2 former ComEd CEOs – only one on trial – take stand in bribery case
Defendant Anne Pramaggiore takes witness stand; successor Joe Dominguez riles prosecution
By HANNAH MEISEL
Capitol News Illinois
CHICAGO – Former Commonwealth Edison CEO Anne Pramaggiore has spent the last five weeks sitting in a federal courtroom in Chicago, sandwiched between her attorneys at the defense table.
She’s listened to prosecutors build their case against her and three former lobbyists for the utility, all of whom stand accused of orchestrating a yearslong bribery scheme in order to curry favor with Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. According to federal prosecutors, the four granted jobs and contracts to Madigan allies in exchange for an easier path for ComEd-backed legislation in Springfield.
On Thursday afternoon, Pramaggiore began what’s expected to be a lengthy and grueling period on the witness stand, attempting to cast a new light on the dozens of wiretapped recordings and hundreds of emails the jury has heard and seen. A defendant testifying in court is rare – and risky. After facing her own attorneys, Pramaggiore will submit to cross-examination from prosecutors.
In her first 50 minutes on the stand Thursday, attorney Scott Lassar gave Pramaggiore the chance to tell the jury that she couldn’t have been bribing Madigan; she didn’t even think that was possible given his “skeptical” take on ComEd and utilities in general.
“Did you view Speaker Madigan as a friend or an ally of ComEd?” Lassar asked.
Pramaggiore firmly replied, “no.”
“Did that ever change?” Lassar followed up.
Sitting with impeccable posture wearing a black dress and matching blazer, Pramaggiore recounted her path from an Ohio kid whose obsession with the 1968 Olympics led to her dominating in the quirky sport of race walking – “not what you want to do when you’re a 12-year-old girl” – to one of the top executives in Chicago. Along the way, she was a theatre major, a department store inventory buyer and an antitrust lawyer.
Pramaggiore said she got “crickets” from an audience of 300 ComEd linemen, customer service representatives and underground operators during a town hall meeting she held at one of the utility’s three dozen offices on her first day as the utility’s chief operating officer.
She said she’d learned from a book on former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s leadership style that not hearing feedback from subordinates meant they don’t trust their leader.
So Pramaggiore said she challenged the silence, asking why “things are going so poorly” if “everything’s perfect here.”
“Our linemen let me have it,” she said, recalling an outpouring of complaints on dozens of topics, starting with the dysfunctional state of ComEd’s trucks at the time.
Pramaggiore also said she prioritized fixing the historically “very poor” relationship ComEd had with the unions representing the utility’s workers. She spent time visiting ComEd’s offices and substations all over Chicagoland, listened to customer service calls and went out with ComEd workers during storms to understand how the utility repaired power outages.
All of those data points Pramaggiore would use to develop a plan to “fix a system that had been degraded, not properly invested in” and “was really in terrible shape.”
Witnesses throughout the trial have testified to Pramaggiore’s hard work and attention to detail, although she sought to share credit for her successes at ComEd while on the witness stand.
Pramaggiore heaped praise on codefendant Mike McClain, a longtime contract lobbyist for ComEd who was also one of Madigan’s closest confidants. He and the former speaker face related racketeering charges in a trial set for next year.
“I was the first woman to run (one of the utilities within) Exelon and I think I was the last,” Pramaggiore said of her “challenging move” into the role of ComEd CEO in 2012.
She said she “wasn’t really a fit” for the male-dominated, “hard-party(ing)” and “ferociously competitive” culture around her, so she “leaned on Mike McClain quite a bit” and described him as a friend and trusted advisor.
“(He’s a) good student of humans and human behavior,” Pramaggiore said. “He was also a good tactician…He was a smart lawyer. He understood our regulatory issues, which are complicated.”
McClain was also a valued lobbyist to ComEd, not just for his understanding of the utility’s issues but also for his longtime and close friendship with Madigan. But Pramaggiore said that even with that relationship, McClain never relayed to ComEd what the speaker was thinking about the utility’s legislative priorities.
