Nearly two years ago, a WBEZ open-records request to Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker’s office set off alarm bells in Springfield.
The governor’s office released a 2012 email exchange between now-indicted former Commonwealth Edison lobbyist Michael McClain and two top aides to then-Gov. Pat Quinn. McClain was seeking leniency for a former state employee, Forrest Ashby, in a pending disciplinary case.
McClain vouched for Ashby, then an Illinois Department of Human Services executive, as “loyal” to the Quinn administration and noted, as apparent attributes, that Ashby had “kept his mouth shut” about “ghost workers” and a “rape in Champaign.”
For the first time, Ashby is speaking publicly about that explosive email and the ensuing scandal that cost a former Pritzker cabinet official his job, produced criminal investigations and legislative hearings and delivered yet another damaging blow to former Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan’s political circle.
In an interview, Ashby told WBEZ he knew nothing at all about the alleged rape or what it entailed, said he was “shocked” to learn of McClain’s reference to it and only learned about the assertion when McClain himself reached out as WBEZ was making the email public.
“I didn’t know anything about a rape in Champaign prior to that email coming out. Not in Champaign, but anywhere,” Ashby said.
The circumstances surrounding the McClain email ranks as one of Springfield’s most infamous political whodunnits in recent memory. It also cast a negative and suspicious light on the vast influence that McClain exerted as perhaps Madigan’s closest consigliere.
But the matter didn’t find its way into McClain’s November 2020 federal corruption indictment. And with McClain’s continued silence, Ashby’s denials and no clues from law enforcement, what happened in the alleged “rape in Champaign” is no closer to being publicly known than when it first shocked Springfield nearly two years ago.
Ashby said fallout from the allegation has taken a toll on him and his reputation in his west-central Illinois community of Quincy, which also is home to McClain, whom Ashby once considered to be a friend.
“Terrible. Terrible. Terrible. Terrible,” Ashby said in assessing the email’s impact on him. “It’s embarrassing to me and my family and to my friends. I live in a small town and the way that that email was put together, it’s like I condoned a rape coverup and a ghost payroll coverup.
“It’s been devastating to me,” he said.
McClain lawyer: No comment on Ashby’s statement
Any friendship Ashby had with McClain has dissolved as a result.
“I don’t consider him a friend for doing something like that after he wrote it. I mean, it was not true what he wrote. I didn’t know about it,” Ashby said.
Disclosure of the McClain email triggered investigations by the U.S. Attorney John Lausch’s office, the Illinois State Police, the state executive inspector general, the Champaign County state’s attorney’s office and the attorney general’s office. But no charges ever surfaced. Nor did any clues on what alleged “rape” or ghost workers McClain was talking about.
Ashby faces no criminal charges.
Ashby agreed to speak with WBEZ in March 2020 on the condition that recorded conversation not be published or aired. In the past week, Ashby consented to having it be made public.
McClain is awaiting trial along with three other former ComEd executives and lobbyists who were indicted by a federal grand jury on charges they orchestrated a bribery scheme in Springfield to advance the utility company’s legislative agenda and standing with Madigan.
Madigan has not been charged and characterized the contents of McClain’s email as “extremely serious and troubling.”
In January 2020, two days after the disclosure of McClain’s email involving Ashby and after earlier attempts for comment, WBEZ approached McClain outside of a riverfront restaurant in downtown Chicago to ask about the meaning of the email. McClain declined to answer questions about it and insisted he had no desire to cooperate with federal investigators in their pursuit of Madigan.
McClain’s lawyer did not offer any comment about Ashby’s statements.
“As we have maintained since the announcement of the charges in this case, and our initial statement in response, we will have no further comments for the media on any topic until the case is resolved in a trial,” McClain defense lawyer Patrick Cotter said in a statement to WBEZ.
Ashby: ‘I knew it wasn’t true’
Ashby said he was never made aware of the 2012 email until McClain called him after first being contacted by WBEZ in December 2019.
