President Joe Biden is forcing Chicago's top federal prosecutor to resign amid ongoing criminal probes of powerful Illinois Democrats and their associates.
U.S. attorney John Lausch is prosecuting close confidants of Democrat boss Mike Madigan, an ally of former president Barack Obama who resigned from the state legislature Thursday after a decades-long reign in Springfield. Lausch's office will also prosecute Chicago alderman Edward Burke (D.), an influential figure accused of strong-arming businesses into retaining his law firm.
Lausch's abrupt removal has drawn bipartisan criticism from Illinois lawmakers who say he should be allowed to finish his work or depart on a longer timeline to ensure an orderly transition. The president asked all Trump-appointed U.S. attorneys to resign by the end of February but allowed two to remain in place to conclude politically sensitive work.
With much of the state's Democratic establishment in his sights, it's not clear why Biden did not extend the same courtesy to Lausch. Madigan's resignation, timed as it is with Lausch's imminent departure, will raise even more pointed questions for Lausch's successor about the future of the case.
"A new administration asking an old administration's U.S. attorneys to resign is nothing unusual, but you typically want to see a little bit of time given," said Zack Smith, a Heritage Foundation legal fellow and former assistant U.S. attorney. "There are many sensitive investigations going on, and it takes time for a new U.S. attorney to build partnerships with federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies."
The Biden administration maintains there is nothing unusual with removing Lausch. "This was an across the board transition, with only one exception in keeping a U.S. attorney in place in their district, in line with how previous administrations addressed this issue," a White House official told the Washington Free Beacon. The U.S. attorney in Delaware will stay on as that office continues an inquiry into Hunter Biden's tax affairs. U.S. attorney John Durham will step back from his role as the top prosecutor in Connecticut, but will remain in the Justice Department to conclude his probe on the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation.
Madigan was a titanic figure in state politics who, with the exception of two years of Republican control, served as speaker of the Illinois legislature from 1983 until this year. From his perch in the state capitol, Madigan kept a tight grip on redistricting, legislative business, and day-to-day electioneering. His influence was such that Obama backed and cut ads for a Madigan recruit in a local primary while in the White House.
Prosecutors accused an Illinois utility giant, Commonwealth Edison, of providing payments, subcontracts, and no-show jobs to Madigan allies as a reward for favorable legislative action. An unnamed lobbyist described the arrangement as an "old-fashioned patronage system" in a 2019 meeting with ComEd personnel, according to legal filings.
ComEd cut a deal with Lausch's office in July 2020, agreeing to turn over reams of evidence and pay a $200 million fine. The utility giant described its scheme in detail in a deferred prosecution agreement, admitting that it provided "jobs, vendor subcontracts, and monetary payments" to Madigan loyalists "even in instances where certain political allies and workers performed little or no work that they were purportedly hired to perform for ComEd."
Madigan has not yet been indicted, but remains at the very center of the probe, identified repeatedly in court papers as "Public Official A." A former legislator and longtime Madigan confidant, Michael McClain, has been charged in connection with the scheme, as have two top ComEd executives and a consultant.
The matter is ongoing and complex, so getting Lausch's successor up to speed will be a daunting challenge on its own. A grand jury impaneled for the case in January 2019 was hearing evidence as late as December 2020, according to local press.
Lawmakers in both parties have raised concerns that Lausch's removal would disrupt the ComEd probe. Sens. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) and Tammy Duckworth (D., Ill.) said Lausch should remain in place until his successor is confirmed by the Senate, a move supported by Illinois's five Republican congressmen. The GOP lawmakers emphasized that the scope of the investigation is "historic" in a Feb. 9 statement.
Lausch's office is currently prosecuting other public corruption matters. Fourteenth Ward alderman Edward Burke is expected to stand trial in 2022 on racketeering, extortion, and attempted bribery charges.
The criminal complaint against Burke alleges that he strong-armed businesses and development projects into retaining his law firm, Klafter & Burke, for tax work. For example, the complaint accuses Burke of withholding permits for remodeling at a Burger King in his ward until the company agreed to hire his firm for property tax work on other Burger King locations in the state.
First elected in 1969, Burke is the longest-tenured member of the city council. As chair of the council's finance committee, he is the city's top appropriator. His wife, Anne Burke, is a justice of the Illinois Supreme Court.