Instead, she said, McClain advised ComEd executives to focus on the strategy of coalition building within constituencies important to leaders in Springfield: organized labor, environmental groups, the business community and the Black and Latino caucuses within the General Assembly. The object was to make it so those leaders “kinda got forced to call a bill.”
“He had relationships that were beyond just Speaker Madigan,” Pramaggiore said of McClain. “He knew probably more legislators than probably our top 20 lobbyists put together.”
By contrast, Pramaggiore downplayed her relationship with Madigan, which prosecutors had portrayed as chummy.
The two had gotten to know each other a bit during a trip to Turkey in 2010 sponsored by a nonprofit. McClain and his wife were also among the dozen or so travelers, along with both Pramaggiore’s then-teen son and Madigan’s son Andrew.
On the trip, Pramaggiore learned one of Madigan’s most notorious qualities.
“He’s a very quiet person, doesn’t say a lot,” she said, describing their ensuing relationship as strictly professional, never social, and “somewhat remote.”
After the fundraisers ComEd would hold for Madigan and the Democratic Party of Illinois every couple of years, Pramaggiore noted that at dinner, the speaker would be flanked by the top two executives at Exelon, while “I would usually be down on the kids side of the table.”
Pramaggiore’s testimony was preceded by a trio of character witnesses on her behalf, who described her as having “the utmost integrity.”
But before those witnesses, Pramaggiore’s legal team called her successor as ComEd CEO, Joe Dominguez, to the witness stand. Dominguez is now based in Baltimore and serves as president and CEO of Constellation Energy, the energy generation company that was spun off from Exelon last year.
Dominguez had been subpoenaed for his testimony, which was at times combative, especially with Assistant U.S. Attorney Amarjeet Bhachu.
In 2020, the feds announced ComEd would pay a $200 million fine stemming from a deferred prosecution agreement connected to the alleged bribery scheme. But the jury doesn’t know that, as Judge Harry Leinenweber blocked that from being part of any testimony in the case.
Dominguez himself has not been charged but did sit for two “proffer” sessions in the fall of 2019, often the first steps of getting someone to cooperate as a witness in a criminal investigation.
On Thursday, Dominguez objected to Bhachu’s characterization of his tacit approval of several Madigan allies who had for years been getting paid $4,000 to $5,000 monthly as subcontractors of ComEd’s contract lobbyists. The men did little to no work, prosecutors allege.
Bhachu accused Dominguez of not being totally forthcoming with prosecutors in their September 2019 proffer session when he was questioned about the subcontractors, noting that Dominguez never mentioned a conversation that had been secretly videotaped by the feds’ cooperating witness, former ComEd executive Fidel Marquez.
In that March 2019 meeting between Marquez, Dominguez and McClain, McClain explained to Dominguez that ComEd had for decades been used as an entity that powerful politicians could place loyalists in good-paying, stable jobs.
“It’s the old-fashioned patronage system,” McClain explained. “And ComEd played it like a – “
“Like a chip,” Dominguez said, finishing McClain’s sentence.
Dominguez said he didn’t recall that conversation when the feds interviewed him six months later, or in a follow-up interview a few weeks after that.
On Thursday, Bhachu said the feds played Dominguez the tape of that meeting during his second interview with the feds in the fall of 2019, but he said Dominguez neglected to tell the agents his response to Marquez a few weeks later: “There’s stuff I want to understand and stuff I don’t need to understand.”
Dominguez grew annoyed with Bhachu’s line of questioning and accused the prosecutor of taking his words out of context.
“As you full well know, I went on to tell Mr. Marquez that ‘Everything we do here needs to be on the up and up,’” Dominguez said.
Dominguez then attempted to tell the court what Bhachu allegedly told him during that September 2019 proffer meeting, but Bhachu quickly cut him off.
“If you’re going to start talking about what I said, you might want to not do that because it might not work out well for you,” Bhachu said before telling Judge Leinenweber that Dominguez was out of line in bringing up their conversation. “What I said is inadmissible.”
The dust-up elicited accusations from the defense attorneys that Bhachu was threatening a witness.
The trial continues at 10 a.m. on Monday.
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