The redemption of Gov. Ryan

Facing a possible indictment for corruption, the veteran political deal-maker shut down death row in Illinois. Is he trying to save lives -- or his own legacy?

Published January 17, 2003 1:04AM (EST)

On the eve of commuting the sentences of every prisoner on death row, Illinois Gov. George Ryan sat at a white Formica-topped table in Manny's, a cafeteria-style delicatessen favored by Chicago's political insiders. As he chomped on a corned beef sandwich, his cellphone rang. Nelson Mandela was on the line. Ryan had already received letters from Desmond Tutu and Pope John Paul II. Mandela wanted to join them in praising Ryan for his integrity.

The incongruity of this scene could only be properly enjoyed - or scorned -- by a fellow Illinoisan. After 37 years in politics, Republican Ryan left the governor's office Monday as a wretched and slightly pathetic figure. "Disgraced" is how the Chicago Tribune put it. While much of the world has praised Ryan's courage in taking on the unfairness of the death penalty, locals are wondering whether they're talking about the same Ryan. The state is in debt $5 billion, and Ryan's party has lost control of government for the first time in nearly three decades -- largely in reaction to the scandals that have plagued his one-term administration.

So the local and national Ryan headlines have made for a surreal contrast: The former governor could win the Nobel Peace Prize for his death penalty stand -- he's been nominated already --or he could go to jail for corruption. Or both.

Before leaving office, Ryan padded the state payroll with cronies. Meanwhile, 52 of his former employees have been convicted and another 20 aides have reportedly been subpoenaed in connection with the federal Operation Safe Road investigation. Operation Safe Road was prompted by a bribery scandal in which nine people were killed by truckers who illegally obtained driver's licenses from Ryan's employees when he was Illinois' secretary of state in the 1990s. Some of that bribe money found its way into his campaign fund. The investigation has uncovered a system that pressured managers at driver's license facilities to sell tickets to Ryan's political fundraisers. The biggest producers were rewarded with promotions, and, prosecutors say, the process encouraged the selling of licenses for bribes.

On Tuesday, less than 24 hours after Ryan's official departure from the Governor's Mansion, his former chief of staff and head of his campaign committee, Scott Fawell, faced a variety of charges in federal court, ranging from racketeering to the use of taxpayer dollars for campaign work to accepting a free trip to Costa Rica that included prostitutes. Fawell and Citizens for Ryan are also charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice. Within the last few weeks, newspaper stories have claimed the feds are still secretly taping phone calls made to Ryan.

Public opinion is generally against the former governor, no matter how people feel about the death penalty. A recent poll showed 60 percent of Illinoisans have an unfavorable opinion of him. Some were surprised the poll was so positive: Callers to one talk-radio show in downstate Springfield, the state capital, overwhelmingly agreed that Ryan should have been taken away in handcuffs during the inauguration ceremony of his successor, Democrat Rod Blagojevich. Monday's Chicago Sun-Times prominently displayed the grief and fury of families whose loved ones died at the hands of murderers now facing life in prison rather than death sentences.

Page 1 of the tabloid even featured an angry quote by an outraged Joseph Birkett, the DuPage County prosecutor who relentlessly pursued the exonerated death row inmate Rolando Cruz when all evidence pointed to another man. During Cruz's second murder trial, Birkett ignored the confession of another inmate. When DNA evidence pointed the finger directly at that inmate, Birkett still forced Cruz to endure a third capital trial, which ended, finally, in acquittal. Cruz was eventually released from death row in 1995, after proclaiming his innocence for more than a decade.

Despite a flood of similar stories in recent years, most people here continue to attribute Ryan's commutation of the 167 death sentences to a concern over his historical reputation, not a stand on principle. But that doesn't make much sense. If a politician were truly concerned with his legacy, why would he take such an unpopular step? And with federal investigators hot on his trail, why would he do something that was sure to anger law enforcement authorities?

In the movie "Bulworth," Warren Beatty portrays a veteran politician who has a nervous breakdown and hires a contract killer to assassinate him. In the short time he has left to live, he discovers he's finally free to say and do what he truly believes.

