In his rise to the pinnacle of Illinois politics, House Speaker Michael J. Madigan built a reputation for wielding control over every bill, every budget line and every Democratic representative elected to oversee them.
Away from the public eye, the state's ultimate power player enjoyed a similar rise in his private career: rainmaker for one of Chicago's most successful property tax law firms.
In a first-of-its-kind examination, the Tribune found these two careers repeatedly intersect, and in some cases Madigan took public actions that benefited his private clients.
As a public official, he got a private road behind a shopping mall repaved, helped secure state funding for an expanded tollway interchange and intervened for a developer looking for state cash. In each case, Madigan was a private lawyer for businesspeople who stood to benefit.
His list of clients multiplied as Madigan consolidated political muscle over the last two decades. Now, many of his decisions as speaker have the potential to affect someone who has hired Madigan & Getzendanner in hopes of having a tax bill lowered. The Chicago firm represents banks the state regulates, investment houses that have overseen billions of dollars in public pensions, developers who want roads -- all subject to decisions made by a state House in the firm control of their tax lawyer.
It appears Madigan's personal wealth has blossomed along with his two careers, based on the list of investments he provided in ethics statements over the last three decades. But Madigan, like other public officials, is not required to detail the value of those investments. State ethics law requires very little disclosure about how Madigan's public decisions could affect his personal bank accounts.
He declined Tribune requests to detail how much he makes beyond his annual legislative income of more than $95,000. He also declined requests for his appointment calendars, memos and e-mails, citing state public records law that exempts the legislature.
Madigan also refused requests for an interview. In a written statement, he defended his actions and said "my personal code of conduct and compliance with a wide range of government ethics provisions have ensured that I have maintained ethical standards."
That code of conduct -- provided to the Tribune and unpublished until now -- states that Madigan will not offer state benefits to get a client, will not intercede with a state agency for a client and will recuse himself from involvement in a bill "if a client of the law office expresses an interest in legislation such as to create a conflict of interest."
But a Tribune examination of public records and a review of more than 20,000 tax appeals filed by Madigan's firm since 1998 raises questions about where the speaker draws that line.
- Madigan sponsored a $3.5 million state transportation grant to the city of Chicago to rebuild a private road leading to the rear entrances of the Ford City Mall shopping center and Tootsie Roll factory on Chicago's Southwest Side. Both Tootsie Roll Industries Inc. and the mall owner, a company in billionaire Sam Zell's Equity group of companies, were longtime clients of Madigan at the time of the 2003 grant. Zell is also the chairman of Tribune Co., which owns the Chicago Tribune.
- Madigan helped secure $18 million in state money for an expanded Illinois tollway interchange in Hoffman Estates in 2009, a project long sought by suburban officials who formed a coalition of businesspeople in 2001 to help promote the plan. One of the coalition members was a Madigan client, and another hired his firm to appeal its taxes for that same year.
- Madigan called the director of the state's largest pension fund, the Illinois Teachers' Retirement System, in 2005 asking the director to hear a pitch from the developers of a minority-owned firm seeking pension fund money to invest in a Chicago affordable-housing project. The developers hired Madigan's firm to appeal the taxes on property in that project for that same year.
- Madigan pressured the state's multibillion-dollar public pension funds to ban any dealings with financial institutions that make high-risk loans to unqualified homeowners. In 2006, Madigan named four national banks in a letter to the state's pension managers that asked the funds to stop investing and making deposits with any banks that practice predatory lending. All the banks he named were competitors of his firm's banking clients, a fact not disclosed in his letter.
In his written statement, Madigan said there are no conflicts of interest in the Tribune's findings, which he described as "strained attempts to link my legislative actions to clients of the firm who might remotely and incidentally 'benefit' from such action."
By all accounts, the legal work of Madigan & Getzendanner is top-flight. Madigan's partner, Vincent "Bud" Getzendanner, has a reputation as a thorough and effective tax lawyer.
Getzendanner and four other lawyers handle the tax law. Madigan's job is to bring in clients. It's been a formula for success.
An examination of public records shows Madigan & Getzendanner is a dominant player in the lucrative field of property-tax appeal law. Much of the firm's business involves appealing the decisions of the Cook County assessor's office, which sets the value of property for tax purposes.
Most appeals are directed either to the assessor's office or to the county's three-member Board of Review, established as a separate avenue of appeal to contest assessments.
In 2007 alone, the most recent year in which full statistics were available, the small firm filed appeals on Cook County property with a taxable value of nearly $2.1 billion, up nearly sevenfold from 1998.
Some clients interviewed say it's not that simple to separate the expert tax assistance from the political reputation of the man whose name is on the door. "He's the speaker of the House. It can't hurt to hire him," said Jeffrey Rappin, a former vice president and general counsel at The Habitat Co., which has hired Madigan & Getzendanner.
As House speaker since 1983, with the exception of a two-year period when Republicans had control in the mid-1990s, Madigan, 67, keeps tight rein over committee chairmen and other key leaders who control what happens in the House.
His ability to funnel political donations and campaign workers into any corner of the state gives him great influence over rank-and-file Democrats. That influence over lawmakers and other politicians only grew when he became chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party in 1998.
The taciturn Madigan limits his public comments about legislative matters, and in private meetings with the governor and other legislative leaders, he is known to say the least. What he does say often becomes law.
Legislation has little chance without his approval.
"If he's opposed to it, your chances of success are very slim," said former Democratic state Rep. Al Ronan, who served as a committee chairman under Madigan before starting a long career as a lobbyist.
Madigan's reputation as the political grandmaster looms so large, supporters say, he's often suspected of maneuvering behind the scenes when he's not. But in the opaque world of Illinois politics, direct connections are often elusive and state law makes it difficult to sort the public interest from private agendas.
The Tribune found dozens of examples where Madigan & Getzendanner clients received benefits from state government -- contracts, tax credits, road projects, jobs grants, low-income loans.
In most cases it could not be determined whether Madigan played a significant role. It all plays out in a system that thrives on personal relationships and quiet conversations.
Country Club Hills Mayor Dwight Welch, who is seeking Madigan's support for millions of dollars in road improvements surrounding a planned outlet mall being developed by clients of Madigan & Getzendanner, said he has personally met with Madigan several times at the speaker's favorite Springfield restaurant.
"We would sit across the table from Madigan at Saputo's " Welch said. "Mike is sitting in the same chair, in the same corner, five days of the week. You have to have a relationship with these folks. Politics doesn't get done in writing.
"Nothing gets done until Madigan's people say it's done."
Tribune reporter Ray Long contributed to this report.
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