 1976. Nationally, the unemployment rate was at 11.1 percent.
* * *
GOP PRESSURE:Republicans on Friday, July 24, continued to pressure the Illinois Department of Employment Security to resolve issues stemming from record unemployment claims the same day the state reported another 1,532 confirmed cases of COVID-19.
Five months after Gov. JB Pritzker issued his first stay-at-home order in response to the spread of the novel coronavirus, unemployment rates in Illinois remain historically high at 14.6 percent in June, leading to widely reported delays in the Illinois Department of Employment Security’s handling of unemployment claims.
Pritzker has long maintained the state is doing all it can to increase call center capacity, and has said state government’s diminished investment in state agencies caused understaffing at the department to begin with, and finding new specialized call center employees often requires several months of training mandated by the federal government.
In light of news that many Illinoisans were experiencing fraud under the federal government’s new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, Illinois House Republicans — joined by U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville — made another call to the governor to fix the issues facing the department.
“What we're asking for now is some hearings, a hearing in particular where we would perhaps have members of IDES, the governor's office and of course I would like to have someone there from Deloitte,” Rep. Terri Bryant, R-Murphysboro said in the virtual news conference.
* * *
LOCAL COVID-19 POLICIES:Gov. JB Pritzker on Monday, July 20, gave support to a pair of Illinois mayors who recently enacted policies aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19 in bar and tavern settings.
Pritzker specifically referred to actions by Springfield Mayor Jim Langfelder, who signed an order creating fines for bars and restaurants that fail to comply with social distancing and capacity rules, and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who announced Monday morning that the city would stop bars that don’t serve food from serving alcohol indoors starting Friday.
“I want to commend local leaders taking action to keep their communities safe, and the state stands behind these municipalities in their efforts,” Pritzker said at an event Monday in Urbana. “Our city and county leaders, with case numbers and hospitalizations rising and localized information about outbreaks readily available, can and should do what they know is right to protect their residents.”
OUTBREAKS REPORTED:A juvenile detention facility and two mental health centers in Illinois each reported outbreaks of COVID-19 on Tuesday, July 21.
The Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice youth center in St. Charles reported 16 new cases of COVID-19 in staff and three new cases among youth at the facility.
This prompted “increased mitigation and infection control measures,” according to a news release from the Illinois Department of Public Health, which said all youth and staff have been tested for the virus and the facility is “implementing programming changes to reduce further spread.”
IDPH also reported that Chester Mental Health Center in Randolph County reported 32 confirmed cases – 27 staff and five residents – while Shapiro Developmental Center in Kankakee County reported seven confirmed cases – one resident and five staff.
“I want to remind everyone that this pandemic is still very much here,” Gov. JB Pritzker said at an unrelated event in Collinsville. “And it remains a very serious threat. People are getting sick and dying. The Metro East region has one of the highest rates of cases and transmission in the state, even as the rest of the state remains fairly steady.”
He added: “You've all seen the death toll rising in Florida and Texas, in Arizona, Alabama, North Carolina, in California. This is no joke. This is no hoax. Metro East is at risk, as any area of the country, of tipping over to the higher case and death counts that we see in other parts of the country.”
Pritzker said the state “will take immediate action to impose additional mitigations” if there’s an increase in the rolling positivity rate for COVID-19 tests along with increased hospital admissions or decreased surge capacities. Action will also follow if a region passes an 8 percent rolling seven-day average.
* * *
RESIDENTIAL EVICTIONS:Gov. JB Pritzker on Wednesday, July 22, announced that he would be extending a moratorium on residential evictions through Aug. 22. He had previously said that extension would run through the end of the month, but two state programs for renters and homeowners will have applications open in mid to late August, so the extension is aimed at creating a bridge to those programs.
Through the fall, Pritzker said, the state will make grants of up to $5,000 for renters and $15,000 for homeowners available to applicants.
“For many people, their ability to weather this crisis hinges on their ability to keep a roof over their family's heads,” he said. “It's not enough to say that we want to build a more just and equitable state … on the other side of this pandemic. We have to take tangible action to get there.”
* * *
UNEMPLOYMENT FRAUD:The Illinois Department of Employment Security said Wednesday, July 22, it has been affected by a nationwide fraud scheme involving the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.
That program, enacted as part of the federal CARES Act, provides 100 percent federally funded jobless benefits to independent contractors, gig workers and others who don’t normally qualify for the traditional unemployment insurance program.
In a statement Wednesday, IDES said that program was designed hastily as the COVID-19 crisis was unfolding and that it did not include adequate safeguards to prevent abuse. That’s because the program is designed for people who don’t have an employer.
IDES spokeswoman Rebecca Cisco said in an interview that the scheme involves filing unemployment claims using false identities and then attempting to have the payment method switched from the debit cards that people receive when they qualify for benefits to a direct deposit.