After deciding to not seek reelection midway through his first term, Ryan increasingly did whatever he pleased -- legacy be damned. He lashed out at the press. He traveled to Cuba to meet with Fidel Castro. He slammed his party's nominee for governor (after the candidate claimed to lag in the polls simply because his name was also Ryan). He behaved as though he were the only man who could afford to tell the truth -- the man with nothing left to lose. It's one of the most remarkable -- and, yes, courageous -- national political stories in years, maybe decades.

Some people come to politics after making their fortunes. Others work their way up the ranks, cultivating friends in high places. George Ryan did the first -- rising in politics while making his fortune -- by concentrating on the second. Ryan is from Kankakee County. The county's main city, Kankakee, is only 50 miles south of Chicago, but it is in no way a suburb. Its surroundings are largely rural, and the city stands on its own. While Chicago has long been run by a powerful Democratic political machine, the organization in Kankakee is strictly Republican. At the time Ryan first entered politics, Kankakee's boss was a state senator named Ed McBroom.

Political columnist Rich Miller is a Kankakee native whose Web site,, follows events in the Illinois statehouse. "When I was a kid," Miller says, "in order to get a job with the county you had to buy a car from a dealership owned by Ed McBroom, who was also the Republican Party chairman."

George Ryan's father had a pair of pharmacies. Upon returning from the Korean War, Ryan went to work in the family business and married a high school sweetheart, Lura Lynn. He later graduated with a pharmacy degree from Ferris State College in Big Rapids, Mich. In 1962, Ryan became McBroom's campaign manager, and McBroom subsequently helped Ryan's brother, Tom, get elected mayor of the city of Kankakee. The Ryan brothers learned how to wield influence from a master: McBroom doled out contracts and favors only to those who were willing to pay tribute.

With a nod from McBroom, Ryan got appointed to the Kankakee County Board in 1966. He was elected two years later. "Ryan became the county board chairman, and his brother was mayor," Miller says. "Gradually they got a lock on power." The family pharmacies boomed, selling prescription drugs to nursing homes, which increasingly became a lucrative government-contract business. With another boost from McBroom, Ryan got elected to the Illinois House in 1972.

"He was clearly a typical, pro-business conservative Republican," says Bernard Schoenburg, political columnist for the State Journal-Register in Springfield.

Five years later, at the age of 42, Ryan was elected minority leader of the Illinois House, in a contest that pitted Chicago suburbanites against Ryan's downstate conservatives. Ryan voted to re-establish the death penalty. "It was a tough vote," he admitted in a 1977 interview with the public-policy magazine Illinois Issues. "It bothered me for a couple of days after I did it, but I believe that reinstating the death penalty will have an effect. We've tried everything else ... I think the state should have the death penalty for a while and see what happens. It may be easy to talk about the death penalty, but it's a different matter to push the button to vote yes. To vote for a bill like that, I had to think about it very hard, and I was upset about it that whole day. But I feel that I did the right thing."

Ryan became speaker of the Illinois House after Republicans regained a majority in the 1980 election. The state was at the center of the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment. After 10 years, ERA proponents had 35 of the 38 states needed to ratify the addition to the U.S. Constitution. Protesters nationwide had descended on Springfield.

"A group of women in chains fasted every day in the Capitol rotunda, sometimes joined by Dick Gregory," Schoenburg recalls. "Ryan was not a fan of ERA." The National Organization for Women put Ryan on its "Dirty Dozen" list.

In what some claim was an inappropriate application of legislative rules, Ryan killed the ERA's chances in Illinois by refusing to allow the House to pass it with a simple majority. Instead he required passage by a three-fifths majority.

Yet today, Ryan isn't remembered as an ideologue. He was a true old-school politician, always ready to cut a deal with his rivals (if they were willing to deal with him). Helen Satterthwaite, a former Democratic state representative from Urbana, opposed Ryan on the ERA, but she remembers him as "a consummate deal-maker ... a man who appreciated the political process in the extreme."

