Former Gov. George Ryan indicted

Tribune staff reports
Published December 17, 2003, 7:09 PM CST


Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan was charged today in a federal racketeering indictment with conspiracy and fraud while he was governor and secretary of state.

Ryan allegedly engaged in a pattern of corruption that included performing official government acts, awarding lucrative government contracts and leases and using the State of Illinois for his own benefit, members of his family, his campaign organization and certain associates, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s office.

“I submit that the citizens of this state expect honest government from the secretary of state or the governor,” U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald said during a news conference this afternoon at the Dirksen Building in downtown Chicago. “They deserve nothing less.”

Ryan, 69, a Republican known worldwide as a leading critic of the death penalty, gradually became the focus of a corruption investigation that began even before his 1998 election as governor. The growing scandal was a factor in Ryan’s 2001 decision not to seek a second term.

The indictment alleges that for more than a decade Ryan let his friends wield great influence in state government and profit from his positions as secretary of state and later, governor. Ryan allowed some of his friends, who were not state employees, to steer state contracts in return for bribes and gave others insider information that they could profit from, while ignoring complaints of wrongdoing from employees and others.

In return, the indictment alleges, Ryan and his family received illegal cash payments, gifts, vacations and personal services from his friends and associates. The indictment did not list a dollar figure for Ryan but said members of his family got cash loans and gifts totaling $167,000.

The 91-page indictment charges that lobbyist Larry Warner, a close friend of Ryan’s, collected cash from state vendors and landlords and funneled it to Ryan and another lobbyist. Warner already has been charged in the case and has pleaded not guilty.

The indictment also charges that Ryan himself directed payments totaling more than $300,000 to prominent lobbyist Donald Udstuen, who earlier pleaded guilty to corruption charges.

“It was cronyism, where contracts were given to people acting on inside information,” Fitzgerald said.

Chief defense counsel Dan K. Webb issued a statement following the indictment, saying he was confident Ryan “will be exonerated and a jury will find him not guilty of all charges.”

“He has achieved worldwide renown as the only governor in the history of our nation to have the courage to reform a state’s broken-down death penalty system that was putting innocent people on death row,” Webb said.

The investigation, dubbed Operation Safe Road, initially focused on bribes exchanged for licenses for unqualified truck drivers when Ryan was secretary of state. It expanded into a broader investigation of political corruption that snared several of his top aides and associates.

“It was not opened up as an investigation of George Ryan, it was opened up as an investigation of licenses for bribes at the secretary of state’s office,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald said today was the last day that the current grand jury was impaneled.

Ryan became the 66th person charged in the investigation; 59 people and his campaign committee have been convicted so far.

The federal investigation was launched after six children in one family died in a fiery accident on a Wisconsin expressway involving a trucker who may have bought his drivers license.

Prosecutors traced $170,000 in payoff money to the Citizens for Ryan campaign fund.

Ryan denied that he had known about the payoff money in his fund. Initially, he said there long had been a “culture of corruption” in the secretary of state’s office and he praised federal prosecutors for rooting it out.

That praise ceased as prosecutors won convictions against two of his top aides, including his chief of staff and the inspector general who was supposed to ferret out misconduct in the secretary of state’s office but admitted spending seven years covering up scandals instead.

Ryan declined to seek a second term as polls showed his standing with voters plunging. His unpopularity was considered a major reason Republican candidates were routed statewide in the 2002 election.
While his popularity plummeted in his home state, Ryan was winning widespread praise nationally and internationally as a leading critic of capital punishment.

Ryan declared a moratorium on capital punishment in Illinois after it was discovered that 13 wrongfully convicted men had been sent to death row.

In January 2003, just before leaving office, he pardoned four condemned prisoners and commuted the death sentences of 167 others to life in prison.

Critics accused Ryan of using the death penalty issue to deflect the scandal arising from the disclosures of corruption. Supporters nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Ryan becomes the third Illinois governor indicted in the past 40 years. Otto Kerner, who served from 1961-1968, was convicted of bribery. Dan Walker, who served from 1973-1977, was convicted on charges related to financial dealings after he left office.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.