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The former governor of Illinois, George Ryan, is now a convicted felon. A federal jury in Chicago convicted him on 18 political corruption charges yesterday. He is a 72-year-old Republican who commuted the death sentences of more than 160 death row inmates before leaving office in 2003, and now he faces the possibility of prison time himself. NPR's David Schaper reports.
DAVID SCHAPER reporting:
George Ryan was a small town pharmacist who, over 40 years, rose from the Kankakee Board through every level of state elected office, up to the Governor's mansion. Along the way, the white haired, gruff voice Republican developed a reputation as a backstabbing and backroom-dealing politician's politician. But federal prosecutors say George Ryan might as well hung a For Sale sign on his office, as he used his political power to enrich his friends and family. They say he steered lucrative contracts and leases to political insiders in exchange for cash, gifts, loans and vacations to Jamaica, Cancun and Palm Springs.
Chicago U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald thanked the jury for its hard work on the seven month long trial and for its unanimous verdict of guilty on all counts.
U.S. District Attorney PATRICK FITZGERALD (U.S. District Attorney, Chicago): For a brief moment, I would just like to remind you all out there that the charges involved were very serious and the corrupt conduct is very disturbing.
SCHAPER: Fitzgerald says this is one political scandal that endangered public safety. In the '90s, when Ryan was Illinois secretary of state, some his employees sold commercial trucker's licenses to unqualified drivers for bribes, funneling much of the money into Ryan's campaign chest. Some of the truckers who illegally obtained licenses were involved in fatal wrecks, including one on Election Day 1994 outside of Milwaukee that killed six children from a Chicago family. While Ryan was not charged in the licenses for bribes scheme, Fitzgerald says he pulled the plug on investigations into it.
U.S. District Attorney FITZGERALD: That is a low watermark for public service to have a secretary of state abuse his office in that fashion.
SCHAPER: Ryan and his co-defendant Larry Warner are the 74th and 75th people convicted in the corruption scandal that has widened significantly since the weeks prior to Ryan's 1998 election to Illinois' top job. He has the dubious distinction as the third Illinois governor in recent decades to be convicted in a state with a long tradition of corruption.
Robert Grant, the FBI's top official in Chicago says the conviction signals that no one in politics is above the law.
Special Agent ROBERT GRANT (FBI): I hope that this case begins the end of political prostitution that seems to have been evident in the state of Illinois.
SCHAPER: But George Ryan vows to appeal the verdict.
Mr. GEORGE RYAN (Former Governor, Illinois): 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.
SCHAPER: But some Chicagoans who have come to expect a certain level of corruption don't seem surprised by the verdict. Across the street from Chicago's federal court building, among the scores of people lining up to mail checks to the federal and state governments, was Tim Duffy(ph) of suburban Oak Park.
Mr. TIM DUFFY: It's kind of ironic, but it doesn't surprise me at all; it's how the world works. Everybody is corrupt, trying to make a penny for themselves, not worried about anybody else.
SCHAPER: Others note the irony that George Ryan, a man who worked feverishly for those wrongfully convicted, faces a possible prison sentence himself. Some have cynically suggested Ryan's conversion to oppose the death penalty in the midst of the scandal had more to do with personal redemption or leaving a legacy than with Illinois' problematic criminal justice system.
But Larry Marshall, co-founder for the Center for Wrongful Convictions in Chicago disagrees.
Mr. LARRY MARSHALL (Co-Founder, Center for Wrongful Convictions): I certainly know a George Ryan who is a man of integrity.
SCHAPER: Jurors weren't allowed to hear testimony about Ryan's crusade against capital punishment and found the Governor's integrity lacking. One said while there was no smoking gun, the government presented a pretty good pile of evidence leading them to convict.
David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.
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