He was convicted of racketeering conspiracy, mail fraud, obstructing the IRS, tax fraud and lying to FBI agents.
But the horrifying specter of six kids who were burned alive because an unqualified non-English-speaking trucker paid a bribe to then Secretary of State George Ryans corrupt testing center in Melrose Park, hung over Ryans trial.
And helped produce a unanimous verdict that has sent the 72-year-old former governor to what will be the remainder of his life in prison.
While the six dead kids didnt come up at the trial on corruption and racketeering for complex legal reasons, there is no reason to assume that the jury, which went home every night, was unaware of one of the most tragic occurrences in Illinois history. The Dan Webb defense, paid for by former Governor Jim Thompson and totaling well over $10 million, tried to prove that no one saw Ryan take a corrupt dollarbut it came to naught. Ryan had told the FBI that he paid for his Jamaica vacations sponsored by a pal who benefited from Ryans favorsand showed canceled checks to prove it. Then it was discovered that there was a secret exchangeafter Ryan handed over the check, the pal gave him cash that made up for the expense. Ryan had not told the FBI that little tidbit. Webbs defense was: well, the FBI never asked whether there was a quid pro quo! As you can imagine, that didnt wash with the jury.
Among court watchers, there is very little remorse as Ryan goes away, ranking as he does with the most corrupt officials of all time: Jim Curley of Boston, Boss Tweed of New York, going back to Lord Baltimore after whom the city is named, who stewed in navel-high steaming corruption dealing with court favorites and contractors when Maryland was a colony. There will be an appeal which will probably center on the discharge of two jurors, one of whom did not disclose a former felony conviction. All told, seventy-nine former state officials, lobbyists, truck drivers and others were charged in the feds Operation Safe Roads investigation, of which 74 have been convicted not counting Ryan.
Former Governor Jim Thompson exhausted the best legal resources of Winston & Strawn pro-bono not out of the goodness of his heart but because Thompson has a powerful special interest and is close to others that would have been vastly better served if Ryan were freed. Indeed, it is thought that Ryan has a number of let us say holds on Thompson whom he served as lieutenant governor. But more than that, even in this landslide defeat, Thompson can regard the Ryan trial as an invaluable legal precedent for others likely to comenotably people involved with corruption in Chicago who are likely Thompsons close friends. It will be studied closely for precedents for trials in the future. What trials?
In essence, Thompson and Ryan have been major players in what the Tribunes John Kassthe most politically sagacious journalist writing here today--has called the Combine, the hybrid association of pragmatic officials of both Democratic and Republican hue who have cooperated on goodies: contracts, pinstripe patronage, exchange of favors between the two administrations in hiring etc. For this much is true: whatever Ryan did as governor, the Democrats perfected and shone to a high gloss in seventy six years of running Chicago. The huge amount of stuff the feds have on Richard M. Daleys administrationor hiring, contracts, play for pay, hired trucks and morehas to be pinned to one accountable executive: it cant be shrugged away, as Ryan sought to, by pinpointing staff aides. And there were plenty of Republicans tied into the Daley governance both above and under the table.
The question is: is Patrick Fitzgerald free to do the maximum job on Daley? George W. Bush is known to believe that Daley is the nations finest mayor, though Daley hasnt helped Bush much by presiding over one of the nations most strident Democratic machines which has pitted Illinois leftward. Because Bush named Fitzgerald to his post and likes Daley, would the presidents fondness for Daley blind Fitzgerald the prosecutor? Not likely. Fitzgerald is not a Republican, is a Democrat, as he has made clear with his continuing Scooter Libby prosecution even beyond where evidence takes him. But no one should be considered above importuning. At least one inducement might be worth the effort.
If theres a Supreme Court vacancy and Bush names Alberto Gonzales while poised to appoint Fitzgerald at age 44 as Attorney General, would that deter progress Fitzgerald is steadily making against Daley? No one knows for sure but that rumor is in the works in Washington. My guess is that Fitzgerald wont pass up the chance to become immortal: but that means prosecuting Daley not becoming attorney general (no one remembers who former attorneys general are anyhow: after you get beyond Janet Reno and John Mitchell, who do you think of?) The only thing thats likely to derail a Daley prosecution would be an event two years off, the presidential election of 2008. Criminal investigations take a long time: Ryans took eight years. And if a Democrat is elected in 2008, certainly if its old Illinoisan Hillary Clinton, Daley can likely breathe easy. Thats the incentive for Daley to run again in 2007to be on hand to help the Democrats carry Illinois the next year. With the help of either a Democratic governor or a Republican one favorable to him as was the case with George Ryan in 2000.
