SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — The ex-campaign worker for Gov. J.B. Pritzker who is at the center of an email in which a one-time Statehouse lobbyist alleged government cover-ups of rape and illegal state hiring says he’s completely unaware of the purported incidents that have dogged him since the email became public last year.
Forrest Ashby, a longtime state employee who worked on the Democratic governor’s 2018 campaign, told the Associated Press he never got a direct answer when he confronted the author of the 2012 email, Michael McClain — an ex-lobbyist now under federal indictment in an alleged bribery scheme that tarnished his confidante, former House Speaker Michael Madigan.
In response to Ashby’s 2012 request for help in difficulties he faced in his state job, McClain sought leniency for Ashby from top aides to then-Gov. Pat Quinn, explaining that Ashby was “loyal to the administration” because he has “kept his mouth shut” on so-called ghost payrolling, “the rape in Champaign and other items,” according to the email.
“I said, ‘Mike, what’s this? What’s this garbage about?’” Ashby recalled after McClain showed him the email in early 2020. “He says, ‘Well, I just want you to see it. You know, it might get kind of hot over this.’ I said, Mike, ‘I don’t know anything about this email.’”
McClain did not respond to a request seeking comment.
Ashby, 57, retired from the Illinois Department of Corrections in 2018 and went to work for Pritzker’s campaign. He then landed a contractual job with the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards. But that deal was canceled after the email surfaced. The resulting notoriety has made finding work difficult. Ashby said he wanted to speak to the AP to try to clear his name.
Ashby said he visited McClain’s home when the lobbyist told him he wanted to show him the email his lawyer had given him, likely around the time WBEZ radio was seeking access to McClain’s emails before reporting on the Ashby missive in January 2020.
In 2012, Ashby was an administrator of the Illinois Department of Human Services’ Rushville facility, which houses civilly committed or detained people deemed to be sexually violent. Ashby claims he implemented tough new rules in accordance with his focus on security to prevent escapes or other problems, butting heads with DHS leadership that wanted a more therapeutic or “clinical” approach to its residents.
Fearing he’d be fired, he asked McClain for help, prompting the email to Quinn’s office. Ashby said when asked about the email, McClain had no explanation for it. He said it’s possible McClain didn’t remember writing the email, adding that “he meant well but there was some stupidity as he typed it.”
“I think he stretched it,” Ashby told the AP. “I think that he tried to make it seem like I was over there preventing stuff from happening, don’t fire him.”
The Department of Human Services had no immediate comment on Wednesday.
The disclosure rocked the Statehouse. Pritzker called the message “horrific” and referred the matter to the Office of the Executive Inspector General.
But if the inspector general ever investigated, Ashby said no one has interviewed him. Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudeyyah confirmed that a referral was made to “the OEIG and law enforcement” and directed questions to “the proper authorities.”
Neil Olson, spokesman for the Office of the Executive Inspector General, declined comment. A spokeswoman for the Illinois State Police also did not respond to a request for comment.
FBI agents, however, did approach Ashby for answers. He later had several interviews with investigators from the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago. Questions focused on potential state government corruption and whether Ashby had any ties to utility company ComEd, which he said he doesn’t.
Federal prosecutors have indicted McClain and others in a bribery scheme in which ComEd acknowledged in a deferred prosecution agreement that it provided do-nothing lobbying jobs and subcontracts to Madigan loyalists in exchange for legislation favorable to the utility.
McClain and several others have pleaded not guilty.
Madigan has not been charged and has denied wrongdoing, but the scandal so stained him that the longest-serving legislative leader in U.S. history couldn’t gather enough support in January for a 19th term at the helm and subsequently resigned after a 50-year House career.