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Illinois Commerce Commission chair accused of conflict of interest in heading ComEd hearing

The Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois.

(The Center Square) – The head of the Illinois Commerce Commission defended her role in leading a hearing to demand utility company ComEd not pay its fine for corrupt lobbying practices with ratepayer dollars despite her family connection to the investigation.

ICC Chair Carrie Zalewski didn’t get out of the public comment period before her connection to Commonwealth Edison’s disclosed criminal acts were made an issue Wednesday.

“Ms. Zalewski’s husband has received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Commonwealth Edison and voted for the legislation that we now know involved a criminal conspiracy orchestrated by Mr. Madigan and his friends,” said Jesus Solorio, a Chicago resident and Republican candidate for Congress. “At the very least, the chairman has an apparent conflict of interest but it is likely that she is not just a bystander but personally subject to the investigation.”

Zalewski, who had served on the Illinois Pollution Control Board adjudicating environmental matters for a decade and served as legal counsel for the Department of Transportation before that, was referred to freshman Gov. J.B. Pritzker by House Speaker Michael Madigan.

The speaker has been implicated in the ComEd patronage scandal and has been identified as “Public Official A,” the centerpiece of a federal investigation into ComEd’s admitted corrupt lobbying practices.

Zalewski is also daughter-in-law to Michael Zalewski, a former Chicago alderman who ComEd admitted to paying as a “ghost subcontractor” to curry favor with Madigan.

Carrie Zalewski’s publicly available salary is $136,800 annually. She was appointed to her post by Pritzker in April 2019.

Fellow ICC commission member Sadzi Martha Oliva also questioned Zalewski’s role in the hearing.

“I believe the allegations surrounding the bribery scheme may conflict with chairman Zalewski’s ability to do her job effectively by adversely affecting the confidence of the public,” she said. “Holding this hearing in this manner is not good for the integrity of the commission while attempting to restore the trust of ratepayers.”

Oliva was appointed by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2017.

Zalewski called the accusation “a distraction” and asked the board to focus on ensuring ComEd did not force its $200 million fine on ratepayers.

“I have not done anything wrong and actions to suggest otherwise are both disingenuous and irresponsible,” she said. “I perform my duties ethically, honestly, with integrity.”

Pritzker and others have defended Zalewski, noting that she has not been accused of any wrongdoing and has a reputation for public service.

“The idea that Carrie Zalewski, an experienced regulatory attorney who ran an active Pollution Control Board for almost a decade adjudicating matters under the IEPA act and was now elevated to run the ICC was clouted into her position and by implication not qualified is insane,” Deputy Gov. Christian Mitchell said on June 11.

After statements from ComEd CEO Joe Dominguez, Zalewski, along with other commissioners, asked pointed questions of the utility’s executives, who had been sworn in before testifying.

ComEd doesn’t have $200 million in cash flow to pay the fine, Dominguez told commissioners, so it would borrow the money from its parent company, Exelon.

“We don’t have $200 million of available cash,” he said.

“In order to pay the government, Exelon, like other large holding companies, has a cash balance, is able to use some of that cash. It goes down to ComEd so that it meets its obligation under the [deferred prosecution agreement] to make that payment. In the future, when we otherwise would have provided our profits to the shareholder, our profits are actually going to repay that $200 million. At the end of the day, the capital structure remains the same and shareholders, not customers, will pay all of the fine.”

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