Beyond those political repercussions, isnt it true that all Ryan did was what generations of secretaries of state and governors have always done? Yes and no. Secretaries of state have always been robust players who rewarded friends and punished enemies. And yes, it is true that what was regarded as natural politics by a prior generation has been criminalized by the current reformers. I am sure the former secretariesJim Edgar, Alan Dixon, John Lewis, Elmer Hoffman, Mike Howlett and otherswere not babes in the woods. Yet Ryan was convicted by laws that have been long on the books, not newly minted. Luck and some inner caution led other state secretaries to stay free of embarrassing ties. Not to Ryan.
Ryan was a blunt blunder-buss, far more blustery, greedy and venal than the current malleable political types who show up on TV today. And probably except for the late Paul Powell (whose death was very timely), George Ryan entered the secretary of states office equipped with a snout which he used to snuffle up as much graft and favors as his protuberant belly could absorb. He reached for the governorship, eschewed principle and became the favorite of both most professional Democrats and Republicans. Not for nothing was he called the best Democratic governor in a generation.
All the same, Ryan ran for governor under the cloud of the commercial drivers license scandal. His Democratic opponent, Rep. Glenn Poshard (for whom I voted) called him corruptbut Ryan was saved from defeat by two factors: first, the Clinton-appointed, Daley-friendly U. S. attorney, Scott Lazar, who told the media just before election day that Ryan was not under investigation for the scandal which probably elected Ryan. So close was Lazar to his Democratic master that in 2001 this prosecutor and Daley planned a trip together to China! It was called off after 9/11.
The second factor which elected Ryan governor was the calculated lay-down of Chicago Democrats on Poshard: they preferred Ryan for governor for scores of reasonsPoshard was an unremitting social conservative, anti-gay rights who would not change and pro-life. Behind the scenes, Ryan, supposedly a social conservative, hinted he was available for switch on gay rights and abortion. The word was passed to Democrats and movement liberals that Ryan would deal and was available. The trendy liberal lakefront rebelled against Poshard. Daley played it ambivalently. Jim Thompson, Ryans and Daleys good friend, baptized the informal deal between Democrat Daley and Republican Ryan. The private word to Ryan was: a Democratic-appointed U. S. Attorney would likely not find sufficient evidence to prosecute Ryan. Thompson told me himself that Ryan was making great progress as a candidate: I knew what that meant, economically, socially. But there came three bad lucks of the draw which cooked Ryan.
The first bad luck of the draw had been the election in 1998 (the same year that George Ryan won governor) of Peter Fitzgerald as U. S. Senator. Never were two Republicans farther apart in philosophy and practice than George Ryan and Peter Fitzgerald. Ryan has a blow-torch temper, stalking, angry and demonstrative; Fitzgerald is calm, studied, soft-spoken and to some even naïve. Ryan is an old-line pol to whom philosophy means nothing; Fitzgerald is the brilliant, reclusive philosophical conservative scion of a multi-millionaire bankera graduate of Dartmouth and Harvard Law who studied in Greece and speaks the language fluently. Hes learned in the law, in business, in ethics and the classics (Latin and Greek) who disdains politics-as-usual. From the day Peter Fitzgerald served in Springfield as a reform state senator, he was at odds with the Republican secretary of state. As Senator, Fitzgerald blocked a lot of Governor Ryans initiatives and refused to act as a subsidies bearer for the state. He blocked Ryans plan to get federal funding for the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum because Ryan wanted to use the Library as a patronage dump for his favorites.
Ryan never slept an untroubled night in the mansion as governor with the feds on his tail. He thought he could fix it with either Lazar or another Democratic prosecutorand, friend of Daley as he was, he probably could. Nevertheless, he started to re-craft his image to appeal to a future jury pool. He switched from being a death penalty advocate to vigorous opponent who granted clemency to all prisoners on death row which gained him huge publicity from the liberal media (for which he sought the Nobel Prize). Since African Americans dominated death row, Ryan calculated he would make gains with any blacks on the jury. One large group remaining was Hispanic. Ryan became a darling of liberaldom nationally by going to Cuba, meeting with Fidel Castro in Cuba, urging the U. S. to change its views on the Communist dictator. To please Daley, he switched overnight from an opponent of OHare expansion to a firm supporter of it. A former pro-lifer, he vetoed a pro-life bill to win favor with pro-choicers, being totally a re-born liberal; he now supported gay rights, too. The Combine was happy with Republican Ryan. All that had to happen next was the election of a Democratic president in 2000.
