Illinois ag director resigns over response to rape email

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker's agriculture director has resigned after acknowledging he received, but did not act on, a lobbyist's email seven years ago that referenced an alleged rape cover-up and illegal hiring practices.

John Sullivan said in a statement Monday that he did not read the email thoroughly at the time but that “I accept responsibility for what was truly an unintentional oversight and the subsequent inaction.”

The July 2012 email from Michael McClain, formerly a powerful Statehouse lobbyist and confidante of long-time House Speaker Michael Madigan, was sent to aides of then-Gov. Pat Quinn. It sought leniency for a “loyal” state employee who "has kept his mouth shut on Jones’ ghost workers, the rape in Champaign and other items.”

Pritzker last week called the email's contents “horrific” and said he had referred the matter to the Office of the Executive Inspector General for review. Since then, Illinois State Police have opened and investigation along with Julia Rietz, the Democratic state's attorney of Champaign County, 135 miles (217 kilometers) south of Chicago.

On Monday, Pritzker praised Sullivan's government career, but spokeswoman Emily Bittner said the Democrat accepted Sullivan's resignation because “he is disturbed that then-Sen. Sullivan became aware of the ... email contemporaneously, and did not handle it appropriately, including not alerting the inspector general or other authorities.”

A 61-year-old Rushville resident, Sullivan served in the Senate from 2003 to 2017. One of his constituents was Forrest Ashby, the state employee facing undisclosed discipline. Both Sullivan and McClain were going to bat for him.

McClain's email was sent to Garry Hannig, a top aide to Quinn, and the former governor's chief of staff, Jerry Stermer, both of whom are out of government, although Hannig, another former legislator, is still listed as a lobbyist. Sullivan was not copied on the email but said Monday it was later forwarded to him. No one associated with the email has been charged with wrongdoing. Madigan, the longest-serving speaker of a state House in U.S. history, said last week he was unaware of the email or the circumstances.

WBEZ Radio, which first disclosed the email last week, reported on Monday that Pritzker's lawyer became aware of Sullivan's knowledge of the Ashby case over the weekend and asked Sullivan whether he received the original McClain message. Sullivan reviewed his emails from the period and confirmed that he had. He said that because he was in a re-election campaign and also preparing for cancer surgery, he didn't read it to the end.

“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,” Sullivan said. “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.”

There has been no other information regarding the alleged rape or of the unidentified “Jones'” use of “ghost workers,” an apparent reference to the illegal practice of loading the state payroll with political favorites who do no work.

Sullivan was tabbed as Pritzker's $157,000-a-year director of agriculture in early 2019. He has been praised for overseeing the program allowing legal hemp cultivation for the first time in decades as well as the department's role in regulating production of recreational marijuana, which became legal Jan. 1. But his agency took a hit last summer when Pritzker abruptly canceled an Agriculture Department-scheduled DuQuoin State Fair concert by southern rock band Confederate Railroad because the band's logo features Confederate flags, which the governor called a hate symbol.

Ashby had a 30-year career in state government before joining Pritzker's campaign staff in 2019. State records show he went to work on contract in October 2019 for the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board, making $14,460 before the board suspended the contract Jan. 8, seeking an "independent investigation" because of the email's allegations.