Updated: 5:40 p.m.
State lawmakers called for criminal probes and legislative hearings Wednesday following publication of an email written by a top ally to House Speaker Michael Madigan that praised a state worker who “kept his mouth shut” about a downstate rape.
The uproar began after Tuesday’s WBEZ report on the 2012 email from former lobbyist and long-time Madigan friend Michael McClain, who lauded a politically loyal state worker facing potential discipline for keeping quiet about “the rape in Champaign” and about apparent ghost-payrolling.
McClain sent the 2012 email to two senior aides of former Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn in a bid to win leniency for the worker.
In his first public statement following that report, Madigan did not make a direct reference to McClain, his long-time confidant.
“These are extremely serious and troubling allegations,” Madigan said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. “I had no knowledge of the incident referenced in the story and only learned of this today. I encourage those with any information to come forward.”
Madigan’s statement did not address the email’s reference to “ghost workers.”
Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Jim Durkin sent a letter to the speaker Wednesday seeking special legislative hearings that could compel McClain and the former Quinn officials to testify about the case.
“A recent investigative report from WBEZ alleges a disturbing criminal cover-up and shocking illegal activity by a state-registered lobbyist and several state of Illinois employees, either currently or previously employed by the state,” Durkin wrote.
“The seriousness of the allegations requires a thorough, comprehensive investigation,” he said.
Durkin called on a House committee to have certain people apparently connected to the email testify under oath. They are: McClain; the employee for whom he was vouching, Forrest Ashby; former Quinn senior advisor Jerry Stermer; Quinn’s one-time legislative affairs director, Gary Hannig; and Lorrie Rickman-Jones, who was Ashby’s overall supervisor at the time of the email and is the wife of former Democratic Senate President Emil Jones.
No details about the rape McClain alluded to were outlined in his correspondence to Quinn’s aides. The email was obtained by WBEZ through a state open records request.
WBEZ has not been able to verify the facts underlying the statements in the email, including whether a rape occurred, its alleged perpetrator or whether Ashby had actual knowledge of the crime, as McClain contended. McClain has not returned repeated messages left on his cell phone, including on Wednesday.
But now several state legislators are demanding answers about what McClain was referring to in the email that has sent shockwaves through Illinois political circles.
“That email is horrifying,” state Sen. Linda Holmes, D-Aurora, who co-chairs the Senate Women’s Caucus, said in a joint release with state Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris.
“If anyone has any information about this crime, please contact authorities,” Holmes said. “Sexual assault will not be tolerated. We need to get to the bottom of this and hold people accountable.”
“I am stunned and disturbed that keeping quiet about a rape was so casually offered up as proof of loyalty,” said Rezin, the other co-chair of the Senate women’s group. “This needs to be investigated thoroughly and anyone who helped cover it up needs to face the consequences.”
New efforts by WBEZ to reach Ashby on Wednesday were again unsuccessful. It’s unclear whether he knew about McClain’s email or the assertions in it. Like McClain, Ashby lives in downstate Quincy.
Hannig and Stermer also have not responded to WBEZ’s requests about the McClain email. The former Democratic governor has told WBEZ he has no knowledge of any of the matters mentioned in the email.
McClain contended Ashby remained silent about “Jones’ ghost workers,” a phrase that is generally used to characterize political hires that do not show up to their government jobs but still collect paychecks. McClain does not identify Jones. Neither Rickman-Jones nor her husband responded to WBEZ’s requests for comment.
McClain and a former client, Commonwealth Edison, already are facing intense scrutiny from federal agents investigating the state-regulated power company’s efforts to win rate increases and other favorable actions from Springfield.
Other lawmakers and advocates for survivors of sexual abuse joined the senators’ condemnation and called for the Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Rietz and the U.S. Attorney’s Office to investigate.
“Mr. McClain, relevant members of the Quinn administration and anyone else who had knowledge of this possible rape must be compelled, via subpoena if necessary, to disclose this information to law enforcement to ensure that any possible rapist is brought to justice,” state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, Sherri Garrett and Alaina Hampton wrote in a joint statement.
A former House Democratic political operative, Hampton recently settled a sexual harassment lawsuit against Madigan and his political operation. Garrett also has publicly lodged bullying and sexual harassment allegations against former Madigan chief of staff Tim Mapes, leading to his resignation.
Contacted Tuesday, Rietz said she has not opened a probe into the matter.
“I do not know anything about those emails,” Rietz said in a statement. “I have not received any calls about these emails or any of the people named in them.”
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Chicago did not comment.
Ashby left the state payroll as a full-time worker in 2018. But he almost immediately landed a new gig — as a $5,000-a-month political consultant to Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker’s campaign for governor in that year’s election, state records show.
McClain recommended Ashby for the job, the Pritzker campaign said this week.Ashby also had a $40-an-hour consulting contract with the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board since Sept. 9, 2019. Ashby’s contract was suspended Wednesday pending an internal investigation, according to the board’s lawyer.
Tony Arnold and Dave McKinney cover state politics for WBEZ. Follow them on Twitter at @tonyjarnold and @davemckinney.