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Local Column

EYE ON ILLINOIS: In wake of scandal, scrutiny of past utility legislation is essential

When it comes to tainted legislation, looking forward isn’t sufficient.

Last week state Rep. Ann Williams, D-Chicago, chairwoman of the House Energy and Environment Committee, rejected a request to conduct hearings concerning Commonwealth Edison’s lobbying and bribery activity. Seeking the hearings were Rep. David Welter, R-Morris, the party spokesman on Williams’ committee, along with Rep. Keith Wheeler, R-Oswego, the Public Utilities Committee’s GOP spokesman.

Their letter, according to Capitol News Illinois, stemmed from ComEd’s recent deferred prosecution agreement, under which it paid $200 million and admitted that, between 2011 and 2019, it awarded lobbying jobs and subcontracts to associates of House Speaker Michael Madigan to bolster support for beneficial legislation.

Williams responded in writing, releasing a statement that said in part: “A legislative committee is not the appropriate place to investigate a criminal matter currently under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Attorney’s office. As was the precedent during prior corruption cases, the (committee) will not hold hearings that could impede and interfere with an ongoing federal investigation.”

Instead, Williams pledged “tough new amendments” to a 2021 Clean Energy Jobs Act that would make sure “we hold utilities accountable and take the politics out of setting fair energy rates.”

Those are good ideas, and it’s easy to understand the importance of not fouling up an ongoing federal investigation. But the 2011 Energy Infrastructure Modernization Act and 2016’s Future Energy Jobs Act funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to utilities, largely on the backs of regular customers through increased utility bills.

At some point, those customers will need answers. When lawmakers approved those major bills, did they do so because they truly believed the plans were the best for the future of Illinois? Or were those favorable votes cast because personal interest was more important than constituents’ financial concerns?

Welter and Wheeler have several strong arguments. For one, ComEd is paying $200 million to avoid prosecution in this regard. So if Williams’ reservations about ongoing investigations are valid, she at least needs to privately disclose to her committee colleagues what hearings would jeopardize. But that might be a tall order, as Welter and Wheeler also noted the Illinois Commerce Commission is planning hearings, as are Chicago officials, with the expectation ComEd officials will testify.

While the main result of the ComEd scandal likely will be serious repercussions to Madigan’s carefully-constructed political empire, the importance of utility infrastructure improvement and continued operation of nuclear power plans can’t be overstated.

Williams’ forward focus implies she’s fully aware of the sins of the past such that they won’t be repeated, but such confidence would be unfounded. We’re long past the point of taking powerful Democrats’ word on anything, especially whether this specific problem is solved.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media Illinois. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.

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