Gov. JB Pritzker on Thursday defended the actions he’s taken since the publication of a bombshell email written by a close ally to Illinois’ powerful House speaker that refers to an unspecified “rape in Champaign” and “ghost workers.”
The email was written by Michael McClain, a former top lobbyist and confidant to House speaker and Democratic party boss Michael Madigan. McClain wrote in 2012 to two top officials in then-Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration.
WBEZ was the first to report this week on the email, which was obtained from Pritzker’s administration in response to an open-records request. In it, McClain writes to Quinn’s aides to seek leniency for a state worker facing discipline. McClain lauded the worker because he “kept his mouth shut” about “ghost workers” and “the rape in Champaign,” though it’s unclear what he was referring to.
Since its publication this week, lawmakers and advocates for victims of sexual assault have called for criminal investigations and legislative hearings to find out what McClain meant.
“What I’m telling you is, immediately upon understanding that this needed to go to an investigatory body, it went to the [Office of the Executive Inspector General],” Pritzker told reporters Thursday when asked about the email. “And that is in fact exactly where it ought to go.”
Pritzker told reporters he found the content of the email to be “horrific” and that he immediately wanted answers to questions that remain unknown.
It’s unclear what McClain is referring to in the email. WBEZ has not been able to verify the facts underlying his statements, including whether a rape occurred, its alleged perpetrator or whether the worker facing discipline – Forrest Ashby – had actual knowledge of the crime, as McClain contended.
In an exclusive interview with WBEZ on Thursday, McClain declined to comment about the email.
No one else on the note has commented to WBEZ. That includes recipients Gary Hannig, Quinn’s legislative affairs liaison, and Jerry Stermer, a top advisor to Quinn. Ashby also has not responded to WBEZ’s requests for comment.
Despite McClain’s close relationship to Madigan, Pritzker said he has not confronted the speaker about the email.
“It’s not his email,” Pritzker said.
Shortly after Pritzker addressed reporters, the governor did speak with House Speaker Michael Madigan, according to a Pritzker spokeswoman. She said the extent of the conversation was so that Madigan could confirm that Pritzker referred the email to the executive inspector general.
“The appropriate authorities need the unfettered ability to do their jobs without interference; there are no circumstances where it would be appropriate for the Governor to start having conversations about possible crimes when they have been referred to the proper authorities,” wrote the governor’s top spokeswoman, Emily Bittner wrote.
After their conversation Thursday, Madigan then formally rejected a call from his Republican counterpart for a special legislative committee to investigate the claims in the email.
House GOP Leader Jim Durkin asked Madigan to grant subpoena powers to the State Government Administration Committee to compel McClain and the recipients of the email to testify under oath.
“Recognizing the sensitivity of the matter for any potential survivors, any investigation should be handled by the appropriate investigative entities without interference by the General Assembly,” Madigan wrote in his letter rejecting Durkin’s request.
Later Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Bill Brady, of Bloomington, called on the Illinois State Police to investigate the incidents McClain mentioned in his email.
“A recent WBEZ investigation has unveiled deeply disturbing emails sent from a well-known lobbyist to senior-level officials in a previous administration,” Brady wrote in a letter to to ISP Director Brendan Kelly.
“Illinois residents deserve to know that justice will prevail no matter how connected or powerful the wrongdoers,” he wrote.
Beyond a brief written statement stating that he “had no knowledge of the incident” in the email, Madigan has not commented. It’s unclear whether the “incident” to which the speaker referred is the Champaign rape, or the “ghost workers.”
In response, a Durkin spokeswoman wrote, “We did not realize that ghost payrolling was too sensitive of a topic for the committee to investigate on behalf of Illinois taxpayers.”
McClain, a former lobbyist for utility giant Commonwealth Edison, has also been a key figure in a sprawling federal corruption investigation into politically-motivated hiring and contracting at ComEd. No one has been charged in connection to that probe.
Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.