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News

EYE ON ILLINOIS: Special committee’s work starts Thursday, likely without early fireworks

Don’t get your hopes up.

The gavel drops at 9 a.m. Thursday for the first meeting of the House Special Investigating Committee, organized specifically to look into the conduct of House Speaker Michael Madigan as it relates to a federal bribery investigation surrounding ComEd and key energy legislation. Although the Capitol session will be simulcast in Chicago, there’s little reason to expect major headlines this early in the process.

Serving as committee chairman, state Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, told Capitol News Illinois the first session will be primarily procedural: setting schedules and establishing how the committee will operate. Expect topics like if and how the panel will call witnesses or issue subpoenas. At some point the committee will have to decide if it wants to hear directly from Madigan, and that could raise the question of if the speaker invokes his Fifth Amendment rights. But that’s unlikely to get sorted out this early in the process.

There’s not a ton of precedent here, given this process has only been used twice in the last two decades. In 2012, the House expelled Rep. Derrick Smith following a bribery indictment, and last year the same fate almost certainly awaited Rep. Luis Arroyo, who resigned hours before that committee met.

But Madigan hasn’t been indicted or charged at this point. That could come, of course, which might force a reset depending on the timing. When House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, discussed the petition that led to the committee, he pledged not to “interfere in any way” with federal prosecutors’ ongoing investigation.

In his own interview with CNI, Rep, Grant Wehrli, R-Naperville, gave a decent summary of his impression of the task at hand.

“If you look at our rules, it’s basically ‘conduct unbecoming’ and things like that,” said Wehrli, one of three Republicans on the six-person committee. “It’s very vague and nebulous, which is once again another reason why we’ve been pushing for ethics reforms is to highlight and make it crystal clear what goes beyond the pale when it comes to ethics. Ethics can be very personal to each individual, and we can each interpret them differently. But what we need to do is make sure that the public has set a standard for us to adhere to, which is why I think the ethics reform is probably one of the most pressing issues we can do in Springfield.”

As noted Tuesday, the only way the committee process results in charges against Madigan is if a Democrat sides with Republicans. The only way the process is worthwhile is with maximum transparency. Thursday’s session won’t give a firm indication on either, but it’s an important — albeit potentially boring — first step.

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

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