The agency said those behind the fraud probably obtained people’s personal information through an earlier cyber hack or data breach such as the Equifax data breach of 2017.
IDES did not say how many fraudulent claims it has detected or how much money is involved, but it did say it is cooperating with both local and federal law enforcement agencies to track down and prosecute the individuals behind the scheme.
Gov. JB Pritzker addressed the fraud scheme during a news conference Wednesday in Chicago, saying the scheme has affected nearly every state unemployment program in the nation.
“If you received a debit card in the mail, do not activate it,” Pritzker said. “It’s also highly recommended that you check your credit report for possible suspicious activity. Again, this is a problem being experienced all across the country right now because the national program was poorly designed and susceptible to fraud.”
People who believe a fraudulent claim has been filed in their name are urged to call IDES immediately at 1-800-814-0513. When prompted, select the English or Spanish language option, then select option 1 for claimants and option 5 to report identity theft.
* * *
FEDERAL AGENTS TO CHICAGO:While President Donald Trump and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot traded political barbs this week, the pair appears to be in agreement that his administration's plan to send more than 200 federal troops to Chicago to work in coordination with Chicago police under U.S. Attorney John Lausch Jr. would be beneficial as the city faces a recent rise violent crime.
Lightfoot, along with Gov. JB Pritzker and Attorney General Kwame Raoul, have pledged to defend the civil liberties of their constituents should federal officers overstep in Chicago.
Trump ultimately would have had authority under federal law to send in federal agents anyway, even if local authorities remained opposed, according to a University of Illinois constitutional law professor.
“Federal agents do not need the permission of states or cities to enforce federal law locally, and states and cities cannot obstruct federal officers when they are enforcing federal law,” Jason Mazzone, who is an expert in federalism, said in an email. “That said, federal agents do not have a general policing authority.”
Mazzone said there are several potential legal justifications for agents to act in Portland, such as protecting federal buildings, stopping the use of explosive or incendiary devices or breaking up riots that affect interstate commerce.
But it was unusual, he said, that federal authorities planned to act even as local officials in Portland and Chicago – at least until the operation was clarified Wednesday – opposed the action.
“Most of the time when federal agents enforce federal laws in states and cities they do so with the support or cooperation of state and local government,” he said. “This makes sense. Most of the time states and localities want the assistance of federal enforcement. Most of the time federal agents do not involve themselves in ways that are contrary to state and local measures and efforts.”
One example Mazzone gave is the practice of federal agents not interfering with state legalization of marijuana despite federal prohibitions. But he also noted the Trump administration has set a precedent of enforcing immigration laws despite opposition from sanctuary cities and states.
Older precedents, he said, include integration of public schools and enforcement of voting rights over local interference.
Trump and U.S. Attorney General William Barr have been careful to make a distinction between Operation Legend and the “tactical teams we use to defend against riots and mob violence” in Portland.
Responding to Trump’s news conference on Wednesday, Lightfoot said federal agencies have coordinated with local law enforcement in Chicago on different operations for decades, and that she trusted Lausch – who she called a friend and former colleague – to oversee the operations.
In Portland, by comparison, agents from the Department of Homeland Security acted without the knowledge or support of local officials and police departments. Their justification has been that they were guarding federal buildings.
Critics of the Trump Administration’s actions in Portland cite residents being accosted by agents away from federal property as proof of wrongdoing. In two separate announcements Thursday, the Inspectors General of the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security said they were opening investigations into the actions of federal agents in Portland.
* * *
CONTRACT TRACING FUNDS: The Illinois Department of Public Health on Wednesday, July 22, announced a Notice of Funding Opportunity, or NOFO, for public health organizations through which the department will award a grant in each of the regions outlined in Gov. JB Pritzker’s resurgence mitigation plan outside of Cook County and Chicago, which will stand up their own contact tracing programs.
The grants will go to nine organizations which will serve as coordinators in their region, awarding sub-grants to community-based organizations.
The NOFO will be available on the IDPH website on Friday, July 24, according to a news release.
“The COVID-19 Pandemic Health Navigator program is geared toward organizations able to serve as coordinators for their region, sub-awarding to other agencies across three main areas of work – education and outreach, contact tracing, and resource coordination for those who need to isolate,” Pritzker said.
More than 1,600 contact tracers are available in Illinois, according to the governor, who said they are reaching “about 61 percent” of identified contacts within a reasonable time. Sometimes, however, positive cases are not willing to identify those whom they have contacted.
The number of staff needed to conduct contact tracing varies depending on several factors, including the number of people seeking medical care or testing, the number of new cases, the amount of time passed between first symptoms and a positive test, the number of contacts of each confirmed case, and how quickly patients are isolated and contacts are notified.