In 1982, in what became the closest race in Illinois history, Republican Gov. James "Big Jim" Thompson barely beat back a challenge from Democrat Adlai Stevenson III. As a sop to the right wing, Thompson had picked Ryan as his lieutenant governor. But Ryan had always seemed to maintain conservative positions on key issues more as a matter of political pragmatism. Under the moderate Thompson, he could afford to veer a bit publicly to the middle of the road. Eight years later he was elected secretary of state, where he proved adept at using the office for self-promotion. There his troubles began.

Whether the misdeeds were his own or arose from the actions of his trusted advisors, it's obvious the feds are currently thinking about indicting Ryan. At the start of Fawell's trial, one prosecutor blamed the Ryan "machine," which sacrificed "the public good on the altar of personal and political greed." While Operation Safe Road began as an investigation into the selling of Ryan fundraising tickets, the government is now alleging that Ryan's aides -- and perhaps Ryan himself -- profited personally from a pattern of influence peddling. The former governor hasn't been charged with a crime, but prosecutors have already alleged Ryan knew that documents were being shredded, that employees did political work on state time, and that his own Jamaican vacation had been paid for by someone who did business with the state.

Said U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald: "For the better part of a decade in Illinois, when it came to contracts and leases in the secretary of state's office, the fix was in for a price."

On Nov. 8, 1994, Ryan was reelected secretary of state. That same evening, on an interstate highway, a mudflap flew off of a semi driven by a trucker named Ricardo Guzman, who obtained his driver's license by bribing someone at the Illinois Office of the Secretary of State. The mudflap hit the gas tank of a minivan driven by the Rev. Duane Willis. The minivan burst into flames. Willis and his wife, Janet, escaped, but their six children were killed.

The Operation Safe Road investigation was announced in October 1998, less than a month before Ryan was elected governor. At the time, prosecutors said Ryan was not the subject of the probe. That's obviously changed.

In his race for governor, Ryan squeaked past Glenn Poshard, a conservative Democrat who had been abandoned by many in his party. Ryan handled the campaign skillfully, at times looking like a progressive without giving up his bedrock conservative positions. He maintained his stance against abortion, but picked a pro-choice woman as his running mate. He courted the gay vote by making vague promises to pass anti-discrimination laws. He was everybody's friend, and powerful Democrats seemed to back off because they thought they could work with Ryan.

In his inaugural address, Ryan acknowledged that many saw him as "a deal-maker without principle." But, he replied, "compromise is not a bad word."

In a December 2000 speech to Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions, Ryan recalled this point in his career. His popularity had plummeted with every new revelation and indictment in the Operation Safe Road scandal. But he was faced with a larger problem.

"Back in the fall of 1998, when I was still campaigning for governor, Anthony Porter was scheduled to be executed on Sept. 23 of that year. He had ordered his last meal and been fitted for his burial clothes. Mr. Porter had been convicted in the 1982 shooting death of a man and woman in a South Side Chicago park. Two days before he was to die, his lawyers won a last-minute reprieve based on his IQ."

That's when Northwestern University journalism professor David Protess and a handful of his students investigated Porter's case and exonerated him. The real killer confessed.

"After spending 17 years on death row, [Porter] was a freed man," Ryan said. "By then I had just been inaugurated as governor ... Frankly, I was caught off-guard. I didn't know how bad our system really was. I couldn't believe the system that I had believed in could come that close to executing an innocent man."

Soon thereafter, a man named Andrew Kokoraleis was executed for the rape, mutilation and murder of a 21-year-old woman. Ryan had played at politics for decades, but this was an entirely different matter. He took his responsibility seriously. "I double-checked and then I triple-checked," he recalled in the same speech. "I wanted to be absolutely sure that this man was guilty." Though he was convinced of Koukoraleis's guilt, and allowed the execution to go forward, Ryan was left shaken by the "emotional, exhausting experience."

Chicago newspapers began to print a procession of stories about wrongfully convicted prisoners. One particular series in the Tribune followed cases on death row. In his Northwestern speech, Ryan recalled being startled by the Tribune's findings.

"Half of the nearly 300 capital cases in Illinois had been reversed for a new trial or sentencing hearing. Thirty-three of the death row inmates were represented at trial by an attorney who had later been disbarred or at some point suspended from the practice of law.

