A top official with the Illinois Toll Highway Authority was caught where no one wants to be: On an FBI wiretap. 

While tollway board vice chairman Jim Connolly was not accused of wrongdoing, the recordings played at a recent bribery trial appear to show him pledging allegiance to former Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, who is now under indictment, and his top lieutenant who was just found guilty of bribery conspiracy.

“You know it always goes back to that you’re nothing without him,” Connolly is heard telling Madigan confidant Michael McClain on the recordings as they discussed Madigan.  The conversation centered around a lobbyist new to the profession – or “the dark side” as McClain called it – who had apparently crossed Madigan.

“I always told these young pups when they start lobbying – I said: ‘Hey guys, you only have one client,” McClain said to Connolly on tape apparently referring to Madigan.  “Long as you treat that client well, you’ll do real well for the people that are paying you.”

The conversation centers around loyalty to a person referred to as “himself.”  Prosecutors in the recently completed ComEd bribery trial said that was the code name used by McClain to reference Madigan.

Connolly is heard on tape telling McClain, “I always put feelers through you.”  

Testimony in the ComEd trial detailed how McClain acted as the most important conduit to Madigan for contracts, legislation support and other issues.

Tapes don’t dampen Pritzker’s support

A statehouse committee is scheduled to consider Connolly’s reappointment to the tollway board May 15.   The tapes and trial have not dampened Gov. JB Pritzker’s support of Connelly.  “The Governor prioritizes appointing qualified professionals who bring their expertise to the role,” Pritzker spokesperson Jordan Abudayyeh said in a statement to WGN Investigates.  “Jim Connelly has served on the board since 2019 ensuring projects are delivered on time and on budget for consumers. Jim Connelly has spent his career standing up for hardworking people and he not been accused of any wrongdoing.”

Connelly did not respond to a request for comment.

Republicans respond

Illinois republicans, who have struggled for years to gain enough seats to allow them to block democrats’ moves see this as an example of the stain of corruption and influence-peddling lasting beyond Madigan’s tenure in Springfield.  “We’re only just now seeing truly how big the Madigan Corruption Machine really was,” Illinois GOP chairman Don Tracy told WGN Investigates. “The Democrat party in Illinois writ large has been tainted by his corrupt legacy, a legacy of buying votes and policy.”

Intersection of contracts & oversight

In 2022, the Illinois Tollway awarded more than $1.3B in construction and engineering contracts.  In addition to his role as vice chairman of the Illinois Tollway board Connolly also serves as the business manager of the Chicago & Vicinity Laborers’ District Council executive committee, a union that represents everyone from concrete pavers to bridge construction workers. 

A jury found McClain along with ComEd’s former CEO and two others guilty on May 2 of bribery conspiracy and other charges that provided an inside look at pay-to-play politics in Illinois.

Madigan is scheduled to stand trial in 2024.