By John O’Connor
AP Political Writer
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Thursday denounced as “horrific” a newly disclosed email a powerful lobbyist sent seven years ago to top aides in the previous governor’s office that cryptically suggests knowledge of cover-ups involving a rape and shady hiring practices.
The Democratic governor told reporters that his office referred the email, written by Michael McClain, a confidante of House Speaker Michael Madigan, to the Office of the Executive Inspector General for investigation. Madigan on Thursday endorsed that approach, rejecting a call from Republicans to let a House committee dig into the issue.
“The subject of this email is horrific …,” Pritzker said in Chicago. “There are two crimes that are discussed in this email: One is rape and the other one is ghost payrolling. All of us want to know, what are they referring to?”
The 2012 email, uncovered by WBEZ radio, was written by McClain, a retired lobbyist whose previous work for power giant ComEd have drawn the interest of federal investigators since last spring, to the top staff of then-Gov. Pat Quinn. In it, McClain sought leniency for an employee facing discipline, noting that “He has kept his mouth shut on Jones’ ghost workers, the rape in Champaign and other items. He is loyal to the administration.”
There is no other reference to “Jones,” but the report noted that Emil Jones Jr. of Chicago was the Democratic Senate president from 2003 to 2009 and an ardent ComEd backer.
Madigan, a Chicago Democrat whose friendship with McClain dates to the early 1970s when both began their political careers, said Wednesday that he was unaware of the email or the incidents it mentions. There are no other details about the alleged rape in the central Illinois city or about ghost payrolling, which refers to the illegal practice of awarding government jobs to political favorites who do little or no work. No one associated with the email has been charged with any wrongdoing.
House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, a Western Springs Republican, sought Madigan’s consent to allow the State Government Administration Committee to probe the matter and compel sworn testimony from McClain, Forrest Ashby — the employee facing discipline, and others.
Neither McClain nor Ashby, both residents of the western Illinois city of Quincy, has a listed phone number or could be reached for comment.
But Madigan rebuffed the GOP’s request Thursday. Pritzker, whose office disclosed the email in response to a public-records request from WBEZ, confirmed the inspector general’s involvement, Madigan said in his reply.
“Recognizing the sensitivity of the matter for any potential survivors, any investigation should be handled by the appropriate investigative entities without interference by the General Assembly,” wrote Madigan, who again urged anyone with information to come forward.
Durkin responded by accusing Madigan, the longest-serving speaker of a state House in U.S. history, of shunting his responsibility, making a crack about Madigan’s reputation as the state’s most powerful politician.
“We live in a world of firsts and this is the first time I have seen Speaker Madigan abdicate his position and hide behind any governor,” Durkin said in an email forwarding the speaker’s response to Republican House members.
In his initial request, Durkin said that it is “relatively routine” for standing or special House committees to probe alleged government misconduct.
Madigan convened a special investigatory committee, tabbing Durkin as co-chairman, in December 2008 to consider impeachment articles against then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich after he was arrested on federal charges of political corruption. The hearings moved ahead after lawmakers conferred with nervous federal prosecutors who were building a criminal case against Blagojevich which eventually sent the Democrat, ultimately ousted from office, to prison.
Durkin spokeswoman Eleni Demertzis also pointed out that Madigan’s reply did not address the question of alleged ghost payrolling.
“We did not realize that ghost payrolling was too sensitive of a topic for the committee to investigate on behalf of Illinois taxpayers,” Demertzis said.
Ashby retired in January 2018 after a three-decade state government career and working on Pritzker’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign. He had most recently been working on contract for the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board.