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Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2008 12:57 am

George Ryan and the politics of corruption

A new book recounts the sordid history of Illinois’ past 30 years

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Former Gov. George Ryan is remembered for two things. First, that he went to prison after being convicted on corruption charges. Second, that, in his final days in office, he cleared out death row by commuting the sentences of everybody in Illinois sentenced to death.

Are the two related? That's the question taken up by James L. Merriner, a former Chicago Sun-Times reporter, in his new book, The Man Who Emptied Death Row: Governor George Ryan and the Politics of Crime (Southern Illinois University Press). His answer is "no," if you mean did Ryan have some notion that his radical move would save his own skin. But there was a more subtle connection.

Merriner: "A widespread school of thought holds that Ryan's moratorium [on the death penalty], pardons, and blanket commutation sought three things: first, applause from liberals, especially the liberal news media. . . ; second, approval from the electorate; and third, at least grudging admiration from prosecutors because Ryan displayed moral courage."

None of these points hold up, Merriner writes. Liberals couldn't influence the U.S. attorney going after Ryan. The electorate generally favors the death penalty, and besides, when he emptied death row Ryan had retired from politics and didn't care what voters thought. Prosecutors tend to support the death penalty, too. Might he have been trying to influence potential jurors who would eventually decide his fate? No, because "Ryan was convinced he was innocent and thus had no need to snooker a jury."

But, the author suggests, Ryan came to identify with the condemned. In his review of death penalty cases, Ryan saw the injustice done by overzealous prosecutors. The author speculates that Ryan may have been thinking: "Prosecutors sent some innocent people to death row. Now they want to send me, an innocent man, to jail."

Of course Ryan wasn't an innocent man. He just thought he was. How could he think that? Partly because, Merriner says, Illinois is one of the three most corrupt states in the nation, along with New Jersey and Louisiana. After receiving his political education in a "culture of corruption," Ryan saw what he did as no different from what others did. He never thought somebody would come along and change the rules, or enforce the laws, like U. S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald did.

So if he didn't think what he did was wrong, is that an indication that Ryan was unfairly prosecuted and wrongly convicted? Have we criminalized politics?

No. "The stuff that we are charging is stuff that third-graders know is wrong," said Patrick Collins, the chief prosecutor. Stuff like this: Harry Klein owned a villa in Jamaica, where Ryan liked to go for vacations. Klein usually charged lodgers $1,000 a week, so Ryan wrote Klein checks for $1,000, then Klein gave the money back to Ryan in cash. Collins: "As a prosecutor, when you get somebody falsifying information, that's your bread and butter to show the jury that they knew what they were doing is wrong."

It turns out, according to the book, that Ryan had a history of wheeling and self-dealing. One incident occurred in 1982, when he was running for lieutenant governor on a ticket with Jim Thompson. The operator of a nursing home in Kankakee stopped doing business with the Ryan family pharmacy, and soon found himself being accused of mistreating patients. Ryan arranged a meeting, got the charges dropped, and regained the nursing home's pharmacy business, worth about $60,000 a year. There were several other public scandals over the years, all recounted in the book. Together they should have disqualified him from higher office long ago.

It's painful to read all this recent history that so many of us lived through. What is wrong with Illinois, that it allowed this guy to rise to power? And how did it happen again, with his successor? Where were the good guys, like Jim Thompson and Jim Edgar and Dick Durbin? Where were the media? Where was Illinois Times? We made an attempt to go after Ryan early on, but failed to sustain it. If Illinois manages to send Barack Obama to the White House but does nothing to correct our standing as one of the three most corrupt states in the nation, we have no right to be proud.

Contact Fletcher Farrar at ffarrar@illinoistimes.com.

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