SPRINGFIELD – The state's agriculture director resigned last weekend at the request of Gov. J.B. Pritzker for failing to disclose contents of a 2012 email that pointed to the possible cover-up of a "rape in Champaign" and government "ghost workers," the governor's office said Monday.
John Sullivan, a Democratic state senator from 2003 to 2017 who became agriculture director last year, knew about the July 2012 email "contemporaneously" but did not disclose its contents to state investigators, Pritzker's office said.
The email in question was uncovered in an open records request by WBEZ-FM radio station in Chicago last week. It was sent by Michael McClain – a former Quincy lawmaker and lobbyist for the public utility ComEd and a close confidant of Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan – to two high-ranking members of then-Gov. Pat Quinn's staff seeking leniency for a state employee facing disciplinary action.
"He has kept his mouth shut on Jones' ghost workers, the rape in Champaign and other items. He is loyal to the administration," McClain said of the employee in the email obtained by WBEZ.
There were no other details regarding the possible cover-ups and it is unclear who "Jones" is pertaining to the ghost workers. Pritzker's office has forwarded the matter to the Office of the Executive Inspector General. The Illinois State Police and Office of the Attorney General are working with the Champaign County state's attorney on the matter as well.
Pritzker's office said he "sought and accepted" the resignation from Sullivan over the weekend when new information came to light.
"Director Sullivan had a long and productive public service career as a state senator, and the governor is grateful for his willingness to serve in the administration. Director Sullivan put together an outstanding team at the Department of Agriculture, and as a result, the department's work thrived," Pritzker Communications Director Emily Bittner wrote in the statement.
"However, 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."
The employee referenced in McClain's 2012 email was Forrest Ashby, of Quincy, who was a constituent of Sullivan's 47th Senate district at the time. McClain's home in Quincy was raided by FBI agents in May as part of a wide-ranging probe of several Statehouse insiders.
WBEZ reported Monday that Sullivan was contacted by Pritzker's general counsel "about a document that mentioned his name that was sought by WBEZ in a pending open-records request."
Lines were busy when Capitol News Illinois tried to contact Sullivan's residence Monday. In a statement first reported by WBEZ, however, the former ag director said the inquiry from Pritzker's general counsel led him to 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," he said in the statement.
Sullivan said summer 2012 "was a stressful time" as he was in the middle of a re-election campaign and preparing for cancer surgery in Baltimore.
"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," he 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.
"Bottom line, I accept responsibility for what was truly an unintentional oversight and the subsequent inaction."
Sullivan served as majority caucus whip under former Senate President Emil Jones Jr. and as assistant majority leader during the presidency of John Cullerton, whose successor is scheduled to be chosen this Sunday.
From January through April he served as the state's agriculture director in an acting capacity after receiving the appointment from Pritzker. On April 12, he was unanimously and officially approved for the post by the Senate Executive Appointments Committee.
Pritzker's office said the information relayed by Sullivan was forwarded to investigators.
"The governor's general counsel has shared all of the information she learned from Director Sullivan with the Office of the Executive Inspector General and offered to share this information with all law enforcement agencies looking into this situation. The administration will continue to assist in the ongoing investigation," Bittner wrote.
Jeremy Flynn, who served as Sullivan's chief of staff, was appointed by Pritzker on Monday afternoon as his former boss's interim successor.