Updated at 5:17 p.m.
A powerful former Springfield lobbyist and close friend of House Speaker Michael Madigan once sought leniency for a state worker in a disciplinary case by arguing that the worker “kept his mouth shut” about an unspecified rape downstate.
In the previously undisclosed, 2012 email, ex-lobbyist Michael McClain urged two top aides to then-Gov. Pat Quinn to avoid firing the worker, also telling them the man was politically “loyal” to Quinn and stayed silent about “ghost workers.”
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.
The disclosure of the 2012 email — which WBEZ obtained recently through an open-records request — immediately prompted calls for an investigation from Gov. JB Pritzker and the top Republican in the Illinois House, who called the email’s contents “horrific.”
For decades, McClain enjoyed a cozy relationship with Madigan. He had dual roles as one of the most influential lobbyists in Springfield and a top political adviser to Madigan, who also is the head of the Illinois Democratic Party.
Newly obtained emails plainly demonstrate McClain’s unique level of access and influence. McClain urged Quinn’s aides not to let pending disciplinary action against the state worker “get out of hand.” A day later he thanked them for what he said was the abrupt postponement of a hearing in the case, saying, “Nothing happens accidentally.”
The former employee McClain lobbied for was Forrest Ashby. Like McClain, Ashby lives in downstate Quincy.
He left the state payroll as a full-time worker in 2018. But Ashby almost immediately landed a new gig — as a $5,000-a-month political consultant to 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.
Now, Ashby is working for the state again, on a $40-an-hour consulting contract with the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board.
‘He’s kept his mouth shut’
In 2012, when McClain lobbied the governor’s office to go easy on him, Ashby was working as an administrator at the Illinois Department of Human Services facility in downstate Rushville. The facility houses sexually violent prisoners and former inmates deemed to still be a public risk.
According to McClain’s email, Ashby was scheduled to appear at a disciplinary hearing in early August 2012 for what McClain characterized as relatively minor infractions. McClain asked Quinn’s legislative affairs liaison, Gary Hannig, and the governor’s senior advisor, Jerry Stermer, to safeguard Ashby’s job.
“Please do not let them fire him, my God in heaven,” McClain wrote to Hannig, who is a former Democratic state representative and also was a senior member of Madigan’s leadership team. Stermer was copied on McClain’s email, which was sent on July 31, 2012.
“But, Gary, for Gods (sic) sake do not let this disciplinary meeting get out of hand. This man is a good compliance person, as I told you. The AG’s office and the Sheriffs love working with him,” McClain wrote, referring apparently to the office of then-Democratic Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who is the House speaker’s daughter.
Then, McClain closed his email by making some stunning — though vague — references to other things he thought should count in Ashby’s favor.
“He has kept his mouth shut on Jones’ ghost workers, the rape in Champaign and other items,” McClain said of Ashby. “He is loyal to the Administration.”
McClain’s email in 2012 did not provide any further detail about what he called “the rape in Champaign.” It’s not known who was the alleged perpetrator, when the rape happened or why McClain and Ashby were aware of it.
Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Rietz said in a statement, “I do not know anything about these emails…I have not received any calls about these emails or any of the people named in them.”
It also was not clear what McClain was referring to when he mentioned “Jones’ ghost workers.” Ghost payrollers are a common term used for political hires that do not show up to their government jobs.
Ashby once worked in an agency led by Lorrie Rickman-Jones, the former chief of the Division of Mental Health within the Illinois Department of Human Services. Rickman-Jones is married to former Democratic Senate President Emil Jones of Chicago, who was a staunch proponent of ComEd during his time in Springfield.
Neither Jones nor his wife returned calls.
Ashby did not respond to multiple efforts by WBEZ to reach him for comment, including emails, social media messages and calls to the state agency where he has a contract, a church where he also works and the Pritzker campaign.
McClain, Hannig and Stermer also did not respond to calls and emails.
Pritzker’s office provided the 2012 email in response to a request for all of McClain’s correspondences with the chiefs of staff of governors during the past decade. The documents did not include any responses from Hannig or Stermer to McClain’s messages.
Call for ‘immediate’ criminal probe
Quinn told WBEZ he had no knowledge of any of the matters mentioned in McClain’s email. The former governor also said he did not know Ashby or anything about a disciplinary case against him.
“First I’ve heard of it,” Quinn said.
A spokeswoman for Pritzker said his office learned of the email after processing WBEZ’s open-records request for emails involving McClain and has asked that it be investigated.
