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Music Cue: Gov. Ryan's Political Disgrace

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Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan began his federal prison sentence Wednesday for an April 2006 conviction on racketeering and fraud charges. Many media accounts this week refer to Ryan's fall from grace. But the deaths of six children, which triggered the decade-long investigation, point to something else.


Ricardo Guzman was a bad driver. He had eight tickets and had already been in five accidents in eight years. In the morning of November 8, 1994, when he drove a truck with a dangling taillight rig, several other truckers signaled him about the danger. Ricardo Guzman ignored them.

And on a road near Milwaukee, the sharp metal rig fell off. It smashed a hole in the gas tank of the car behind him. The car exploded. Six, young children - Ben, Joe, Sam, Hank, Elizabeth and Peter Willis, the children of the Reverend Scott and Janet(ph) Willis - were killed.

Investigators began to explore how a man with Ricardo Guzman's bad driving record even had a trucker's license. He bought it by paying a bribe to employees of the Illinois Secretary of State. The federal investigation that grew out of the deaths of the Willis children revealed that under that secretary of state, at least 2,000 people who shouldn't have driver's licenses bought them with bribes that wound up in the secretary of state's campaign funds and, often, his personal wallet.

That secretary of state, George Ryan, was elected governor of Illinois in 1998 before the investigation. This is the same George Ryan who has since been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for suspending the death penalty in Illinois.

And to make a full disclosure, I sat next to the governor when I spoke at the Illinois State Prayer Breakfast in 2000 and publicly congratulated him for the courage of his decision.

This week, Governor Ryan went to prison. He was convicted last year of 18 counts of corruption for the bribes his employees systemically collected and passed on. He received letters of support from prominent anti-death penalty activists. He was defended pro bono by one of the country's most prestigious law firms, Winston & Strawn. I wonder how many genuinely indigent clients that firm rejected for pro bono work because it cost them $20 million to defend a man who'd taken millions of dollars for campaign funds and personal spending.

The joke in Illinois has been that Governor Ryan suspended capital punishment because he knew he'd need friends in prison. I've never doubted his sincerity in suspending the death penalty. He acted after several searing reports established that several innocent men had served years on death row. A crocked politician doesn't have to be a bloodless human being.

If you'd tell the George Ryan story by beginning with his Nobel nomination, it sounds like, as many news accounts called it this week, a stunning fall from grace. But if you begin with the death of the Willis children and a career of shabby bribes that risked public safety, his story doesn't seem like a fall from grace - just disgrace.

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Simon Says

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NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small

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