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Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s agriculture chief resigns over his handling of ‘rape in Champaign’ email, governor’s office says

Crain's Chicago Business

Tuesday, January 14, 2020  |  Article  |  Dan Petrella

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s top agriculture official resigned Sunday after the administration learned he knew in 2012 of an email in which a powerful lobbyist and close confidant of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan sought leniency for a state worker who he said had “kept his mouth shut” about a "rape in Champaign.”

The resignation of John Sullivan, a former longtime state senator from Rushville in western Illinois, is the first tangible political fallout since the email was first reported last week by WBEZ, leading to a chorus of condemnation and calls for investigation.

Pritzker was “disturbed” that 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 Monday. The governor’s office asked for Sullivan’s resignation, which he gave via email Sunday afternoon, Pritzker’s office said.

Jeremy Flynn, the agency’s chief of staff, has been appointed acting director.

The email was sent by Mike McClain, a former lobbyist for Commonwealth Edison and a close adviser to Madigan, to two officials in the administration of then-Gov. Pat Quinn. McClain sought leniency for Forrest Ashby, a longtime state worker who was facing a disciplinary hearing.

“For God’s sake do not let this disciplinary meeting get out of hand,” wrote McClain, who like Ashby is from Quincy, a Mississippi River town in Sullivan’s former Senate district. “He has kept his mouth shut on Jones’ ghost workers, the rape in Champaign and other items. He is loyal to the Administration.”

Sullivan, who did not seek reelection in 2016 and joined the Pritzker administration last year, said in a statement Monday that he did not read the full email from McClain when it was forwarded to him in 2012. At the time, he was in the midst of a reelection campaign and preparing to undergo cancer surgery at the John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

“Had I read the email thoroughly, my reaction would have been disgust and I would have immediately notified proper authorities,” Sullivan said. “Nevertheless, the email was in my inbox and not reading the entire email led to my failure to immediately respond as I would have.”

The Chicago Tribune reported Saturday that investigators are examining whether the “rape in Champaign” remark referred to the case of a man who sexually assaulted a young girl after being released early from prison.

A source told the Tribune that investigators are looking at the case of Scott Wayne Thompson, who is being held at a state facility for sex crime offenders in Rushville, Sullivan’s hometown. Thompson received early release from prison in May 2010 and was subsequently charged with sex abuse, records show. He pleaded guilty in February 2011, records show.

At the time Thompson was placed in the Rushville facility, Ashby was working there as a hospital manager, according to McClain’s email to state officials. Ashby declined to comment Saturday.

On Aug. 22, 2012, the day of Sullivan’s cancer surgery, McClain wrote to Gary Hannig, Quinn’s legislative affairs director, about Ashby’s impending disciplinary hearing, noting that Sullivan was “an active proponent of Forrest Ashby.” Another email from McClain indicates the earlier hearing had been postponed.

“So, yesterday Forrest receives an e-mail directing him to Chicago for a disciplinary meeting next week,” McClain wrote. "So, Sullivan is gone and now they strike!

“What can you do, I hope?”

What happened as a result of McClain’s message is unclear. No response from Hannig is included in records released by the governor’s office, and he did not respond Monday to a request for comment.

Sullivan said in his statement that he found the July 2012 email referencing the “rape in Champaign” in his inbox after a top lawyer in the governor’s office notified him of the Aug. 22 email, which was uncovered while responding to an open-records request from WBEZ.

“That information led me to conduct a review of my own personal emails from that same period of time,” Sullivan said. “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.”

McClain contributed more than $9,000 to Sullivan’s campaign fund from 2003 through 2013, records show.

Sullivan did not respond to a request for comment on his relationship with Ashby, a 30-year state employee who retired in January 2018 before working as a paid consultant on “faith-based outreach” on Pritzker’s campaign. The governor’s campaign acknowledged that McClain and others recommended Ashby for the role.

Sullivan is the first official to publicly acknowledge being aware of the controversial McClain email at the time it was sent.

Madigan, who has been friends with McClain since they were in the House together in the 1970s, said in a statement Wednesday that he had no knowledge of the incident prior to the WBEZ report.

Pritzker last week called the email “horrific” and referred the matter to the state Office of Executive Inspector General for review.

The Illinois State Police, the Illinois attorney general’s office, the U.S. attorney’s office in central Illinois and the inspector general’s office are reviewing the matter.

The release of the McClain email comes amid an ongoing federal probe into ComEd’s lobbying practices and allegations of government corruption from Chicago to Springfield.

The Tribune has previously reported that federal investigators raided McClain’s Quincy home in May and have recorded some of his phone conversations. A source said told the newspaper last week that authorities have asked McClain to cooperate.