Updated 10 p.m.
A former member of Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker’s cabinet appears to have taken a more aggressive role than previously known in safeguarding the state job of a campaign volunteer tied to the “rape in Champaign” email scandal, newly obtained records show.
Pritzker, a Democrat, ousted former state Agriculture Director John Sullivan on Monday as a result of the furor created by WBEZ’s disclosure of ex-lobbyist Michael McClain’s 2012 effort to win leniency for a state worker facing state disciplinary action.
McClain wrote to two senior aides in then-Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration to note that worker, Forrest Ashby, did not deserve to be fired because he was politically loyal and “kept his mouth shut” about a possible rape downstate and ghost-payrolling.
Sullivan disclosed this week that he had received a copy of McClain’s July 31, 2012, email but neglected to read to its end, missing its reference to “the rape in Champaign.”
That oversight, which Sullivan attributed in part to the stress associated with his upcoming cancer surgery, led Pritzker to seek his resignation and an executive inspector general investigation. The governor said Sullivan mishandled the email and neglected to alert authorities about a possible rape.
On Friday, WBEZ obtained new emails from the Pritzker administration in response to an open-records request.
One document appears to show Sullivan, who earlier had been a state senator, took a more direct role than he had previously disclosed in trying to avert state disciplinary action against Ashby.
On Aug. 1, 2012, one day after McClain’s email, Randy Wells, former deputy chief of staff and legislative affairs director for the state Department of Human Services, notified former Quinn aide Gary Hannig and another DHS official about an unspecified “human resource issue with Senator Sullivan.”
Wells said pending action by the agency would result in “an extremely negative reaction” from Sullivan. Ashby, an employee of DHS, was not singled out by name in the Wells email, but it appears to relate directly to Ashby’s disciplinary case, a source familiar with the document told WBEZ.
“Senator Sullivan has already told me he is going to Gary and the Governor about this issue if we take action,” Wells wrote in the document.
Since WBEZ’s disclosure last week about McClain’s “rape in Champaign” email and his advocacy for Ashby, the circumstances surrounding disciplinary action against Ashby have not been made clear by the Pritzker administration, which says state law prohibits the release of that information.
More important, no verifiable details have emerged to support McClain’s contention that Ashby remained silent about a rape or ghost payrolling.
Hannig did not respond Friday to messages from WBEZ.
Wells told WBEZ he does not recall the email or discussing Ashby with Hannig. He said he considered his 2012 email to be “standard operating procedure” for his job alerting the governor’s office about the concerns of lawmakers.
Sullivan wrote on Monday that he felt “disgust” about McClain’s email, and said he does not know what McClain was referring to. McClain refused to tell WBEZ what he meant in his email during a brief encounter last week.
In a brief, text exchange Friday, Sullivan acknowledged the newly released Wells email likely alluded to Ashby’s disciplinary action but did not confirm he had been prepared to respond with an “extremely negative reaction” if the Quinn administration took action against Ashby.
“It sounds like McClain hyperbole to me,” Sullivan wrote in a text message.
Sullivan turned down a telephone interview regarding the newly unearthed email. “I’ve accepted what happened to me. It is what it is,” he said. “I’m moving on.”