Updated at 4:26 p.m.
Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker sought and received the resignation of a top cabinet official for not reporting a former lobbyist’s 2012 email defending a state worker facing disciplinary action who allegedly kept quiet about an unspecified “rape in Champaign.”
The surprise departure of state Agriculture Secretary John Sullivan was announced Monday by the governor’s office. It represents the first measurable fallout from last week’s exclusive WBEZ report about ex-Springfield lobbyist Michael McClain’s explosive email that is now the subject of an investigation involving the Illinois State Police, state executive inspector general and the Champaign County State’s Attorney’s office.
A Pritzker spokeswoman said the Democratic governor was “disturbed” by Sullivan’s apparent mishandling of the email, which he appears to have known about when it was sent by McClain to two senior aides of former Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration in late July 2012. At the time, Sullivan was a Democratic state senator from downstate Rushville.
“The governor holds all state employees to the highest ethical standards, and the governor requested the director’s resignation because he is disturbed that then-Senator Sullivan became aware of the existence of the July 31, 2012 email contemporaneously and did not handle it appropriately, including not alerting the inspector general or other authorities,” Pritzker spokeswoman Emily Bittner said in a statement.
Employees of the Illinois Department of Agriculture received word of Sullivan’s resignation in an agency-wide email sent early Monday afternoon.
In a statement to WBEZ Monday afternoon, Sullivan said he was contacted over the weekend by Pritzker’s general counsel, Ann Spillane, about a document that mentioned his name that was sought by WBEZ in a pending open-records request. On Monday, the governor’s office released that document to WBEZ.
“This past weekend, Governor Pritzker's General Counsel notified me that an August 2012 email from Mike McClain to Governor Quinn’s staff referenced my name as state senator and McClain’s advocacy on behalf of my constituent, Forrest Ashby,” Sullivan said. Ashby, who lives in Quincy, is the state employee for whom McClain was advocating.
“That information led me to conduct a review of my own personal emails from that same period of time. My search discovered a forwarded copy of McClain’s July 31, 2012 email reported by WBEZ. I shared this information with Governor Pritzker's general counsel."
“The summer of 2012 was a stressful time for me. I was in the middle of a state Senate reelection campaign, as well as preparing for and undergoing cancer surgery in Baltimore, MD. I was already well aware of McClain’s efforts to keep me informed of his advocacy on behalf of Ashby, and l simply did not read the entire forwarded email."
“Had I read the email thoroughly, my reaction would have been disgust and I would have immediately notified proper authorities. Nevertheless, the email was in my inbox and not reading the entire email led to my failure to immediately respond as I would have."
“Bottom Line, I accept responsibility for what was truly an unintentional oversight and the subsequent inaction,” Sullivan wrote in his statement to WBEZ.
Sullivan’s involvement in the controversy comes as a surprise. Sullivan served in the Illinois Senate between 2003 and 2017 and joined Pritzker’s administration in early 2019. His service in state government has been without taint.
The new email that triggered Sullivan’s ouster shows McClain invoking the state senator’s name in a late August 2012 discussion with Quinn’s then-lobbying affairs director, Gary Hannig, about Ashby’s pending disciplinary action.
“As you know, Sullivan is an active proponent of Forrest Ashby,” McClain wrote on Aug. 22, 2012. “He is the facility manager of the sexual abuse institution at Rushville. He is African American.
“So, yesterday Forrest receives an email directing him to Chicago for a disciplinary meeting next week. So, Sullivan is gone and now they strike!” McClain continued to Hannig. “What can you do, I hope?”
The earlier McClain email has shocked Springfield and upended House Speaker Michael Madigan’s caucus because of the speaker’s close association with McClain, a friendship that dates back almost 50 years. Madigan characterized WBEZ’s initial report on the McClain email as “extremely serious and troubling.”
That email to Quinn’s senior advisor and legislative affairs director showed McClain going to bat for Ashby, who was facing some form of disciplinary action.
In advocating against Ashby’s firing, McClain wrote, “He has kept his mouth shut on Jones’ ghost workers, the rape in Champaign and other items. He is loyal to the Administration.”
McClain declined to comment on the email in an interview with WBEZ last week.
And it’s unclear what he’s referring to. WBEZ has not been able to verify the facts underlying his statements in the email, including whether a rape occurred, its alleged perpetrator or whether Ashby, the worker facing discipline, had actual knowledge of the crime, as McClain contended.
State election records show that Ashby circulated nominating petitions for Sullivan in his 2012 campaign. Ashby did political consulting work for Pritzker’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign, receiving $47,500 for “faith-based” outreach efforts. The governor’s campaign spokesman said McClain urged Pritzker’s political operation to hire Ashby.
Ashby left the state payroll as a full-time worker in 2018. He's had a $40-an-hour consulting contract with the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board since Sept. 9, 2019. Ashby’s contract was suspended last week pending an internal investigation, according to the board’s lawyer.
McClain, once one of state government’s most influential lobbyists, formerly represented electric utility giant Commonwealth Edison. His home was raided by federal investigators last May as part of a criminal investigation into the utility company’s Springfield lobbying activities.
McClain has not been charged with wrongdoing.
It’s not clear what Ashby was accused of that prompted the planned disciplinary hearing in 2012, or whether 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 after more than four years.