updated 12/23/2003 8:41:15 PM ET 2003-12-24T01:41:15

Former Gov. George Ryan pleaded not guilty to federal corruption charges Tuesday and said he would spurn any plea bargain on allegations that he took payoffs in return for letting associates profit from state contracts and leases.

Ryan pleaded not guilty to charges of racketeering conspiracy, mail fraud, tax fraud, filing false tax returns and making false statements to agents investigating corruption. He answered “I do” four times when the judge asked whether he understood the charges.

“I’m absolutely not guilty of those charges,” Ryan told reporters later. “I will not plea-bargain. I’ll go to trial and establish my innocence.”

The charges in the 22-count indictment, which was announced last Wednesday, could send Ryan and lobbyist Larry Warner to prison for years. Warner, who allegedly collected at least $3.1 million through his friendship with Ryan, pleaded not guilty Friday.

Ryan, a Republican who served as secretary of state from 1991 to 1999 and governor from 1999 to January, was freed on $4,500 bail.

Years-long federal probe
The indictment is the latest in the government’s 5½-year probe of corruption under Ryan, which began as an inquiry into bribes paid for driver’s licenses in the secretary of state’s office.

Ryan’s attorney, Dan Webb, told reporters that federal prosecutors were trying to turn the give-and-take of governing into a crime.

“The government has cobbled together a number of unrelated acts, innocent acts that are nothing more than the fabric of what goes on in Illinois politics and Illinois government,” Webb said. “They are not crimes.”

Ryan has said he knew there was a culture of corruption in the secretary of state’s office but was unaware of the specifics.

Ryan was the 66th person charged in the investigation and the fourth former Illinois governor to be indicted by a federal grand jury in as many decades.

The scandal was a factor in his decision not to seek a second term, and his unpopularity was considered a major reason Republican candidates were routed statewide in 2002, including the election of a Democratic governor for the first time since 1972.

Outside Illinois, Ryan is best known as an ardent critic of the way capital punishment is administered. He declared a moratorium on executions in Illinois because of the discovery that 13 wrongfully convicted men had been sent to death row.

In January, just before leaving office, he cleared out Illinois’ death row, pardoning four condemned prisoners and commuting the death sentences of 167 others to life in prison.

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