Licensing Scandal Clouds Illinois Governor's Political Chances
By Dave McKinney, Special to Stateline
Illinois Gov. George Ryan has won international acclaim for his decision to suspend the death penalty in his state -- a move he ordered after nearly a dozen condemned inmates were found to be innocent of the crimes for which they were to be executed. Ryan has gotten high marks at home for his deft fiscal maneuvering. But his political future is in doubt because of a leftover scandal from his previous post as Illinois Secretary of State.
Rome's ancient Coliseum was bathed in golden light in tribute to Illinois Gov. George Ryan last year after he ordered a halt to executions in his state. The Republican has also been the subject of flattering pieces on "60 Minutes" and in the national print media for being the first governor to impose a moratorium on capital punishment.
At home, Ryan has wowed Illinois' political establishment by passing a record $12 billion public works program to rebuild the state's crumbling roads and schools. He also was the first state leader in decades to travel to Cuba and meet with Fidel Castro in a bid to lay the groundwork for trade relations between Illinois and the communist enclave.
For most governors, such a record would represent a strong claim to another four years in office. But not so for Ryan, who ranks as the least popular statewide officeholder in recent memory. In fact, by a two-to-one margin in one recent poll, Illinoisans say they have had enough of George Homer Ryan.
When asked whether Ryan could win another term, Senate President James "Pate" Philip in late January became the highest-ranking Republican to date to suggest this governor's days in office might be numbered. "I think it would be very difficult," Philip said of Ryan's chances of re-election.
It's a remarkably precarious political position for Ryan to find himself in, and begs the question: how did things go so sour so quickly for this do-it-all governor?
Most of the answers can be found in a probe of the motorist licensing process in Illinois before Ryan's election as governor.
Despite his otherwise impressive deeds, Ryan has yet to free himself from a scandal lingering from his 1990s tenure as secretary of state that has brought nearly three dozen convictions in a mushrooming federal probe known as Operation Safe Road.
As secretary of state from 1990 to 1998, Ryan was a prolific fund-raiser. Some of his former employees, who are now felons, admitted to giving away driver's licenses inexchange for bribes, which they then deposited in his campaign fund in a bid to be noticed by the bosses. Federal prosecutors have said as much as $170,000 in tainted money went to Ryan.
Ryan himself has not been charged criminally and has said he knew nothing of the rampant bribes-for-licenses scheme or subsequent cover-ups. But prosecutors now refuse to say whether they view him as a target in their ongoing Operation Safe Road investigation - a marked contrast from a statement made a month before his 1998 gubernatorial election by U.S. Attorney Scott Lassar, who then said Ryan was not a target.Last month, prosecutors nabbed the highest-ranking figure so far by convicting a former top aide to Ryan whose job was to investigate corrupt employees of the secretary of state's office. In a negotiated deal, Ryan's former inspector general and close friend, Dean Bauer, pleaded guilty to obstructing justice and admitted the government could have proved that he shut down sensitive internal investigations to spare Ryan political embarrassment.
One such aborted probe involved a trucker who paid a bribe for his license and was later blamed for causing a fiery crash that killed six Chicago-area children on a Wisconsin expressway. The van carrying the children ran over a metal piece that had come off of trucker Ricardo Guzman's rig, igniting the van's gas tank.
Ryan has steadfastly maintained he knew nothing about the Guzman case and told voters in his 1998 gubernatorial campaign that an internal investigation could find no evidence of wrongdoing in the case. Ryan's denials helped him win election in 1998 against Democrat Glenn Poshard, who attempted to make the bribes-for-license scandal a dominant campaign theme.
The Chicago Tribune, which endorsed Ryan over Poshard, recently said in an editorial that its candidate was "elected on a lie."
In the face of such jarring commentary, Ryan's policy initiatives continue to be overshadowed as he gets dogged at every turn by the scandal. For example, in late January, after his State of the State address, the focus of reporters' questions was not so much on his plan to build up the state's community college system or pursue a third major airport near Chicago. Rather, it was on his claim that he knew nothing about corruption or cover-ups in the secretary of state's office even though the buck wassupposed to stop at his desk.
"You guys can beat this horse as long as you want to beat it. I didn't know about it, and why you continue to question me about it is beyond me,"Ryan told reporters at a briefing outside his statehouse office.
His Jan. 31st State of the State speech was delivered under extraordinary circumstances. There was the Bauer verdict a few weeks earlier. Five days before his speech, the Chicago parents of the six crash victims, the Rev. Duane "Scott" and Janet Willis, called on Ryan resign from office. Two days later, a former investigator who first suspected in 1994 that the corrupt trucker had bribed his way onto the roads said Ryan should personally apologize to the Willises for the corruption that indirectly ledto their children's deaths.
While expressing his sorrow, Ryan has yet to make such a personal act of contrition to the Willises.
That same investigator, Russell Sonneveld, also claims to have spoken directly to the governor about a separate investigation that involved a secretary of state office manager suspected of stealing more than $2,600 in state funds to buy Ryan fund-raising tickets. Bauer later shut down that probe, and the employee was never punished.
On the same January, 2000, weekend the Chicago Sun-Times broke that story about Ryan's alleged personal knowledge in the theft case, the governor's office leaked word of his blockbuster moratorium on executions to the newspaper's main rival, the Tribune.
The move effectively diverted attention away from the damaging front-page report inthe Sun-Times and launched weeks of positive press for the beleaguered governor.
In recent weeks, Ryan has been asked whether he intends to seek re-election. He has repeatedly maintained he is keeping his options open, which some statehouse insiders believe is an inference that he may be leaning toward seeking another term despite the long odds. He will have to decide on a 2002 run by December, when nominating petitions must be filed.
"He would not only have a hard time winning a general election. But it's possible, if challenged in a primary, he'd have a difficult time winning a primary,'' said Alan Gitelson, a political scientist at Chicago's Loyola University and a longtime observer of Illinois politics.
"In one sense, he's a very forgiveable individual," the professor continued, alluding to Ryan's successful initiatives and continued popularity among legislators. "But the bottom line is he's the chief administrator of this state, and he carries a tremendous amount of baggage for the mismanagement and corruption that occurred in his previous position. One can like an individual and find him personally agreeable. But it doesn't suggestthat individuals will then forget about history."