To ensure the Democrats would carry Illinois and further ingratiate himself with Daley, Gov. Ryan backed a man who was a long-shot candidate for the GOP nomination. A long-shot candidate but a very good man: Texas Senator Phil Gramm, superb on economic issues but afflicted with a cracker barrel Georgia-born accent and a neck that extended out of his collar like a turtles which marred his presentation (but there were those who liked him, including me). Even there, Ryans venality came through: he couldnt resist scuttling around, talking to Gramms managers about being paid from Gramms campaign fund: this as governor, an incredible craven gesture, and seeing that some family members were paid, as well.
This greed was another part of his un-doing. The records showed Ryan didnt do anything whatever for the money he received and the sinecure ended up as part of the indictment. Gramm, a private citizen, came in to testify that he was amazed to find out later that Ryan was paid. In bold terms, Gramm said that theres a difference between being truly in love or being paid for love, calling Ryan a prostitute off-stage following his testimony. Always exploding from the short-fuse, Ryan struck back with an ill-considered public denunciation before television, blasting Gramm in front of the Dirksen courthouse, trying to tie him and his wife Wendy to the Enron scandal since Wendy was on the board (although linkage of the Gramms is tenuous and today he is being mentioned as the next secretary of the treasury) while the ex-governors lawyers winced. The legendary Ryan blow-torch temper had to let off steam. When Ryan bellowed out against Gramm, I am told that his lawyer Dan Webb decided the ex-governor could not be trusted to testify in his own behalf: he could only last at most 20 minutes before hed blow a gasket.
After Gramms campaign faded and George W. Bush won the nomination, Ryan insisted on running the Bush presidential campaign in Illinois in 2000 by virtue of his being governordesigning it, many believe, to lose. Certainly there was no Bush presence in Illinois. Indeed, Ryan did an extraordinary thing on election day itself: arranging a meeting during that day with Daley, pretending that it was on a policy matter
and prior to the polls closing, congratulating Daley lavishly for carrying Illinois for Gore. Now all Gore had to do was win the whole enchilada.
Well, as we know, he won more popular votes but lost in the Supreme Court to Bush. And Bushs election as president was the second bad luck of the draw for George Ryan.
The third bad luck of the draw was the appointment of Patrick Fitzgerald as U. S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois because of the recommendation of Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (no relation). I well remember dining next to William Bauer, former chief judge of the local U. S. Court of Appeals. A gifted man, he is at turns witty and unfathomable. He started Jim Thompson on his career when Bauer was U. S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. He made Thompson his first assistant. Bauer convicted Otto Kerner with Thompsons help. Then Bauer went to the District Court and Thompson took over the job. Why, asked Bauer with great emotion, did Peter Fitzgerald convince Bush to name an outsider, Patrick Fitzgerald, as U. S. Attorney here? An insult to the local bar. I asked him this: Did you know that the last local D. A., Scott Lazar, was planning to go to China on a vacation with Mayor Richard M. Daley when the trip was called off because of 9/11? Did the Judge think that was too cozy? Yes, Bauer said. He was astounded at the news. I believe him.
Anyhow, Peter Fitzgerald believed an outsider was indispensable to get a clean sweep of corruption here. He was massively turned off by Ryan and the governors determination to be boss. Ryan was up to his old tricks with the aid of his friend Denny Hastert: he tried to cash in on the states Lincoln museum by filling it with patronage hires. Fitzgerald took to the Senate floor to filibuster against it. Hastert tried to interfere in the naming of a prosecutor only to be told to butt out by Peter Fitzgerald. Then Fitzgerald began to interview only prosecutors from outside Illinois, a fresh departure from the old home-town prosecutor game the Combine plays.
After Patrick Fitzgerald was confirmed, it was only a matter of time. Whether it was that Senator Peter Fitzgerald wanted to stay home with his wife and son, it was also true that the Combine wouldnt back him for reelection. Judy Baar Topinka became State GOP Chairman and incredibly declined to endorse him, an incumbent, scandal-free, highly regarded Republican Senator for reelection in 2004. Peter Fitzgerald then declined to run again: a great loss when this young man threw in the cards.