"I'm a pharmacist from Kankakee. I got to tell you, I don't know how that happens. I don't know how you can put a person up to die, charge them with a crime that can take their life, and be represented by an unqualified attorney. I don't understand that at all." Since reinstating the death penalty in 1977, Illinois had executed 12. But in January 1999, it was forced to release its 13th innocent captive from death row. That was a "shameful scorecard," Ryan said. "I couldn't live with myself knowing I might put an innocent person to death."

On Jan. 31, 1999, he declared a moratorium on the death penalty. Two months later he pulled together a commission of experts to study the system -- and to see whether it could be fixed. The problems were many: coerced confessions and eyewitness accounts, cases based purely on the testimony of jailhouse snitches. DNA had become a powerful tool in exonerating the wrongfully convicted, but in the majority of murders there is no DNA evidence.

Ryan could see it was a problem that extended to all facets of law enforcement. "I'm not only concerned about the death penalty," he said in a speech delivered in late 2000. "I'm concerned about the whole criminal code we have in Illinois. There is without question a lot of people sitting in prisons today that didn't commit the crimes they are there for. They may not be facing the death penalty, but we've shortened their lives by putting them in prison for a crime they didn't commit."

Taking this stance didn't win Ryan many friends, despite what his critics are now saying. With the ongoing federal investigation into abuses during his two terms as Illinois secretary of state, Ryan became a pariah to his party. He hadn't been helped by a "humanitarian" trip he made to Cuba in 1999, or by his more recent comments that he "couldn't throw the switch on this guy, [Oklahoma City bomber Timothy] McVeigh, and he was a terrible guy."

His traditional conservative constituency turned on him, and the top members of his party encouraged him to not seek another term in office. On Aug. 5, 2001, Ryan announced he would step aside to make way for another candidate.

He still had nearly a year and a half in office, and he remained committed to fixing the death-penalty system. He took the recommendations of his commission and crafted several legislative reform packages. He sent these to the Illinois General Assembly, which refused to act.

As he prepared to leave office, Ryan let it be known that he might commute every sentence on death row. Last October the Illinois Prisoner Review Board met in Chicago and Springfield to hear petitions from almost every prisoner on death row. (Some refrained from petitioning for commutation because they didn't want to lose their rights to new trials.) Death-penalty opponents hoped the hearings would provide an important forum, but the hearings were soon overshadowed by prosecutors, who featured the emotional testimonies of victims' families. Ryan later met individually with these families, and, as recently as December, he said he would probably issue commutations on a case-by-case basis.

Almost to the end, Ryan said he hoped the system could be fixed, that the General Assembly would enact at least some of his reforms. But it didn't. Asked last Saturday whether he still would have issued his blanket commutation if the reforms had passed, he said: "Maybe not. I don't know."

Ryan has received plenty of praise for his stand against the death penalty. Just as scandal had turned him into an outcast in Illinois political circles, he became a hit on the lecture circuit. A professor at the University of Illinois has offered to nominate him for a Nobel Peace Prize. Getting nominated for the Nobel Prize is a long way from winning it (imagine an actor bragging that he once auditioned for Hamlet), but the idea has shocked many Illinoisans who consider Ryan to be nothing more than a hack politician. Which he was -- until last weekend.

Still, this hasn't stopped talk that the commutation was self-serving. While most cite concern over his legacy, "I thought he did it for protection in prison," quipped Ben Joravsky, a columnist at the alternative Chicago Reader. Most are betting that Ryan will soon face a federal indictment under Operation Safe Road.

Powerful figures who suddenly face prosecution often get a renewed appreciation for civil liberties, and those whose reputations have been destroyed usually seek redemption. But if commuting all death sentences handed down by a monumentally flawed system is the right thing to do, it doesn't matter what Ryan's motivations were. Innocent men and women might have been put to death, and he stopped it from happening.

Outside the auditorium after Saturday's blanket-commutation speech, Anthony Porter stood meekly in the crowded hallway. The first death row inmate exonerated during Ryan's administration was asked what he was doing with his freedom. Dressed in a yellow and lime green suit, Porter could only shrug and smile. "Life is wonderful," he said.

By Patrick Arden

Patrick Arden is the editor of Illinois Times in Springfield, Il.

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