“The administration’s general counsel referred this email to the appropriate investigatory authority, who will make a determination about what next steps can be taken,” Pritzker spokeswoman Emily Bittner said. “The governor’s expectation is that all state employees will meet the highest ethical standards for their conduct, and anyone who does not meet that standard will be disciplined to the full extent of the law.”
Bittner declined to identify the agency that the governor’s office has contacted.
An aide to Illinois Executive Inspector General Susan Haling declined to comment.
Meanwhile, the top Illinois House Republican called for a criminal investigation after WBEZ asked him about the email.
“This revelation is shocking and beyond words,” House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, said in a statement this week. “I am disturbed by the fact that horrific and possible criminal actions may have occurred and government officials, Mike McClain and his enablers chose to stay silent instead of taking action.
“There needs to be an immediate criminal investigation into the content of McClain’s email to the administration, and I encourage anyone with information on this to report it immediately to the property authorities.”
McClain: ‘Nothing happens accidentally’
WBEZ has reported that McClain is an important focal point in the ongoing federal investigation into ComEd and the electric utility’s actions in Springfield. A federal search warrant issued in the probe sought records pertaining to Madigan.
Neither Madigan nor McClain has been charged, and the speaker has denied any wrongdoing. But federal agents raided McClain’s Quincy home in May, and the Chicago Tribune has reported that some of McClain’s telephone conversations were secretly monitored by federal investigators.
McClain and Madigan’s friendship dates to the 1970s, when both were young and rising Democratic state legislators. Despite losing his re-election bid in 1982, McClain’s fortunes skyrocketed. After Madigan took control of the House, McClain become one of Springfield’s most influential lobbyists, with unmatched access to the speaker.
McClain shut down his lucrative Springfield lobbying practice and announced his retirement from representing ComEd in 2016. But WBEZ and the Better Government Association found he continued getting paid by the power company, at a rate of $15,000 a month.
That consulting arrangement only ended in 2019, when time federal investigators raided McClain’s home. On the same day, authorities also served search warrants on several others with close ties to Madigan or ComEd.
WBEZ was the first media outlet to report in October that the ongoing, wide-ranging federal probe is looking into allegations ComEd hired multiple politically connected consultants — including some with ties to Madigan — in exchange for favorable official actions in Springfield, including support for electric rate increases.
In November, WBEZ also reported that McClain described himself in another email as the gatekeeper for what he characterized as “the Magic Lobbyist List.”
In a December 2018 email that McClain wrote and sent to a select group of Madigan-friendly lobbyists, McClain directed members of the list to help him arrange for any new, potential clients in Springfield to hire from the list of clouted lobbyists for the upcoming, 2019 legislative session at the Illinois Capitol.
McClain wrote that the special list had been generated in partnership with a man referred to as “Friend” with a capital F. Sources said it was a clear reference to Madigan.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Chicago had no comment about the newly revealed emails from McClain to the Quinn aides.
A day after McClain lobbied for leniency for Ashby, he sent a revealing follow-up message to Quinn’s office.
“I do not know what happened but I know nothing happens accidentally. Ashby’s disciplinary meeting was postponed,” McClain wrote to top Quinn aides on Aug. 1, 2012. “I thank you.”
It’s not clear what Ashby was accused of or if he ever faced disciplinary action by the state. The agency he worked for at that time would not say. And officials rejected a request from WBEZ for records of any reprimands he may have received, citing a law blocking the release of such records that are more than four years old.
Ashby’s ‘faith-based outreach’ for Pritzker campaign
Ashby began working for the state in 1987. During a more than 30-year career, he bounced around from the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs to the prison system and then back to the Department of Corrections. When he retired in January 2018, his final, annual salary was $87,528.
Two months after leaving state government, Ashby landed on the Pritzker’s campaign payroll, records show. He was paid at total of $47,500.
A Pritzker campaign spokesman told WBEZ that Ashby was hired to do “faith-based outreach” downstate.
“Mr. Ashby expressed interest in working for the campaign and was recommended to the campaign by Mike McClain and faith leaders across central and southern Illinois,” Pritzker campaign spokesman Quentin Fulks said. “Mr. Ashby had a resume that the campaign would have hired without this recommendation and he went through the same vetting procedure as every other staff member.”
At that time, Fulks said, Pritzker aides knew nothing about McClain’s assertion that Ashby had knowledge of potential ghost-payrolling or any “rape in Champaign.”
“The campaign was not aware of this email from 2012, which is nearly five years before the campaign even began, and we would have had no way to discover this email,” Fulks said. “We were only made aware of this email as a part of [a] series of questions from WBEZ.”
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CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct Jerry Stermer’s job title at the time he received Michael McClain’s 2012 email.