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Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Sun-Times
Jon Seidel

Judge blocks ‘Chicago machine’ expert from testifying in trial of 4 accused of Madigan bribes

Former Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan speaks during a committee hearing Feb. 25, 2021. (Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times, Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times)

In a rare setback for federal prosecutors in an upcoming public corruption trial, a judge has blocked the testimony of a prominent political science professor who was expected to explain the history of the Chicago political machine to jurors.

U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber ruled that Dick Simpson, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, could not be called to the stand in the trial of four former power players accused of trying to bribe ex-Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan to benefit ComEd.

Simpson was expected to explain how the political machine was founded in Chicago around the time of the Great Chicago Fire, that it evolved over time and that it dominated Democratic politics here since 1933.

Prosecutors also said he’d provide “critical context” to the jury to help them understand that “the primary intended beneficiary” of payments by ComEd to Madigan’s associates “was Madigan himself.” 

Leinenweber didn’t buy it. In a seven-page ruling Wednesday, the judge wrote that he did “not find that the subject of this proposed testimony is so enigmatic to require expert testimony.”

“Neither does the court see how testimony of the history of the Chicago Machine helps the jury determine a fact at issue in this present case,” Leinenweber wrote. “The court does see, however, how emphasizing the history of corruption and election fraud that marked the early years of the machine could prejudice defendants.”

The judge wrote that “a map of the City of Chicago, and the statutory description of a committeeman and precinct captain can be made by stipulation or judicial notice.”

The ruling Wednesday was just one of several Leinenweber is expected to hand down in the days before the trial, set to begin Tuesday. In the defendants’ chairs will be longtime Madigan confidant Michael McClain, former ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore, ex-ComEd lobbyist John Hooker and onetime City Club President Jay Doherty.

The four were indicted in November 2020 and accused of a nearly decade-long scheme to sway Madigan by landing his associates jobs, contracts and money while legislation crucial to ComEd’s bottom line moved through Springfield. 

The trial is expected to last as long as two months. Current and former members of the General Assembly are expected to take the stand. So is Fidel Marquez, the former ComEd executive who cooperated with investigators and pleaded guilty in 2020 to a bribery conspiracy. 

Madigan is charged with the same scheme, but in a separate racketeering indictment handed down a year ago. That means the upcoming trial could serve as a preview of Madigan’s trial, which is set to begin April 1, 2024. 

McClain also faces additional charges in the separate indictment filed against Madigan.

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