SPRINGIELD, Ill. (AP) — A former assistant prison warden, at the center of an explosive 2012 government email in which a lobbyist alludes to a rape cover-up and illegal hiring, gave false information during an investigation four years earlier into whether he misplaced a bulky ring of keys at a state lockup, documents obtained by The Associated Press show.
The Illinois Department of Corrections refused to say Monday whether Forrest Ashby, then paid $86,400 annually as the acting assistant warden for operations at Western Illinois Correctional Center, faced discipline for the infraction which could have resulted in his firing. The investigator said Ashby “impeded the investigation by giving inaccurate and false information” during the inquiry.
According to the report obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, Ashby told an internal investigator that his keys, which an employee found in the men’s restroom, had been with him the entire day.
Ashby, 56, is the subject of a July 2012 email in which Michael McClain, then a powerful government lobbyist and confidante of longtime House Speaker Michael Madigan, asked top aides to then-Gov. Pat Quinn to show Ashby leniency in a disciplinary matter he faced in his new job at the Department of Human Services.
McClain argued that Ashby should be protected because he “is loyal to the administration,” according to the email first reported by WBEZ Radio. “He has kept his mouth shut on Jones’ ghost workers, the rape in Champaign and other items.” McClain has drawn the interest of federal investigators in the past six months in an inquiry into lobbying at the state Capitol.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker referred the email to the Executive Inspector General for review and the Illinois State Police and the state’s attorney in Champaign, County are investigating. There’s been no other information about the alleged sexual assault or the unknown “Jones” or his ghost workers, an apparent reference to politically connected people on the state payroll who do no work. Neither McClain nor the email’s recipients have commented.
A message left on a cellphone listed to Ashby was not returned.
The incident began when an employee at Western Illinois Correctional Center in Mt. Sterling, 250 miles (400 kilometers) southwest of Chicago, reported entering a men’s restroom in the prison at about 9 a.m. on Oct. 21, 2008 after Ashby left. The incident report he filed indicated that he found a ring of 43 keys hanging on the hand dryer. The tag was labeled “A/W Operations,” although the report doesn’t identify what locks the keys opened.
The employee took the keys to the intelligence office and showed the on-duty officers, telling them he tried to return them to Ashby in his office but had been waved away. He then showed the keys to his supervisor, who told him to return them to Ashby.
The employee went back to Ashby’s office, returned the keys, and asked Asbhy whether he should file an incident report, as required by state administrative code. Asbhy said, “No,” according to the report, but later another superior instructed the employee who found the keys to write the report.
In his interview with the internal investigator, Ashby was quoted as saying that he took control that morning of “Key Ring #002 with 43 keys” and returned them at 1:30 p.m. when he left to visit another facility. “My keys were attached to me at all times,” he told the investigator.
Ashby’s testimony was contradicted by four witnesses. The internal investigator found that Ashby had violated department rules involving key and lock control and of falsifying documents.
The state’s administrative code indicates that giving false information is punishable by discipline including dismissal. But state records show Asbhy remained at Corrections after the 2009 investigative report was released, working until 2011, when he went to Human Services.
Ashby was at Human Services when McClain wrote the email seeking leniency, but the agency said it had no records of disciplinary matters involving Ashby when it responded to a records request Monday.
Corrections rehired Ashby in 2013. He retired from the agency in 2018, at which time he began working on Pritzker’s campaign for governor. From October 2019 until this month, he earned $14,400 as a contractor to the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board, which suspended his work when the email became public and said it had referred the matter to an “independent investigation.” It refused to disclose documents related to any investigation under an exemption in the public-records law for documents in which preliminary statements opinions are stated.
This story has been corrected to reflect that key investigation was four years before the 2012 email.
2008 Department of Corrections internal investigation: https://bit.ly/30YI65O
AP researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed.
Follow Political Writer John O’Connor at https://twitter.com/apoconnor.