The Governor Goes Down

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The state of Illinois, not to mention the city of Chicago, has a long-earned reputation for corruption, and it just got worse.

On Monday, former Governor George Ryan, 72,is the third Illinois goverrnor since 1973 to be convicted of federal crimes. Ryan, who won worldwide acclaim and even a Nobel Peace Prize nomination for clearing out the state's Death Row and putting a moratorium on executions, was found guilty of running campaigns — and government offices — like a personal piggy bank to enrich himself, family and friends. The verdict, convicting Ryan on 18 counts ranging from racketeering to mail fraud, came after five months of testimony from more than 100 witnesses, including Ryan's previously convicted former chief of staff, some 20 hours of closing arguments and nearly a month of jury deliberations.

Despite the fact that Ryan had character witnesses like famed death penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean, the jury was apparently sold on the government's position laid out in the first few minutes of closing arguments, which began March 13. "This is a case about a betrayal of trust, of corruption at the very highest levels of state government," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Joel Levin, launching into a hours-long recounting of a trial that began on Sept. 19 and of a case that goes back roughly 13 years. "He might as well have put up a 'For Sale' sign over [his] office." Specifically, Ryan was found guilty of selling his office, both as secretary of state for eight years and later as the state's governor from 1998 to 2002, for campaign cash through sweetheart leases and coveted low-digit license plates, as well as using office workers to do such campaign legwork as selling fundraising tickets on government time; prosecutors even charged that Ryan's own inspector general's office was rigged to clear Ryan of any whiff of wrongdoing in his administration.

"This decision today is not in accordance with the type of public service that I provided the state of Illinois," Ryan said moments after the verdict was read. "There will be an appeal." His lawyer, former U.S. Attorney Dan Webb, said that among the grounds for appeal — and for immediate motions to overturn the verdict — would be the "unusual developments" during deliberations, including the disclosures about jurors who lied during attorneys' pre-trial questioning. On at least two occasions, the case appeared close to being tossed out after revelations that two jurors had failed to disclose criminal records and another had spoken outside of the closely watched deliberations with a friend.

Those are mere technicalities for the many people who view Ryan as a "political prostitute," as former U.S. Senator Phil Gramm described him while testifying about how Ryan had allegedly pilfered $100,000 when he was the state chair of Gramm's reelection campaign in 1996. Among those sitting in the packed courtroom was the Rev. Duane "Scott" Willis and his wife, Janet, whose six young children were killed in 1994 when the van they were driving on a Wisconsin interstate exploded after a piece of a nearby truck dislodged and pierced its gas tank. When it was later discovered that the driver of the truck was illegally licensed, the tragedy helped set off the broader Ryan corruption investigation, which revealed a rampant scheme in which state workers were trading licenses for cash — going so far in some cases as to sign off on tests given in English to people who spoke no English at all.

Now that the verdict on Ryan is in, it is sure to play a role in this year's gubernatorial race. Current Gov. Rod Blagojevich will likely say it proves that the Democrats are the only party capable of protecting the integrity of state government. Meanwhile his opponent, state treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, will probably argue that Blagojevich, whose administration is also being probed, is definitely not the man for that job. "We'll see the commercials very soon," said Roosevelt University political scientist Paul Green. "Each will manipulate this for their own purposes." Just as history shows so many Illinois politicians, like Ryan, have done with their own elected positions.