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Wednesday, April 8, 2009 05:12 am

The man who emptied death row

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The Man Who Emptied Death Row; Governor George Ryan and the Politics of Crime. James L Merriner, Southern Illinois University Press: Carbondale, 2008. $29.95.

November 8, 1994, the day George Ryan was reelected secretary of state, Ricardo Guzman, a Mexican native, was driving a truck on I-94 near Milwaukee. A bracket over a mud flap assembly dangled from the rear of his truck. Other truckers tried to warn him over their CB radios, but Guzman understood no English. Next the metal assembly fell. Reverend Duane “Scott” Willis, his wife, and six of their nine children were behind him. Debris from Guzman’s truck punctured Willis’ gas tank causing an explosion that killed the children and seriously burned Willis and his wife. Thus began George Ryan’s spectacular fall from grace.

The State of Illinois is one of Springfield’s largest employers. Citizens of the capital city think of state politics as second nature. I grew up here and from my childhood, I remember Paul Powell’s death and the $800,419 that was discovered in shoeboxes, in his Springfield hotel residence. I remember my parents laughing about it —probably because, inexplicably, in addition to the shoeboxes, there were two cases of creamed corn. How could it be so bad, I wondered, if it was funny? But Powell, whose state salary never exceeded $30,000 a year, left an estate of $4.6 million dollars. Powell was followed by an even bigger crook, the Republican state auditor Orville E. Hodge who, according to James Merriner, was “especially friendly with members of the so-called West Side Bloc, Republicans who protected the interests of organized crime.” So like many Illinoisans of my generation, this quagmire of political crimes was all I knew. I honestly didn’t know that Illinois was any more corrupt than other states. As it turns out, it is more corrupt than just about all of them.

James Merriner, the author of three other books about politics and Illinois history: Mr. Chairman: Power in Dan Rostenkowski’s America; The City Club of Chicago: A Centennial History of Chicago; A Centennial History, 1903-2003, and coauthor of Against Long Odds: Citizens Who Challenge Congressional Incumbents, refers to official records, exclusive interviews, and previously undisclosed incidents in Ryan’s career. The events in this book are vigilantly documented. According to Merriner, Illinois is a member of the “unholy trinity.” Along with Louisiana and New Jersey, these three states are known for the highest levels of political corruption in the United States. Illinois has sent three governors to prison: Ryan, Otto Kerner and Dan Walker — three and counting, I might add. Two other governors, Len Small and William Stratton, were charged with crimes and acquitted under dubious circumstances.

The book begins with Ryan working in his father’s drug store in Kankakee and follows him through his early years in politics, during which there was some astonishing political thievery. A system of corruption was ingrained in Illinois politics long before Ryan began his political career. Two things “that Governors Small, Stratton, Kerner, Ogilvie, Thompson, Ryan and others had in common were (1) the lavish provision of road-building and other pork-barrel projects and (2) the enthusiastic collection of campaign contributions from interest groups.”

Considering the environment, I find it plausible that Ryan to this day believes that he did nothing wrong. Merriner tells us that George Ryan was a petty crook who carried wads of cash. In over 10 years in public office he withdrew just $6,700 from his accounts. He jetted off to sports events, resorts and casinos on trips paid for by his pals. He kept ghost employees on his secretary of state payroll who were doing campaign work and whose empty desks disturbed the office manager, Glen Bower (a former state’s attorney from southern Illinois). However, in the winter of 1998, “just down Dearborn Street, in the federal courthouse, Chicago aldermen were being prosecuted for ghost payrolling in the Operation Haunted hall investigation.” So the practice was not uncommon.

Ryan did a lot wrong, but he also did some things right, including organ donor registration, state funding for organ transplants and tougher laws for drunk drivers. Then on Jan. 31, 2000, Ryan declared a moratorium on executions in Illinois. Over the preceding 25 years, 86 death row inmates had been exonerated in the United States. Of these cases, Illinois had 13, the most of any state. Ryan supported capital punishment, but saw the need to repair a broken system. Then after studying the death penalty and sending reforms to the General Assembly that were ignored by representatives there who needed to get reelected, he commuted the sentences of everyone left on death row. This, like everything about Ryan, had some very good and some very bad repercussions.

The deaths of Reverend Willis’ six children occurred because employees at the secretary of state’s office took bribes as a result of the patronage system. Dan Webb was Jim Thompson’s director of the state police in 1980. When Thompson appointed Jim Edgar secretary of state, Edgar asked Webb to scrutinize the secretary of state’s office on his behalf. Webb found that employees there were pressured to sell tickets to fundraisers for their boss’s political events. These employees knew no one who could afford $100 or $200 tickets, “so they would accept bribes from people doing business with the secretary of state’s office in order to secure money to pay for these tickets. . . . An official review alleged that bribes were paid for driver’s licenses as early as 1981 — 22 years before Ryan was indicted on charges derived from a license for bribes investigation.”

The Man Who Emptied Death Row is an interesting and readable account that reveals much about Illinois politics and its associated crime. It includes names of our past leaders and surprising details about their careers. The powerful presence of the political machines in Chicago (Democrat) and Kankakee (Republican) loom large in this story.

We actually have former U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald to thank for the small steps made recently toward cleaning up corruption in this state. Fitzgerald was a Republican senator serving during the Bush administration. U.S. attorneys by tradition are selected in each state by the senior senator of the president’s party. Fitzgerald was told by Karl Rove that he could choose anyone as long as that person was from Chicago, but the senator wanted a U.S. attorney from outside Illinois who would be more independent. He asked the FBI director Louis Freeh who the best assistant U.S. attorney in the country was, and then nominated that man. Thus the state of Illinois got Patrick Fitzgerald (no relation to Peter) and “there was a new sheriff in town.” It’s not surprising that Peter Fitzgerald was a one-term senator.

Now George Ryan doesn’t look so bad compared to the Democrat who followed him. How history will judge him remains to be seen. Of course the irony of this story is that, at the end of the Ryan administration, death row was empty, but the coffins of the six Willis children were not.

Martha Miller of Springfield has authored four books and was named Lincoln Library Writer of the Year.

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