Jury Selection Begins in Illinois Governor's Trial
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Jury selection starts today in Chicago for the political corruption trial of former Illinois Governor George Ryan. A federal grand jury indicted Ryan two years ago on 22 counts of corruption. NPR's David Schaper reports.
DAVID SCHAPER reporting:
On Election Day 1994, while George Ryan was celebrating his re-election as Illinois' secretary of State, the Willis family from Chicago's South Side was heading up north to Wisconsin. While driving through Milwaukee, a dangling part of a truck in front of them broke off and bounced beneath the family's mini-van, rupturing the gas tank. The vehicle exploded into flames. The six Willis children in the van were burned to death. Their parents, Reverend Scott and Karen Willis were severely injured.
Four years later, as Ryan was running for Illinois governor, a federal investigation found the trucker involved in the Willis crash obtained his Illinois license illegally by paying bribes to employees in Ryan's office. The veteran Republican still narrowly won election to the governor's office. He garnered international attention for halting executions in the state, and shortly before leaving office in 2003, Ryan commuted the sentences of all 160 convicts on Illinois' death row. But Ryan's one term was marred by a parade of indictments and convictions of state employees who admitted the licenses-for-bribes scheme funneled money into his campaign fund. The scandal widened, netting lobbyists, top aides and even Ryan's campaign committee on charges related to illegal campaigning, state contracts and leases and cover-ups. All totaled, 79 people have been charged in the scandal, 73 of them convicted while not one has been acquitted. Ryan retired rather than face almost certain re-election defeat in 2002 and then was himself indicted in December of 2003. Chicago's US attorney, Patrick Fitzgerald, announced the charges.
Mr. PATRICK FITZGERALD (US Attorney, Chicago): What we're alleging in the indictment is that basically the state of Illinois was for sale.
SCHAPER: Fitzgerald said at the time, Ryan took three vacations, cash and other perks for himself and his family from lobbyist friends whom he allowed to manipulate state business for their own benefit.
Mr. FITZGERALD: It was cronyism where contracts were awarded to people, people were given inside information and they were acting upon it, and at times George Ryan stepped into the process to make sure that those interests were taken care of.
SCHAPER: Since the scandal first broke seven years ago, Ryan has maintained he knew nothing about corruption in his office and that he did nothing wrong. He issued this denial in 2003 after entering his plea.
Former Governor GEORGE RYAN (Republican, Illinois): I'm absolutely not guilty of those charges. I will not plea bargain. I'll go to trial and establish my innocence.
SCHAPER: But to do that, Ryan's defense attorneys will have to successfully challenge the word of several former friends, associates and top aides who have taken plea bargains and will testify against the former governor. The government's star witness will be Ryan's former chief of staff, Scott Fawell, who was convicted two years ago and sentenced to six and a half years in prison. He remained loyal to Ryan even after entering prison but had a change of heart when his fiance was charged. And he agreed to cooperate to spare her prison time.
Potential jurors began filling out questionnaires last week, and jury selection could take several days. The trial is expected to last up to four months. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.
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