Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Ex-Governor of Illinois Convicted of Racketeering, Fraud
Ryan Guilty of Corruption
Ex-Governor of Illinois Convicted of Racketeering, Fraud
By Thomas B. Edsall and Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writers

A federal jury yesterday found former Illinois governor and onetime Nobel Prize nominee George Ryan (R) guilty of 18 charges of racketeering, mail fraud, making false statements to FBI agents and income tax violations.

Ryan, 72, who received international attention in 2003 when he commuted all 167 Illinois prisoners on death row, now, because of his age, faces the prospect of what would amount to a life sentence if his expected appeal fails.

Ryan is the third former Illinois governor to be convicted of crimes in recent decades. Daniel Walker, who served from 1973 to 1977, pleaded guilty in 1987 to bank fraud unrelated to his government service. Otto Kerner, who served from 1961 to 1968, was convicted of 17 counts, including bribery and race track fraud.

Most of the charges against Ryan involved an alleged "licenses for bribes" scheme in state agencies under Ryan's jurisdiction during his tenure as Illinois secretary of state. In one instance, a man paid a bribe for a trucking license and later was involved in an accident in which six children were killed.

The defense argued that the case against Ryan was circumstantial and that none of the witnesses testified to having seen Ryan take a bribe.

A grim Ryan, briefly forcing a smile, read a statement outside the Chicago courthouse. He said the guilty verdicts are "not in accordance with the kind of public service that I have provided to the people of Illinois over 40 years and, needless to say, I am disappointed in the outcome, but I feel confident in our appeal, and there will be an appeal."

The jury also found Larry Warner, a lobbyist and friend of Ryan's, guilty of 12 related charges, including mail fraud, extortion, racketeering and money laundering.

Ryan, who served one term as governor from 1999 to 2003 and two terms as secretary of state, was defended by an array of high-profile criminal lawyers and former prosecutors, including former governor and U.S. Attorney Jim Thompson and former U.S. attorney Dan K. Webb. The trial lasted more than six months.

After the verdict, Webb told reporters, "I can tell you I am very disappointed in the verdict," contending that Ryan "simply did not do" what he was convicted of.

Ryan was the highest-ranking official targeted in a federal investigation called "Operation Safe Road," which looked into vehicle licensing irregularities.

U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald and Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Collins described the conviction as a victory for the team effort, which included the IRS, the Postal Service, the Department of Transportation and the FBI.

The investigation took eight years, and some federal officials put off retirement to finish the prosecution. The verdicts bring the number of convictions in Operation Safe Road to 75 out of 79 defendants. There are two fugitives, one pending case and one dismissal.

While claiming no "joy in this verdict," Collins said, "we do take enormous pride in the investigation." The case began in 1998 as a narrow licensing investigation, he said, and ultimately, "You had a spectrum of corruption here: contract fraud, lying to the FBI, tax fraud. And the thing you don't have in all cases was the ability to show tangible effects of corruption -- lives are at stake."

Fitzgerald said that prosecutors "went forward with a circumstantial case we felt was very powerful, and the jury agreed. I think people will realize it's not in their best interest to do it [corruption]. People [the jurors] are not rejecting cases on the basis [that] this happens all the time."

Among those attending the trial were the Rev. Duane "Scott" Willis and his wife, Janet, who lost six children in the accident that played a crucial role in the prosecution's case.

A state investigator testified that one of Ryan's top aides and a key Ryan fundraiser blocked him from investigating the 1994 crash in which the children were killed.

The accident was caused when the metal undercarriage fell from a truck driven by Ricardo Guzman, who had obtained his license by paying off state officials, according to testimony. Guzman, who did not speak English, did not understand warnings from fellow truckers about the undercarriage as he was starting up the vehicle. After it fell from the truck, the undercarriage hit a van driven by the Willises, setting it on fire.

Webb, Ryan's lead attorney, said he will seek to have the verdict overthrown because of "unusual developments during jury deliberations."

U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer removed two of the jurors after they were accused in Chicago Tribune news stories of concealing arrest records. She replaced them with alternates.