George Ryan | scandals, trial, and conviction

Scandals, trial, and conviction

Ryan's political career was marred by a scandal called "Operation Safe Road," which involved the illegal sale of government licenses, contracts and leases by state employees during his prior service as Secretary of State. In the wake of numerous convictions of his former aides, he chose not to run for reelection in 2002. Seventy-nine former state officials, lobbyists, and others were charged in the investigation, and at least 76 were convicted.

The corruption scandal leading to Ryan's downfall began more than a decade earlier during a federal investigation into a deadly crash in Wisconsin. Six children from the Willis family of Chicago, Illinois, were killed; their parents, Rev. Duane and Janet Willis, were severely burned.[33] The investigation revealed a scheme inside Ryan's Secretary of State's office in which unqualified truck drivers obtained licenses through bribes.

In March 2003, Scott Fawell, Ryan's former chief of staff and campaign manager, was convicted on federal charges of racketeering and fraud. He was sentenced to six years and six months.[34]

Former deputy campaign manager Richard Juliano pleaded guilty to related charges and testified against Fawell at trial. Roger Stanley, a former Republican state representative who was hired by Ryan and testified against Fawell, pleaded guilty to wide-ranging corruption, admitting he paid kickbacks to win state contracts and campaign business, secretly mailed out vicious false attacks on political opponents and helped obtain ghost-payrolling jobs.[35]

Indictment

The investigation finally reached the former governor, and in December 2003, Ryan and lobbyist Lawrence Warner were named in a 22-count federal indictment. The charges included racketeering, bribery, extortion, money laundering and tax fraud. The indictment alleged that Ryan steered several state contracts to Warner and other friends; disbursed campaign funds to relatives and to pay personal expenses; and obstructed justice by attempting to end the state investigation of the license-for-bribes scandal. He was charged with lying to investigators and accepting cash, gifts and loans in return for his official actions as governor. In late 2005, the case went to trial.[36]

Fawell, under pressure from prosecutors, became a key witness against Ryan and Warner. He agreed to a plea deal that cut the prison time for himself and his fiancée, Andrea Coutretsis. Fawell was a controversial witness, not hiding his disdain for prosecutors from the witness stand. According to CBS Chicago political editor Mike Flannery, insiders claimed that Fawell had been "much like a son" to Ryan throughout their careers. At Ryan's trial, Fawell acknowledged that the prosecution had his "head in a vise", and that he found his cooperation with the government against Ryan "the most distasteful thing I've ever done".[34] Nonetheless, he spent several days on the witness stand testifying against Ryan and Warner. Once a tough-talking political strategist, Fawell wept on the witness stand as he acknowledged that his motivation for testifying was to spare Coutretsis a long prison sentence for her role in the conspiracy. The jury was twice sent out of the courtroom so that he could wipe tears from his eyes and regain his composure.

Ryan's daughters and a son-in-law, Michael Fairman, were implicated by testimony during the trial. Stipulations agreed upon by the defense and prosecution and submitted to the court included admissions that all five of Ryan's daughters received illegal payments from the Ryan campaign. In addition to Lynda Fairman, who received funds beyond those her husband Michael testified he had received, the stipulations included admissions from the rest of Ryan's daughters that they did little or no work in return for the payments.[37][38] In addition, Fawell testified that Ryan's mother's housekeeper was illegally paid from campaign funds, and that Ryan's adopted sister, Nancy Ferguson, also received campaign funds without performing campaign work.[14][37] The prosecution took nearly four months to present their case, as a parade of other witnesses (including Juliano) followed Fawell.

On April 17, 2006, the jury found Ryan and Warner guilty on all counts.[39] However, when ruling on post-trial motions, the judge dismissed two counts against Ryan for lack of proof.[40] Ryan said that he would appeal the verdict, largely due to the issues with the jury.

Patrick Fitzgerald, the federal prosecutor, noted, "Mr. Ryan steered contracts worth millions of dollars to friends and took payments and vacations in return. When he was a sitting governor, he lied to the FBI about this conduct and then he went out and did it again." He charged that one of the most egregious aspects of the corruption was Ryan's action after learning that bribes were being paid for licenses. Instead of ending the practice he tried to end the investigation that had uncovered it, Fitzgerald said, calling the moment "a low-water mark for public service".[41] Ryan became one of four Illinois governors since 1968 to be convicted of white-collar crimes, following Otto Kerner, Jr. and Dan Walker and followed by Rod Blagojevich.

On September 6, 2006, Ryan was sentenced to six and a half years in prison.[42] He was ordered to go to prison on January 4, 2007, but the appellate court granted an appeal bond, allowing him to remain free pending the outcome of the appeal.[43] His conviction was affirmed by the Court of Appeals of the Seventh Circuit on August 21, 2007,[44] and review by the entire Seventh Circuit was denied on October 25, 2007.[45] The Seventh Circuit then rejected Ryan's bid to remain free while he asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear his case; the opinion[46] called the evidence of Ryan's guilt "overwhelming".[47] The Supreme Court rejected an extension of his bail, and Ryan reported to the Federal Prison Camp in Oxford, Wisconsin, on November 7, 2007.[48][49] He was transferred on February 29, 2008, to a medium security facility in Terre Haute, Indiana, after Oxford changed its level of medical care and stopped housing inmates over 70 years old.[50] He was listed as Federal Inmate Number 16627-424 and was released on July 3, 2013.[51]

Defense and appeal

Ryan's defense was provided pro bono by Winston & Strawn, a law firm managed by former governor Jim Thompson. The defense cost the firm $10 million through mid-November 2005.[52] Estimates of the cost to the firm as of September 2006 ranged as high as $20 million. Ryan served as Thompson's lieutenant governor from 1983 to 1991. After the United States Supreme Court declined to hear Ryan's appeal, Thompson indicated that he would ask then President George W. Bush to commute Ryan's sentence to time served.[53] United States Senator Dick Durbin wrote a letter to Bush dated December 1, 2008, asking him to commute Ryan's sentence, citing Ryan's age and his wife's frail health, saying, "This action would not pardon him of his crimes or remove the record of his conviction, but it would allow him to return to his wife and family for their remaining years."[54] Bush did not commute Ryan's sentence.

After his conviction Ryan's annual $197,037 state pension was suspended under state law. Ryan's attorneys litigated the pension matter all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court, which ruled on February 19, 2010, that state law "plainly mandates that none of the benefits provided for under the system shall be paid to Ryan".[55] Ryan was paid $635,000 in pension benefits during the three years between his retirement and his political corruption conviction, plus a refund of the $235,500 in personal contributions he made during his 30 years in public office.[56][57]

Sentencing

In 2010, Ryan requested early release, partly because his wife had terminal cancer and was given only six months to live, and partly on the grounds that some of his convictions should be vacated in light of a Supreme Court ruling that was alleged to have affected their legitimacy. On December 21, 2010, U.S. District Court Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer denied Ryan's request. Pallmeyer said she knew it would be very unpleasant for Ryan to be separated from his wife, and not released until long after his wife's death, but noted that the decision to convict and to sentence, depriving an individual of liberty or life, is never taken lightly, and that there were many more cases where the defendant or incarcerated convict was in an equally serious or more serious position.[citation needed]

On January 5, 2011, Ryan was taken from his prison cell in Terre Haute, Indiana, to a hospital in Kankakee so that he could visit his terminally ill wife.[58] Ryan was present when she died five months after that visit.[5] Ryan was released to a Salvation Army halfway house in Chicago on January 30, 2013. Less than three hours later, he was released back to his home in Kankakee on home confinement.[59] Ryan was released on July 3, 2013, a day earlier than originally planned.[60]

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