But Peter Fitzgerald has won just the same. It took time: eight years of painstaking work for Patrick Fitzgerald to nail down the Ryan case, but he did it. Throughout those years Ryans relations with Daley blossomed and Ryans hope grew that John Kerry might win the presidency in 2004 and appoint a new prosecutor. No such luck.
The conviction of George Ryan is more than of a man but of the old-line play-for- pay political alliance between Democrats and Republicans. To shore up the Combines defense, Jim Thompson, architect of the scandal-tarred alliance, devoted the resources of his law firm to Ryans defense for free. It didnt work. Now the one who will begin to lose sleep is Richard M. Daley. Among others. The question as mentioned above is whether or not Patrick Fitzgerald wants to follow through with a total slam-dunk: for the stuff of future convictions is there.
In the meantime, a gubernatorial election is being waged this year and a mayoral election will be run in 2007. The legatee of the old days of the Combine is Judy Baar Topinka, who declined to endorse Peter Fitzgerald for reelection. If she wins the governorship, that office will be in play to continue the game and do what it can to forestall trouble for Daley. Daley is determined to run for reelection unless he gets the feeling that the feds are coming so close he should conserve his energiesbut he can be reelected rather easily. The huge circle of business and industries close to Daley are close to Jim Thompson and a large coterie of Demi-publicans as well. Theres a central thread which if it gets pulled
well, look out.
Thus , it turns out that leaders of both parties are considering that it wouldnt be fatal if the opposite side were to win the governorship. Heres how some Democrats think: If Topinka were to win, she would likely ask for and get a general income tax hike which would stunt her popularity for the remainder of her term. In four years, when she would be age 66, she would decline to run again. Thats when a revitalized Democratic party could return with, let us say, a Lisa Madigan, the apple of Speaker Mikes eye. So some Democrats reason: it would not be too bad to have Topinka win. You get rid of Rod who drives the party nuts, you get a social liberal and then get rid of her for a full-blooming liberal in four years.
At the same time, there are some Republicans who reason that it is not entirely crazy to hope that Rod Blagojevich wins a second term. Topinkas win would shut out conservatives for four years, even those non-conservatives like Ron Gidwitz who want fiscal reform. The GOP would be open to new ideas. In that way at least one partythe Republicancould conceivably be open to reconstruction along traditional lines. They reason: one more term for Blagojevich might be short-range salutary. He doesnt seem to have many friends in his own party. After a term during which he either is forced to raise taxes or go out in ignominy with the state in terrible shape, maybe even, in a strange calibration, to a vice presidential nomination in 2008 (stranger things have happened), the public will have had such a belly-full of liberal Democrats, the state would be ready for Republicans and reform.
In a sense, the galloping leather-lunged Senator-Minister James Meeks who uses his church as a political launching pad with no fear that the IRS will come, evidently, could decide everything. I doubt hell runbut if he does, he takes automatically a huge number of votes from Blagojevich. African Americans are not noted to stand by idly or vote for a white when one of their numberespecially the dynamic kind that Meeks isruns for a major office. Forget that many Republican social conservatives will support him because pro-life to him is different than pro-life to them.
All the same, Meeks has it within his power to elect Topinka. You can bet your third to the last bottom dollar that Topinkas people are dealing with him. Mike Madigan wants his little girl to be governor after one term: You can bet your second to the last bottom dollar that Topinkas people are cutting a deal with Papa Madigan for his covert support for one Topinka term only. The Jim Thompson-Richard Daley combine would accept Topinka as governor. You can now bet your bottom dollar that somebody from the Combine is talking to Meeks. On the other hand, young Jesse wants to be mayor but wants more concessions from Blagojevich for the Abraham Lincoln airport in Peotone; they wouldnt be discouraged if Meeks delivers and decides not to run for governor. A demonstrative black ally of the Jacksons who causes the Democrats to lose the governorship doesnt help Young Jesses reputation as a mayoral candidate in 2007,
All of these things cant interest George Ryan very much. Youve heard of the old axiom from shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations. In one generationhisRyan will have moved from the posture of extending his royal ring for caressing because he granted prestige license plates for power-brokers to actually getting down to the business of making license plates in a prison factory.
Is this a great country or what?