CHICAGO — Former Gov. George Ryan, who drew international praise when he commuted the sentences of everyone on Illinois’ death row, was convicted of racketeering and fraud Monday in a corruption scandal that ended his political career in 2003.
Ryan, 72, sat stone-faced as the verdict was read and afterward vowed to appeal.
“I believe this decision today is not in accordance with the kind of public service that I provided to the people of Illinois over 40 years, and needless to say I am disappointed in the outcome,” the former governor said.
Ryan faces up to 20 years in prison for racketeering conspiracy charge alone, the most serious against him in the 22-count indictment. The jury found him guilty of all counts, including fraud, obstructing the Internal Revenue Service and lying to the FBI.
Co-defendant Larry Warner, a Chicago businessman and Ryan friend, was found guilty of racketeering conspiracy, mail fraud, attempted extortion, illegally structuring bank withdrawals and money laundering.
Neither man took the stand during their six-month trial.
$25 million IBM deal
Prosecutors accused Ryan of steering big-money state contracts and leases, including a $25 million IBM computer deal, to his friends and political insiders while he was secretary of state in the 1990s and then as governor starting in 1999.
In return for that help, Ryan was rewarded with annual winter vacations in Jamaica, stays in Cancun and Palm Springs and gifts ranging from a golf bag to $145,000 in loans to his brother’s business, prosecutors said.
Warner, 67, raked in $3 million from Ryan-era deals, according to the office of U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald — who during the trial was also leading the federal investigation into the leak of CIA officer Valerie Plame’s identity.
The case against Ryan and Warner was the state’s biggest political corruption trial in decades, and it had it share of troubles.
In late March, months of testimony nearly went down the drain when the judge discovered two jurors had failed to mention past arrests on their court questionnaires. Rather than declare a mistrial, U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer decided to replace the two jurors with alternates and, over the objection of Ryan’s attorneys, ordered the jury to start deliberations over.
The new jury had deliberated for 10 days when it announced its verdict Monday.
Afterward, Ryan attorney Dan K. Webb, a former federal prosecutor, zeroed in on the judge’s decision to replace the jurors.
“We’re going to begin working immediately on post-trial motions to try to get this verdict overturned,” Webb said.
During the trial, Webb had pounded on a theme that no one ever testified to seeing Ryan take a payoff. His powerful law firm, Winston & Strawn, represented Ryan for free — at an estimated cost of $10 million.
Ryan’s sentencing was set for Aug. 4.
The corruption scandal that led to Ryan’s downfall began over a decade ago with a much smaller focus: a federal investigation into a fiery van crash in Wisconsin that killed six children.
The deadly 1994 crash exposed a scheme inside the Illinois secretary of state’s office in which unqualified truck drivers obtained licenses for bribes. Ryan was secretary of state at the time, and prosecutors would later argue that thousands of dollars in payoff money from the licenses went into a Ryan campaign fund.
The probe expanded over the next eight years into a wide-ranging corruption investigation that eventually reached Ryan in the governor’s office.
Seventy-nine former state officials, lobbyists, truck drivers and others have been since charged. Before Ryan’s trial, 74 had been convicted, including Ryan’s longtime top aide, Scott Fawell.
1994 memo was key
Fawell was a star witness against Ryan and the author of a 1994 memo that prosecutor Patrick Collins called “the Magna Carta” of the racketeering scheme.
The memo urged Ryan, then-secretary of state, to replace inspector general Dean Bauer with someone who “won’t ask about FR tickets” — political fundraising tickets. Bauer himself pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and acknowledged the government could prove he had spent seven years covering up scandals to spare Ryan personal and political embarrassment.
Even as he faced federal charges back home, Ryan accepted speaking invitations across the country and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his criticism of the death penalty.
In 2000, the Republican governor declared a moratorium on executions in Illinois after 13 death row inmates were found to have been wrongly convicted. Then, days before he left office in 2003, he cleared death row, commuting the sentences of all 167 inmates to life in prison. He declared that the state’s criminal justice system was “haunted by the demon of error.”
The auto accident that set the case in motion killed six children of the Rev. Scott and Janet Willis. A trucking company official later said he believed the truck driver’s license was one of several bought from a state official.
The Willises, who received a $100 million settlement, attended parts of Ryan’s trial.
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