State Board Director Grilled Over Hiring Worker Mentioned In ‘Rape In Champaign’ Email | WBEZ
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State Board Director Grilled Over Hiring Worker Mentioned In ‘Rape In Champaign’ Email

Updated: 2:01 p.m.

A Republican State Representative on Thursday accused Democrats of doing nothing in response to a bombshell email from a once-powerful lobbyist that refers to an unspecified “rape in Champaign.”

Rep. Deanne Mazzochi, R-Elmhurst, vented her frustrations on the House floor a day after she grilled the head of a state board for hiring the state employee at the center of that email scandal, which was first reported by WBEZ.

“We’ve called for investigations and you’ve done nothing,” Mazzochi said, directing her comments to the Democratic side of the aisle.Last month, WBEZ first reported that lobbyist Michael McClain sent an email in 2012 to two of then-Gov. Pat Quinn’s top aides asking for leniency for a state worker facing discipline. McClain praised the worker, Forrest Ashby, because he “kept his mouth shut on Jones’ ghost workers, the rape in Champaign and other items. He is loyal to the administration,” McClain wrote.

It remains unclear what McClain was referring to. He has refused to answer WBEZ’s questions. Ashby and the recipients of McClain’s emails have not returned repeated requests for comment.

But the publication of the email drew immediate condemnation and calls for investigations into what McClain was referring to. Several state agencies are now looking into the matter. And federal prosecutors in Chicago are also scrutinizing the email as part of a wider public corruption probe, in which McClain has emerged as a key figure. No one has been charged.

The fireworks at Wednesday’s legislative hearing focused on Ashby, who retired as an employee of the state’s Department of Corrections in 2018 and later won a $40-an-hour contract with the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board.

After WBEZ published McClain’s email, the board suspended Ashby’s contract pending an investigation into its contents.The board’s executive director, Brent Fischer, told lawmakers Wednesday that Ashby’s contract to help write curriculum for the board was capped at $60,000 for the full year. For nearly half an hour, legislators grilled Fischer to clarify details about Ashby’s contract and his hiring.

“You’re saying that you paid Mr. Ashby $60,000 a year not to actually do the curriculum review and development but to just observe some classes and hire some interns?” Rep. Deanne Mazzochi, R-Elmhurst, asked Fischer.

“Well I mean he could participate but it wasn’t like he was gonna be the ultimate decider as far as what the curriculum was,” Fischer responded.

“Right,” Mazzochi shot back. “So what’s his value add for $60,000?”

Fischer said he did not publicly post the contractual position, but instead offered it directly to Ashby since the two already had a rapport. Fischer testified that he knew Ashby because he had volunteered on one of Fischer’s own campaigns. But he added that nobody from Pritzker’s campaign, the governor’s office, the speaker’s office, or McClain recommended he hire Ashby on contract.On Thursday, Mazzochi accused Ashby of being a ghost payroller himself through his contract with the Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board -- though Fischer had argued against that notion on Wednesday. “If you don’t think that this kind of thing is ghost payrolling, I don’t know what you think is,” Mazzochi said.

No one has been accused of wrongdoing in connection to the 2012 email. And there’s no evidence to suggest that Ashby was a ghost worker, and Mazzochi did not cite any.

Almost immediately after Ashby left the state payroll in 2018, he landed a new gig as a $5,000-a-month political consultant to Pritzker’s campaign for governor, state records show.

McClain recommended Ashby for the job, the Pritzker campaign has said. He was paid a total of $47,500. A campaign spokesman said Ashby’s role with the campaign was to do faith-based outreach, and that the campaign was not aware of McClain’s 2012 email.

In a sign of the political firestorm the discovery of the email has created, Rep. John Cabello, R-Machesney Park, called on Fischer to provide evidence that Fischer did not hire Ashby because of political pressure.

“Is there any documentation that anybody would ever find – emails, text messages, anything that would prove a different story?” Cabello asked.

“Not to my knowledge,” Fischer replied.

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