As part of their sprawling public corruption probe, federal prosecutors in Chicago are now scrutinizing a 2012 email in which a powerful Illinois lobbyist lauded a state worker who “kept his mouth shut” about an unspecified “rape in Champaign,” WBEZ has learned.
The bombshell email was written by Michael McClain, a long-time confidant to Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. McClain is now a central figure in the ongoing probe into utility Commonwealth Edison’s Springfield lobbying activities. WBEZ first reported on the email last month after obtaining it through an open-records request, prompting immediate calls for criminal investigations from elected officials.
In the 2012 email, McClain wrote to two aides for then-Gov. Pat Quinn to seek leniency for a state worker facing discipline. McClain praised the worker because he “kept his mouth shut on Jones’ ghost workers, the rape in Champaign and other items.”
It’s still unclear what McClain was referring to. WBEZ has not been able to verify the facts underlying his statements in the email, including whether a rape occurred, its alleged perpetrator or whether Forrest Ashby, the worker facing discipline, had actual knowledge of the crime, as McClain contended.
But a law enforcement source with knowledge of the federal investigation says the feds are interested in several aspects of the email, including the mention of the rape and the apparent reference to ghost payrollers. The source requested anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly about the ongoing criminal probe.
Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker said his administration referred the email to the state’s Executive Inspector General. And the Champaign County State’s Attorney said her office also was investigating the content of the email with the Illinois State Police, the Illinois Attorney General and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of Illinois.
But the involvement of federal agents in Chicago signals a new potential avenue in the corruption probe involving McClain and ComEd, the state’s largest electric utility. The wide-ranging criminal investigation has cast a shadow over the Illinois Capitol and prompted calls for lobbying and ethics reforms.
McClain was one of ComEd’s top lobbyists in Springfield before he announced his retirement at the end of 2016, though the company continued to pay him for “political consulting services.”
McClain refused to answer questions about his email when WBEZ reporters confronted him last month after he finished lunch at a popular downtown Chicago steakhouse.“I prefer not to comment right now, but thank you,” McClain said as he left the swanky Chicago Cut restaurant.
McClain and his lawyer did not respond to requests for comment for this story. Ashby also has not responded to WBEZ’s repeated requests for comment.
Ashby’s employer at the time of the McClain email, the Department of Human Services, found no records of emails between Ashby’s government account and McClain, according to the agency’s response to an open records request. Neither did the Department of Corrections, which employed Ashby both before and after his two-year stint at DHS.
In response to another open records request, the Department of Human Services also found no responsive records in Ashby’s emails for anything that referred to a rape or sexual assault in Champaign.
The recipients of McClain’s 2012 email were Gary Hannig and Jerry Stermer, who at the time were top advisors to Quinn. Neither Hannig or Stermer have responded to WBEZ’s repeated efforts to get in touch with them. Quinn has said he doesn’t know what McClain’s email was about.
Ashby’s supervisor at the time of the email was Lorrie Rickman-Jones, the wife of Illinois’ powerful former Senate President, Emil Jones. It’s not clear whether McClain was referring to either Jones in his reference to “Jones’ ghost workers.” Neither she nor her husband have responded to WBEZ’s requests for comment.
Pritzker sought the resignation of his Department of Agriculture secretary, John Sullivan, after it became apparent that Sullivan had received the same McClain email in 2012 but did not report it. Sullivan said he didn’t read the full email because he was getting cancer treatment out of town at the time.
A spokeswoman for Pritzker said the governor’s office referred the email to Executive Inspector General Susan Haling, the watchdog for state government, to investigate.
At a hearing of the Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform last week, Haling was asked if her office had opened an investigation into the McClain email. “I have no comment,” Haling told the commission. “I can’t elaborate any further.”
Tony Arnold covers Illinois state politics and government for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.