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    So far this year Illinoisans have watched two major ‘political influence’ trials come and go when five individuals were charged with a variety of felonies - ranging from bribery, conspiracy, and falsifying corporate records to perjury and obstruction of justice.
    This past April in the first trial, colloquially referred to as the ‘ComEd Four’, former Commonwealth Edison executives and lobbyists were found guilty in federal court of using company resources, including hiring individuals at the request of the then Illinois Speaker of the House, to ‘grease the skids’ in terms of getting ComEd’s legislative agendas passed and circumvent the regulatory authority of the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC).
    This past summer, during the second trial, the former Illinois Speaker of the House’s Chief of Staff was charged with felonies of perjury and obstruction of justice. As with the earlier trial guilty verdicts were returned by the jury on all counts. 
    While the second trial was not directly focused on ComEd per se, the accused was linked to the earlier ‘ComEd Four’ case due to his role as the influential ‘right hand’ aide to former Illinois Speaker of the House, Michael J. Madigan.
    The common link between both trials was Illinois’ largest electric utility, Commonwealth Edison. Traditionally ComEd’s rate and policy requests have been determined by the ICC. But to paraphrase Shakespeare’s Hamlet ‘there(in) lies the rub’. 
    Instead of appearing before the ICC, ComEd made a political calculation that it would enhance its chances for success by circumventing the regulatory process and, therefore, avoid a possibly less than favorable decision from the ICC - the experts at evaluating and determining the fate of ComEd’s rate requests.
    To help ensure its chances for success, ComEd offered political favors and made campaign contributions to then Speaker Madigan and the political committees that he controlled with the hope that their legislative agenda would be passed.
    State public utility commissions were created in the early 20th century when it became obvious that in order to achieve greater electric reliability and operational cost efficiencies, for example, the more than 30 electric service companies operating in Chicago at the time needed to be replaced by a single entity which could provide electricity to customers across the region and do so at reasonable prices.
    Politically though there needed to be a trade off in exchange for one company becoming Chicago’s sole electric utility. Some level of consumer protection was necessary in order to watch over these new governmentally sanctioned monopolies, both in Illinois and across the country.
    In order to prevent the electric utilities from abusing their monopoly status by making excessive profits, the idea of state created regulatory agencies emerged, initially in the Midwest and soon after across the rest of the country. The trade off was simple: reliability of service at reasonable prices in exchange for ComEd and other regional utilities to operate as for-profit monopolies which were overseen by state regulators.
    It became apparent though that when electric utilities didn’t receive favorable decisions from public utility commissions, they circumvented the commissions by going directly to state legislators. The same state legislatures whose members were sometimes the recipients of generous campaign contributions from the utilities.
    If we hope to prevent further federal indictments, along with additional high-voltage trials of political influence in the utility sector, it is now necessary for states to change how all utilities operate within the governmental arena.
    A good place to start would be for Illinois and other states to follow the examples of reform leading states such as Colorado, Connecticut, and Maine which have recently passed laws that prohibit utilities from using ratepayer monies for certain activities - including political campaign contributions, hiring lobbyists, or for self-promoting marketing campaigns that try to improve their tarnished reputations.
    While additional remedies might make sense eventually, including further deregulation of the industry (due to a more technologically competitive environment), we should at least begin with the simple first steps of reform by disallowing campaign contributions by utilities to the very entities that can determine their future financial prospects.
    Perhaps Illinois’ state legislators would be willing to take a step forward toward reform by enacting the same prohibitions that are beginning to appear in other states. 
    These initial reforms may help to prevent future abuses and, therefore, avoid future trials of ‘political influence’ which only add to a level of public cynicism towards government and our elected officials
    Reineke served as Chief of Staff and gubernatorial aide in the administrations of former Illinois Governors Jim Edgar and James R. Thompson. He recently completed a master’s degree from The University of Chicago with his thesis: ‘AMERICAN MONOPOLY: How Commonwealth Edison Powered the Political Grid, A Historical Perspective, From Founder to the Present’.

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