Updated at 4:06 p.m. Jan. 9, 2020
Consummate Illinois Democratic insider Michael McClain dodged questions Thursday about an email in which he sought leniency for a state worker in a disciplinary case, having argued that the man was politically loyal and had stayed silent about “the rape in Champaign.”
In his first public comments since FBI agents raided his home last May, the former Springfield lobbyist and close confidant of Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan said he would consult with his lawyer before deciding whether he could explain what he was referring to in the cryptic, 2012 email.
“I prefer not to comment right now, but thank you,” McClain told WBEZ reporters who approached him as he was leaving the swanky Chicago Cut Steakhouse in downtown Chicago after he had lunch there.
WBEZ EXCLUSIVE VIDEO: Embattled ex-lobbyist and Madigan confidante Michael McClain tells @dmihalopoulos and me that he’s been asked to cooperate in the federal ComEd probe, but he suggested that would be an act of betrayal. pic.twitter.com/jOo9PWRmPL— Dave McKinney (@davemckinney) January 9, 2020
In the July 2012 email to top aides of then-Gov. Pat Quinn, McClain sought leniency for a now-retired state worker named Forrest Ashby by writing, “He has kept his mouth shut on Jones’ ghost workers, the rape in Champaign and other items. He is loyal to the Administration.”
McClain did not elaborate further in the email, and Quinn has said he has no idea what McClain was talking about when he referred to a rape. WBEZ has not been able to verify the facts underlying the statements in the email, including whether a rape occurred, its alleged perpetrator or whether Ashby had actual knowledge of the crime, as McClain contended.
But the disclosure of the email by WBEZ on Tuesday has set off a political firestorm.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker called the email “horrific,” and aides said they had turned the matter over to the state’s internal watchdog.
Madigan said in a statement this week that the email from his McClain – a friend of nearly 50 years – was “serious and extremely troubling.” But on Thursday the speaker shot down calls for legislative hearings from the top House Republican, Jim Durkin of Western Springs.
McClain told WBEZ Thursday that federal investigators had asked him to cooperate with their ongoing corruption probe into utility giant Commonwealth Edison. McClain, who represented the utility as a lobbyist, has emerged as a central figure in the scandal, but he intimated that he would not cooperate.
McClain repeatedly smiled and said he had been asked by federal investigators to cooperate. But when WBEZ asked if it would be hard to betray someone like his longtime friend Madigan, McClain paused and then said, “It would be hard to betray myself.”
Nobody has been charged with wrongdoing, and Madigan has said he does not believe he is a target of that investigation.
But WBEZ first reported in October that the ongoing federal criminal probe is looking into allegations that longtime McClain client ComEd had hired politically connected consultants – including some with ties to Madigan – in exchange for electricity rate increases or other favorable official actions in Springfield.
And the feds have sought information on Madigan himself from several people throughout their investigation, WBEZ has reported.
A spokesman for John Lausch, the U.S. attorney in Chicago whose office is leading the investigation, declined to comment Thursday.
Federal agents raided McClain’s home in Quincy in May, when they also visited others with close ties to Madigan or ComEd and served a search warrant at the City Club of Chicago, a civic group led by another former lobbyist for the utility.
On Thursday, McClain also declined to comment on a report published by WBEZ in November detailing another email in which he characterized himself as the gatekeeper for what he called “the Magic Lobbyist List.”
In that December 2018 email, McClain directed members of the list to help him arrange for any new, potential clients in Springfield to hire from a list of clouted lobbyists for the upcoming, 2019 legislative session at the Illinois Capitol.
McClain wrote that the favored list had been generated in partnership with a man referred to as “Friend” with a capital F. Sources told WBEZ that was a clear reference to Madigan.
Asked about that email, McClain replied, “Again, let me talk to my lawyer and see what I can say and what he advises me to say.”
McClain would not identify his lawyer.
“I talk to him all the time,” McClain said. “He asked me not to disclose his name, so I’d like to honor that, if that’s OK.”
The upscale restaurant along the Chicago River where WBEZ reporters found McClain is a favorite of local politicians, serving up prime steak filets at lunchtime for as much as $54.
But McClain said life had been difficult since he began facing federal heat.
“Terrible,” he said when asked how it felt to be under investigation. “I mean, you feel isolated. It’s not Christmas. I mean, it’s been a grueling experience.”
After ending the interview with WBEZ by saying, “God bless,” McClain spoke briefly on his cell phone in the lobby of an office building with what he said was a friend.
Then, he and a woman who was with him at lunch entered a taxi and headed north, in the direction of the Gold Coast condo he owns.
A state Democratic source told WBEZ on Thursday that Madigan has not spoken with McClain since early May.
The Chicago Tribune has reported that federal investigators have secretly recorded some of McClain’s telephone conversations.
McClain and Madigan have been close since 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.