“By working with established community-based organizations, we are hoping to reach people who may be at higher risk of infection, but hesitant to talk with health officials,” IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said.“We need people who are trusted in communities across the state to let people who have been in close contact with a confirmed case know that they need to monitor their health and take steps to potentially prevent spread of the virus to their family, friends, co-workers, and other community members.”
* * *
INFRASTRUCTURE PLAN:Gov. JB Pritzker joined Illinois Department of Transportation officials Tuesday, July 21, to unveil a six-year, $21.3 billion statewide road and bridge improvement plan that is an extension of the Rebuild Illinois infrastructure package passed last year by the General Assembly.
IDOT is tasked with unveiling a multi-year plan each year to detail how it will spend transportation dollars on state and local highway transportation systems. For the current fiscal year, the investment in road and bridge infrastructure totals $3.15 billion, according to the governor’s office.
Current funding levels would allow the multi-year plan to include 3,356 miles of road improvements and 8.4 million square feet of bridge deck in total over the next six years.
The infrastructure spending largely relies on revenue from the motor fuel tax — which was increased on July 1, as it will every year forthcoming under the new state law — among other driving-related fees.
According to an overview of the multi-year plan on the IDOT website, however, revenue estimates were not adjusted to account for economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated stay-at-home orders.
“Due to the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic and national stay-at-home guidance, the reduced consumption of gas is expected to cause a decrease in motor fuel tax revenue that would be deposited into the state’s road and state construction fund,” according to IDOT’s summary of the plan. “It is not yet known what the actual decrease will be. Therefore, no adjustments were made to the (multi-year plan).”
“The department will continue to monitor the data and make any adjustments deemed necessary as actual revenue impacts become known,” the summary continued.
Year one work on the Rebuild Illinois plan continued despite state stay-at-home orders, so the first year of the plan saw $2.77 billion in improvements, with $2.15 billion to the state system and $616 million in the local system.
* * *
GUN LAWSUIT:Gun rights advocacy groups filed a federal lawsuit Monday, July 20, against the Illinois State Police claiming that the office in charge of handling Firearm Owners Identification card applications is unconstitutionally delaying that process.
State statute dictates that “no person may acquire or possess any firearm, stun gun, or taser,” or ammunition, without having a state-issued FOID card. ISP has 30 days from the date it receives an application and filing fee to either approve or deny that request. For renewals, state police officials have 60 days.
The Firearms Services Bureau, in charge of processing those applications, “often” misses those deadlines, according to the lawsuit. Residents are left “in limbo for months,” argue the State Rifle Association, based in Chatsworth, and Second Amendment Foundation.
The Foundation, based in Bellevue, Washington, has Illinois members.
Members of the two groups, as well as four Illinois residents — from Chicago Heights, Oak Forest and Buffalo Grove — did not receive notice from the State Police about whether their applications were approved or denied within the 30-day timeframe mandated by statute, according to the court document.
It does not specify when the applications were filed or how long those Illinoisans have waited for ISP action, but does mentiona June CBS Chicago storyin which a spokesperson said an influx of new applications was delaying processing.
“With an explosion of applications and firearms purchases during the pandemic and current events — 63,823 FOID applications ... just last month — broader legislative remedies to streamline and modernize the FOID process will be necessary to meet statutory timelines,” a spokesperson said in an email Tuesday, July 21. “We look forward to working with all interested parties and members of the General Assembly to reach those solutions. The Firearms Services Bureau is committed to resolving the issues and meeting our public safety mission.”
* * *
TEACHERS' UNION ON REOPENING:One of the state’s largest teachers’ unions said Monday, July 20, that most schools in Illinois are not yet ready to reopen for in-person teaching in the fall and it urged schools to continue operating remotely until the safety of students, teachers and staff can be assured.
“At this point, our recommendation is schools should return to online or remote learning after the beginning of the school year,” Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, said during a video news conference. “That is the safest and best option. It's safest for the students and their families. And it's also the most practical.”
K-12 schools in Illinois, along with colleges and universities, were ordered closed for in-person classes on March 15, just days before Gov. JB Pritzker issued a statewide stay-at-home order in response to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic. They remained closed through the remainder of the school year and were allowed to reopen for summer school on only a limited basis in early June when the state entered Phase 3 of the reopening plan.
On June 23, as the state was entering Phase 4 of the reopening plan, the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Illinois State Board of Education releasedguidelinesfor the resumption of in-person classes for the upcoming 2020-2021 academic year.
“In-person instruction is strongly encouraged in Phase 4,” the guidelines state. “[H]owever, it is critical to note that this does not signify a return to pre-pandemic operations. Appropriate social distancing, face coverings, enhanced sanitation measures, and other accommodations will be necessary to ensure the safety of students, staff, and their families.”
