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Thursday, April 27, 2006 09:37 am

Why Ryan should rot

There have been worse crimes, but his corruption was unforgivable

I’m from Kankakee. That accident of birth automatically put me on George Ryan’s A-list. Everybody from Kankakee was given special treatment. Ryan treated me differently than he did many other reporters. But being from Kankakee also had its downside. Kankakeeans were supposed to be “on the team,” and I clearly wasn’t. Ryan thought I should have given him more breaks, and he wasn’t shy about telling me so. I kept writing, he kept complaining, and we’d forgive each other during the lulls. I’ve always been torn about George Ryan. I was proud that someone from my family’s hometown had made it all the way to the top. I was also particularly pleased that Ryan seemed to rise above much of what made Kankakee such an embarrassment, especially its harsh racism. Through it all, though, in the back of my mind I was constantly wondering whether Ryan had moved away from that other dark spot on Kankakee’s soul — its corruption. Gov. Len Small, a Kankakeean, forged an unholy political alliance with Al Capone’s organization in the 1920s, and that brought the mob to town. Small’s disgustingly corrupt ways set the tone for how the city and county operated for the next half century. For instance, Ryan’s political mentor Ed McBroom, who ran the local Republican Party for decades, made big bucks from selling state and municipal jobs. If you wanted a government job, you had to buy a car from McBroom’s auto dealership —- the better the job, the nicer the car. Ryan himself was investigated in the early 1980s, while he was still speaker of the House, for an alleged shakedown attempt of local nursing homes. Ryan was a pharmacist, and nursing-home owners were allegedly encouraged to overcharge for drugs and then kick back the difference to Ryan’s stores. Those who wouldn’t play ball were allegedly threatened with visits by a wide array of state and local inspectors. The investigation quietly disappeared after Ryan was elected Jim Thompson’s lieutenant governor in 1982, and many of us hoped that Ryan would be scared straight by the experience. Despite what you read in the papers, things have changed in Illinois. We’re a lot cleaner than we were even 20 years ago. What Ryan was convicted of last week would have been dismissed as penny-ante stuff in the 1970s or even the ’80s. Maybe that’s why Ryan seems so sure of his own innocence, even after being convicted on all counts. He saw serious corruption firsthand in Kankakee and is convinced that he never approached that level of lawlessness as lieutenant governor, secretary of state, or governor. But the times changed faster than Ryan was willing to accept. He fudged his taxes just enough, he cadged just enough dough from friends, he steered just enough sweet contracts to his pals that, barring a successful appeal (and the lying by many of his jurors may mean he’ll never do a day in prison), he is now facing 20 years or more behind bars. I happen to think that George Ryan was one of the most natural political leaders this state has ever produced. He knew how to get things done, and he knew what he wanted to do. But I keep coming back to those six dead Willis children. The children died in a fiery car crash after their father ran over a chunk of metal that fell off a semitruck driven by someone who had paid a bribe to get his license. Their deaths led to the licenses-for-bribes probe that eventually ensnared Ryan himself. Ryan didn’t invent the licenses-for-bribes scheme — it goes back decades — so it’s very possible that even if someone else was secretary of state, those Willis children would have suffered the same fate. But Ryan not only didn’t clean up the office when he was first elected in 1990, he actually made the situation much worse in his second term, immediately after those kids were killed in ’94. Instead of wiping the slate clean, Ryan installed the vigorously corrupt Scott Fawell as his chief of staff, ramped up the licenses-for-bribes program beyond anything seen before, harassed whistleblowers and shut down all investigations that attempted to root out the corruption and get to the truth about why those children died. For that, he should rot.
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