(Brett Rowland, The Center Square) Attorneys representing four people indicted in a federal bribery and conspiracy case involving Illinois’ largest utility company are worried about a political science professor.
They are concerned the expert witness’ explanations of how Chicago’s political machine works could make their clients look guilty in front of a jury at an upcoming trial.
Federal prosecutors want University of Illinois at Chicago Professor Emeritus Dick Simpson to explain Chicago’s Ward system, “including the operation of the political machine as it works through the Ward political organizations including the Ward Committeeperson, precinct captains and patronage hiring.” Prosecutors said in a motion that Simpson’s testimony would be “narrowly tailored” to “topics that are relevant to the trial and will likely be unfamiliar to the jury.”
The defense attorneys said Simpson’s testimony wasn’t relevant.
“Professor Simpson’s unreliable, irrelevant, cumulative, and prejudicial testimony is a transparent attempt to paint the four defendants with the broad brush of Chicago political corruption,” the attorneys wrote in a motion seeking to keep Simpson’s testimony out of the trial.
Prosecutors contend it is necessary background for a case that involves former politicians, a former utility executive and lobbyists with connections to Michael Madigan, the former Illinois Speaker of the House long seen as the state’s most powerful politician because he for many years controlled both the lower legislative chamber and served as the chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois.
Prosecutors charged former ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore, former ComEd lobbyist John Hooker, former ComEd consultant Jay Doherty and former lobbyist and Madigan confidante Michael McClain with bribery conspiracy, bribery, and willfully falsifying ComEd books and records in November 2020. All pleaded “not guilty” to the charges.
Simpson, who got a Ph.D. in political science from Indiana University, has served on the faculty at the University of Illinois at Chicago since 1967. He has a 28-page curriculum vitae. Prosecutors said he’s the “foremost expert in Chicago politics and government.” He’s written extensively in books and scholarly journals about politics, with a focus on Chicago politics. He also served as a Chicago Alderman for eight years from 1971 to 1979. Prosecutors also noted that Simpson served as an expert witness in other trials, including a case involving sham political candidates in Madigan’s former district. Simpson declined to comment because he’s an expert witness in the case.
Kent Redfield, a professor emeritus of political science with the University of Illinois, said prosecutors want to be able to explain to a jury how the political system is supposed to work.
“You want somebody that’s got a sense of what’s reasonable in terms of the way the process is supposed to work,” he said. “And where’s the line in terms of when you go from the necessity for compromise and building consensus to when you cross over into things that you would recognize as bribery, extortion, fraud … that go beyond the normal give and take of politics.”
Redfield said the defense attorneys are concerned about how the jury could take that explanation, especially if jurors have preconceived notions about Chicago politics.
“If you’ve got a jury that already believes that politics are corrupt in Illinois and politics are particularly corrupt in Chicago – Chicago politicians are kind of the quintessential example of that – then [the defense is] concerned,” he said. “How does my client get a fair trial?”
Prosecutors, in response to the defense motion to exclude Simpson, wrote that Simpson’s “testimony will provide critical context to the evidence in this case.”
A judge is expected to rule on the motion before the April trial.