Mushrooming Scandal Overhangs Illinois Politics
By Dave McKinney, Special to Stateline
Tour Illinois' 114-year-old State Capitol Building, and you'll see noble-looking statues everywhere you look. There are ones of favorite sons Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant and Stephen Douglas. And roosted up in the Statehouse's magnificent dome are likenesses of earlier political pioneers who helped establish the state in the early 1800s, men named Coles, Logan and McLean.
But for every one of those proud political fixtures, there are men like Otto Kerner, an ex-governor convicted of bribery and income tax evasion, doling out favors for racetrack stock. Or Len Small, the 1920s governor who illegally skimmed $1 million off state investments when he was state treasurer. Or Orville Hodge, who went to jail for embezzling $2.5 million in state funds as state auditor in the 1950s. Or Dan Rostenkowski, the former Chicago congressman who also wore black stripes for using government funds in the 1990s to enrich his friends and to pay for personal work on the taxpayers' dime.
As that tradition shows, Illinois is not just the land of Lincoln. It is a land where political corruption has long flourished, where those who don't get a statue sometimes get a jail cell.
Few of the state's darkest political deeds eclipse the mushrooming political scandal that has overtaken and disgraced one of Illinois' longest-serving and best-known politicians. Within some political circles, it is said Gov. George Ryan could win the Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking moratorium on executions if he doesn't get indicted first for the rampant wrongdoing that went on during his watch as secretary of state.
To be clear, the governor has not been charged. But federal prosecutors in Chicago have been systematically tearing apart his political operation, piece by piece, uncovering a system when he was secretary of state where drivers licenses were bought and sold illegally for bribes, employees' promotions sometimes hinged on the level of their campaign activity, bribes were dumped into his campaign fund, and any evidence of criminal misbehavior allegedly went through a paper shredder or was wiped from a computer hard drive.
Earlier this month, newly-installed U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, an import from New York City who helped try the World Trade Center bombers from the early 1990s, unloaded a damning round of indictments that, if proven, will forever cement Ryan's stature alongside the state's most storied political rogues. Ryan's top two campaign aides and his $2.3 million campaign fund were indicted on corruption-related charges. In American history, the only other political funds charged in such a way belonged to Richard Nixon and extremist Lyndon LaRouche.
"This is indicative of everything that is wrong in Illinois politics and government, and this isn't just an instance of a few bad apples,'' said Jay Stewart, attorney for the Chicago Better Government Association, which was first to bring corruption allegations against Ryan to light. "The federal government charges this was a [racketeering] enterprise that encompassed the entire secretary of state office for several years, involving a multitude of employees. If this isn't a signal that the status quo has to change, then I really don't know what is."
Ryan's former chief of staff and three-time campaign manager Scott Fawell and the campaign fund were arraigned in federal court on Tuesday, where not guilty pleas were entered on behalf of Fawell and the fund. Fawell's top deputy, Richard Juliano is cooperating in the federal probe and has indicated he will plead guilty to one charge of mail fraud at his arraignment Thursday (4/18).
The four-year federal probe, energized by the case of a trucker involved in a 1994 crash that killed six children after he paid a bribe for his Illinois license, has caused Ryan's popularity to tumble to historic lows. Last summer, he announced he would not seek re-election after more than three decades in the public eye.
Ryan's political career began as a county board chairman in GOP-controlled Kankakee County, south of Chicago. He used that as a launching pad to a seat in the Illinois House in the early 1970s. And from there, in an uninterrupted series of steps upward, he went on to become House speaker, a two-term lieutenant governor, a two-term secretary of state and, in 1998, governor.
"I've covered politics a long time, and I don't know I've ever seen a man who wanted to be governor more and was better prepared to do it than George Ryan. But his dream has turned into a nightmare,'' said Paul Green, a political scientist who runs Roosevelt University's school of policy studies in Chicago.
Since the indictments were delivered, the governor has refused to answer any questions about the scandal and has evaded reporters, with mixed success. The day Fitzgerald announced the charges, Ryan was whisked out of the state Capitol through an underground tunnel, buying a one-day respite from the news media. The next day, after failing to limit questions to anything but the scandal, Ryan strode away from a horde of reporters gathered outside his Statehouse office.
"If that's all you got to talk about, good bye, I'll see you,'' he said, walking toward a nearby elevator and, he hoped, out of the building to a waiting van. But in a small example of how badly things are going for Ryan right now, the elevator inexplicably went up instead of down toward the building's exits, trapping him even longer with the very reporters he didn't want to face.
From afar, Ryan's 1998 political opponent, Democrat Glenn Poshard is out of politics, never to be enshrined the way two of Illinois' presidents and its famous senator are inside the limestone and marble Statehouse. But from the sidelines, he derives some small sense of vindication as the scandal edges ever closer to George Ryan.
Poshard tried to make corruption an issue but was effectively silenced by two State Police investigations under Ryan's Republican predecessor, former Gov. Jim Edgar, and an internal probe released by Ryan. No one, it seemed, could find proof of license-selling or other corruption in the secretary of state's office. (The current tally in the licenses-for-bribes probe stands at 48 people charged, 42 convicted.)
"You get what amounts to three different investigations from people who were supposed to be trusted in government, telling the public there's nothing there. You know, people then think you're a liar or they think you're just willing to engage in negative campaigning," said Poshard, now out of politics and an administrator at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. "And so, I've sort of lived with that, and I guess, now, I'm thankful in a sense that the federal investigators have at least said we weren't telling a lie about it, that we weren't just being negative, and that there were things that were covered up."
As the dust begins to settle, Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney, won't say whether Ryan is in his sights. But perhaps ominous for the governor is Fitzgerald's insistence that the corruption investigation will continue on with "vigor" - only one political rung away from Ryan's second floor Capitol office nestled beneath all those silent, noble statues.
All the federal prosecutor will say, with only one more political rung higher to climb, is that his corruption investigation will continue on with "vigor."