Ryan corruption trial opens

Prosecutors call ex-governor greedy

defense says evidence of wrongdoing is lacking


CHICAGO -- Former Illinois Gov. George H. Ryan's corruption trial got under way yesterday, with federal prosecutors painting him as an arrogant politician who lived extravagantly and blithely doled out millions of taxpayer dollars to his friends and family.

"George Ryan lived large ... and the money flowed," Assistant U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon told the jury during his 90-minute opening statement. "This is a case about betrayal of the public trust."

Prosecutors have charged that while Ryan served as secretary of state and governor from 1991 until early 2003, he and his relatives accepted tens of thousands of dollars worth of gifts, cash and other bribes in exchange for state business contracts.

But in his opening statement, Ryan attorney Dan Webb told jurors: "This case is not going to be the picture of a corrupt politician who was taking money hand over fist." Though Webb acknowledged that Ryan may have made some mistakes in trusting some of his staff, "those mistakes are not crimes."

Ryan, 71, is accused of taking free tickets to Chicago Bulls playoff games, lounging at someone else's expense on the white sandy beaches of Jamaica and enjoying complimentary trips to casinos in Las Vegas with co-defendant Lawrence Warner.

Fardon said that Ryan rarely withdrew cash from his personal bank account and never used an automated teller machine, but always traveled "with thick wads of cash" that he would spend wildly on friends and family.

Ryan and Warner face 22 counts, including racketeering conspiracy, mail fraud and other corruption charges. Both men have pleaded not guilty.

Prosecutors have charged that Warner, a 67-year-old businessman and longtime family friend of the former governor, profited the most from Ryan's alleged wrongdoings. Fardon told jurors that Warner made about $3 million from state leases and contracts in the 1990s.

Among other things, prosecutors say that Warner paid to fix a flooding problem at one of Ryan's children's apartment, and paid for the band at Ryan's daughter's wedding.

Fardon showed jurors a copy of the check made out to the Dennis Keith Band: The band name is written in Ryan's handwriting, and the check is signed in Warner's.

Terence Gillespie, Warner's attorney, told the jury yesterday that his client was merely a savvy entrepreneur who was "living the American dream" by pursuing business opportunities.

While the two men were close friends, "that friendship was about many things, but it was never about cash," Gillespie said.

Webb began his presentation with a list of "evidence and issues the government has ignored." He said that there is no physical proof Ryan ever received illicit payoffs. Webb also said the government's key witness - Scott Fawell, Ryan's former chief of staff - was unreliable because he had been intimidated into cooperating with prosecutors.

Fawell, who is serving a 6 1/2 -year prison sentence for corruption and is facing additional federal charges, will testify in exchange for leniency for both himself and his fiancee. He is expected to take the stand today.

Also expected to testify for the prosecution is Donald Udstuen, a political alley of Ryan's who in 2002 pleaded guilty to tax fraud conspiracy. Warner allegedly paid Udstuen a portion of the funds he got from insider real estate deals.

Ryan has said he will testify on his own behalf.

The case is the latest chapter in a lengthy federal investigation of corruption during Ryan's time as secretary of state and governor, which ultimately led to the end of his political career.

It also has marred the legacy of a man nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize: Before he left office, Ryan shook up the national debate over capital punishment by placing a moratorium on executions in Illinois after learning several inmates had been wrongly convicted.

P.J. Huffstutter writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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