Those guidelines require, among other things, use of appropriate personal protective equipment, or PPE, including face coverings; prohibiting more than 50 people from gathering in one space; observing social distancing as much as possible; monitoring all individuals for symptoms of COVID-19; and an increase in schoolwide cleaning and disinfection.
But IFT issued astatementMonday suggesting those guidelines do not go far enough. In addition to the measures IDPH and ISBE recommended, IFT called for districts to negotiate their reopening plans with their local teachers’ unions, allowing a blended model of in-person and online learning that would limit class sizes to no more than 15 students at a time, giving teachers authority to decide what the best model is for their students, and requiring a two-week quarantine for any student or staff member who tests positive for COVID-19.
Montgomery said there might be some schools in the state that are able to meet those standards. “But most districts right now are not able, we believe to hit the marks, the benchmarks in terms of social distancing, in terms of all the PPE and cleaning,” he said.
* * *
BAILEY SEEKS TO FILE ANOTHER COMPLAINT:Republican state Rep. Darren Bailey asked a judge Wednesday, July 22 for permission to lodge a fifth complaint in his lawsuit against Gov. JB Pritzker: Any further disaster proclamations should not affect Clay County.
According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, there have been nine confirmed cases of COVID-19 and zero deaths resulting from the virus in Clay County as of Wednesday. Just less than 1,500 tests had been conducted in the county of about 14,000 residents.
Those statistics indicate the novel coronavirus does not meet the definition of a public health emergency as defined by the statute Pritzker cites as granting him authority to utilize emergency powers, Bailey argued in the new filing.
Bailey’s attorney Thomas DeVore argued Clay County’s data shows there is not a “high probability” that COVID-19 will lead to “a large number of deaths” or “a large number of serious or long-term disabilities” for county residents.
It is also unlikely that there will be “widespread exposure to an infectious or toxic agent that poses a significant risk of substantial future harm to a large number of people” in Clay County, DeVore wrote.
Therefore, if Pritzker issues another disaster proclamation on July 26, as Bailey argued in the court document the governor likely will, it would not be valid because “the facts presently do not satisfy the (Illinois Emergency Management Agency Act)’s definition of a public health emergency.”
This potential new allegation is asking Clay County Circuit Court Judge Michael McHaney to prevent any of Pritzker’s further orders from affecting residents in that area. It also asks the judge to agree the governor does not have any valid emergency powers in the county and his June 26 declaration is not enforceable.
Bailey is also asking the state to reimburse him for “costs incurred in this matter.”
McHaney will have to decide whether to allow this argument to be included in the representative’s lawsuit. A hearing date has not yet been set.
* * *
EVICTION RULES:The Illinois Supreme Court announced last week that it approved a change to rules governing eviction proceedings that will simplify the process for both landlords and tenants.
The rule change mandates that property owners must file all related documents simultaneously when they file a complaint. That includes pertinent portions of a lease, a copy of the eviction issued by a landlord and proof the tenant received that document.
Property owners must now also prove their right to remove residents from the beginning of the proceeding, giving tenants the exact reason for an eviction, according to the rule.
“This new rule will help self-represented parties on both sides of eviction cases and also the judges hearing these cases by requiring key information at the outset,” Chief Justice Anne Burke said in a statement.
The Supreme Court also approved a standardized form for property owners to use in place of a notice, which explains the basis for an eviction.
According to a news release from the court, the rules are also meant to streamline such proceedings.
Tenants defending themselves will be better prepared for a court hearing and attorneys can more easily evaluate cases, the Supreme Court said.
* * *
TRONCOSO JOINS CNI: Raymon Troncoso has joined Capitol News Illinois as a reporter through the Report For America 2020-21 program.
Troncoso, a multimedia journalist who is a graduate of the University of Florida, joined Capitol News Illinois on July 13. He will be with CNI for at least one year via Report For America.
Troncoso will be reporting on how state government and legislation impacts underserved communities. His focus will not only be on minority communities, but also the many rural communities throughout Illinois that feel disconnected from what happens at the Capitol in Springfield.
He’ll not only be focusing on producing written content, but he’ll also be working on multimedia storytelling.
Report For America is a national service program that places talented, emerging journalists into local news organizations to report for one to three years on under-covered issues and communities. An initiative of The GroundTruth Project, Report For America addresses an urgent need in journalism at a time when news deserts are widening across the country, leaving communities uninformed on local issues and threatening our democracy like never before.
Troncoso said he believes in RFA’s mission, shared by Capitol News Illinois, of strengthening communities and democracy through local journalism. He recognizes how the continued reductions of newsroom resources have impacted communities and democracy.
If you have any ideas on how Capitol News Illinois can better reach underserved communities, email Troncoso at email@example.com.
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.