“I was coming home from work,” Ashby said. “He gave me a call and asked me to come by his house. He had something he wanted to show me. I didn’t think nothing of it so I came by his house. He said, ‘I’ve got this email.’ Everything seemed OK until we got to the bottom of the email, and it mentioned something in there about a rape coverup and a ghost payrolling and the personnel matter.
“I said, ‘Mike, what are you talking about, a rape coverup? What’s this mean?’ I didn’t take that too well,” said Ashby, who said McClain suggested he talk with his boss and his bishop from his church. “And I did. I left it at that.”
“I knew it wasn’t true so I didn’t think any more about it until it broke in the press. Nobody, never asked me. Then it just snowballed from there.”
Neither the nature of the pending disciplinary action against Ashby that McClain was seeking to circumvent nor any punishment have ever been made fully clear by the state.
At the time of McClain’s intervention in 2012, Ashby was 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.
In his letter, McClain said Ashby had refused to carry out an order to buy $41,000 worth of new uniforms at the facility and was “verbally spanked” for “moving sergeants around.” McClain pleaded with Quinn’s aides not to allow the agency to terminate Ashby for those alleged infractions.
In his interview with WBEZ, Ashby spoke of his conflict with higher-ups at DHS but did not allude to the issues McClain cited.
“The administration I worked for out of Chicago felt like I wasn’t doing a good enough job…and basically tried to accuse me of having mold in the facility, and I didn’t have no control over mold,” he said. “I believed I was being treated unfairly.”
Ashby said the Quinn administration imposed a one-day suspension on him before reinstating him.
McClain forwarded a copy of his email to Quinn’s top aides to then-state Sen. John Sullivan, D-Rushville, whom Ashby said he also had contacted.
After the email became public and sparked a furor eight years later, Sullivan — who was then Pritzker’s agriculture secretary — disclosed to the governor’s office he had been a recipient of McClain’s email. As a result, Pritzker demanded and received Sullivan’s resignation a week after WBEZ’s initial report.
Pritzker, who called the McClain email “horrific,” previously had employed Ashby as a campaign consultant in 2018, paying him more than $47,000 for “faith-based outreach” downstate. McClain had recommended him for the position, Pritzker’s campaign acknowledged in 2020.
McClain and Ashby maintained a professional relationship until at least March 2019. That’s when McClain notified several Pritzker aides that he had invited Ashby to attend a visit by the governor then to the Illinois Veterans’ Home in Quincy, according to an email obtained by WBEZ through an open-records request.
Ashby also had a $40-an-hour consulting gig with the state Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board, a state body once headed by McClain’s brother, Kevin McClain. One day after WBEZ published its initial story on the email, the agency ended its consulting relationship with Ashby that had been first initiated after Kevin McClain’s 2015 departure.
Ashby: No involvement in downplaying 2010 sex abuse case
The Chicago Tribune reported four days after WBEZ’s initial story about McClain’s letter that the Illinois State Police were investigating whether the “rape in Champaign” reference could be tied to an inmate from Rushville, Scott Wayne Thompson, who got out of prison early in May 2010 and then sexually abused a young girl in Urbana .
Ashby categorically denied having “kept his mouth shut” about Thompson’s case.
“No. No way,” he said.
Ashby said he was aware that Thompson had been civilly committed to the Rushville facility, which he described as being entirely “court-driven,” but he said he had no specific recollections of Thompson’s time at Rushville.
“If the judge or attorney general says this resident is coming into your facility to be civilly committed, you just process him like you would any of them,” he said.
Ashby said he was only reminded of Thompson’s case after the McClain email surfaced.
“I forgot about Scott Wayne Thompson up until 2020 until I got the email that I was made aware of that went out like nine years ago,” he said.
Neither McClain nor his attorney, to this day, are willing to explain what the phrase, “rape in Champaign,” meant — and Ashby said he’s eagerly wanting to find out from McClain.
“That’s the million dollar question,” he said. “He can’t explain himself fast enough.”
Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics and government for WBEZ. Tony Arnold is editor on the station’s Government and Politics desk. Together, they first reported on the McClain email. Follow them on Twitter @davemckinney and @tonyjarnold.