Monday, April 17, 2006

George Ryan's Conviction And What It Means

After a six-month trial and 10 days of jury deliberations, a federal jury has convicted former Illinois Gov. George Ryan (R), along with his long-time friend and political crony, Larry Warner, on 18 counts involving public corruption and income tax evasion. This is a major victory for U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who has been pillaried by political honchos of both political parties in Illinois and in D.C. for his dogged pursuit of political corruption. It is also a major victory for the Chicago Sun-Times, which played an important role in uncovering many key events in the so-called "Licenses-for-Bribes" scandal which ended Gov. Ryan's long political career in Illinois politics. Describing the post-verdict scene at the Dirksen federal courthouse, the Sun-Times reports:

After court, Ryan's lawyer, Dan Webb, vowed to to get the verdict overturned, citing the "unusual developments that occurred in the past five weeks of jury deliberations." Ryan said he was disappointed in the verdict.

"I believe this decision today is not in accordance with the kind of public service that I provided to the people of Illinois for over 40 years," Ryan said moments after the verdict. "And needless to say I am disappointed in the outcome."

As Ryan approached the microphones in the lobby of the Dirksen building, he asked "Where's my wife?" and was told Lura Lynn didn't want to come with him to face reporters. Ryan's codefendant, Lawrence Warner, 67, a lobbyist and businessman. was also found guilty on all counts against him. Warner and his lawyer, Ed Genson, left the building while Ryan and Webb were speaking to reporters.

The courtroom was packed with family of the defendants, including Ryan's wife, his son and others. Also packed in were judges and lawyers, including U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald and a son of Janet and Scott Willis. The couple lost six children in a fiery truck accident; the truck driver in that accident was tied to corruption under Ryan.

Ryan, 72, who served eight years as Illinois secretary of state and four years as governor, was accused of using his official position to steer state contracts to pals such as Warner. Ryan was also accused of lying to the FBI, misusing his campaign fund and filing false tax forms.

Prosecutors say Warner, 67, made $3 million in the time Ryan held state office. Warner made much of the money, they contended, after shaking down vendors for lobbying work and threatening to cut off their state contracts in some instances if they didn't pay him. He also made big money off of state leases that he won under Ryan in which Warner's financial interest was hidden. The trial itself ended more than a month ago and the trial started with jury selection seven months ago.

The 72-year old Ryan could spend the rest of his life behind bars if the convictions are upheld. Ryan's defense attorney is former U.S. Attorney Dan Webb with the law firm of Winston & Strawn, a firm managed by former Illinois Governor James Thompson. The firm has reportedly performed nearly $10 million in pro bono work for Ryan in connection with the trial. Ironically, in 1978, then Gov. James Thompson, who is also a former U.S. Attorney from Chicago, used his connections in the Chicago U.S. Attorney's office to sweep under the rug allegations that Ryan, along with his brother, had engaged in Medicaid fraud associated with billings to Illinois nursing homes by a drug store chain the Ryan brothers owned. Ryan, at the time, was Thompson's Lt. Governor running mate.

With Ryan's conviction, three of Illinois' last 8 governors have been convicted of crimes, including former Governors Dan Walker (D) and Otto Kernan (D). Gov. William Stratton (R), was charged with income tax evasion but was later acquitted. Illinois' current Governor Rod Blagoyevich is also under investigation by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald as is long-time Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Ryan's conviction should give pause to not only Daley and Blagoyevich but also members of President Bush's administration. Fitzgerald has been put in charge of the investigation of the leaking of the identity of CIA covered agent Valerie Plame Wilson. He has already obtained an indictment of former Vice Presidential chief of staff Scooter Libby on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.

It should be observed that Fitzgerald operates free of any politican influence. Unlike other U.S. attorneys appointed in the past in Chicago, he had no political ties to Illinois politicians. He was recommended to the federal post by former Illinois Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R), who is no relation, because of his political independence, a move which angered political insiders like James Thompson and Dan Webb who had one of their own in mind for the post.

Unfortunately, Indiana also has a long-term practice of appointing politically-connected persons to the U.S. Attorney's position here in Indianapolis. As a consequence, we seldom see any major public corruption trials here in this state, not because our politicians are more honest than Illinois', but because we don't have independent prosecutors who are willing to take on establishment insiders. The U.S. Attorney's office here turned a blind eye to evidence of corruption associated with the awarding of a riverboat license in Lawrenceburg back in the 1990s and, more recently, evidence uncovered by a WTHR investigative report on potential prescription drug fraud involving Colts owner Jim Irsay seemed to go unnoticed by the U.S. attorney's office.

It is interesting to observe the role of the media in George Ryan's case. The Chicago Sun-Times doggedly pursued the case from the beginning, while its rival competitor, the Chicago Tribune, played the role of Ryan protector. When the Sun-Times first made a direct connection of Ryan to corruption in the state's license branches which he administered as Secretary of State back in 2000, the Tribune aided Ryan in diverting public attention away from the growing scandal by a series of reports on his efforts to aid death penalty reform. Today's conviction lends credibility to the Sun-Times, which has lagged well behind the Tribune in daily subscriptions for years.

Ryan's convictions should not really come as a surprise to anyone who has been involved in Illinois politics. During the decade I spent working in Illinois Republican politics, including a 6-year stint on the House Republican Staff, Ryan's self-dealing and cronyism were no secret. Whenever Ryan pushed for anything, you could always count on the fact that a family member, close friend or political crony stood to gain financially from it. His deep loyalty to his family, friends and political supporters is probably what kept him out of trouble for so long. But in the end, even those who benefitted the most from his political corruption testified against him on behalf of the government to limit their own jail time.

Ryan and his convicted cronies are some of the very people who so dissolutioned me and turned me away from Illinois Republican politics. Unfortunately, I find things are really no different in Indiana. It's the same pathetic characters with similar self-serving ambitions; only the names are different.

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