Ex-Ill. governor gets 6 1/2 years

Ryan convicted of taking bribes in 1991-2003 to steer state business

September 07, 2006|By P.J. Huffstutter | P.J. Huffstutter,LOS ANGELES TIMES

CHICAGO -- Former Illinois Gov. George H. Ryan, a controversial politician who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, was sentenced yesterday to 6 1/2 years in prison for his conviction in a sweeping federal graft and corruption scandal.

Before hearing U.S. District Judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer's decision, Ryan, 72, acknowledged for the first time that he failed the public and his family and that his poor health could mean he will die behind bars.

Yet as he has throughout this case, Ryan remained defiant that he was not responsible for the rampant corruption in his administration - which led to the end of a political career that spanned three decades.

In April, a jury found Ryan, a Republican, guilty of accepting tens of thousands of dollars in cash and gifts for himself and his family in exchange for steering millions of dollars' worth of state business and lucrative contracts to friends and associates.

The trial, which took nearly six months and involved scores of witness testimonies, covered crimes that had occurred from 1991 to early 2003, when Ryan was Illinois secretary of state and governor.

Before a packed courtroom, Ryan faced Pallmeyer with a somber expression and a firm voice. Calling this the saddest day of his life, he told the judge, "People of this state expected better, and I let them down. The jury's verdict speaks for itself in showing that I simply didn't do enough - should've been more vigilant, should've been more watchful. Should have been a lot of things, I guess."

The conviction and sentence are considered by many to have destroyed the legacy of a man once nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize: Ryan placed a moratorium on executions in Illinois, and emptied out death row, after learning that some inmates had been wrongly convicted.

Yesterday, Pallmeyer also sentenced co-defendant Lawrence E. Warner, 67, a businessman and longtime Ryan family friend, to 41 months in prison.

"Though we don't take any joy in seeing someone sentenced to a significant prison term, we hope that public officials will stop and think and realize how horrible corruption is," U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald said after the hearing. "Maybe at some point, it'll sink in and this will stop."

Yet some political watchers wondered whether the sentence would matter much here, in a city where the FBI has more corruption investigation units than any other - and in a state where five of the past nine governors have been convicted of, tried for or stained by charges of criminal activity.

The late former Gov. Otto Kerner Jr. was convicted of conspiracy and tax evasion in 1973 after, among other things, giving the owner of a horse racetrack special treatment in exchange for profiting from buying and selling the track's stock. Sentenced to three years in prison, Kerner was released early after being diagnosed with terminal cancer.

In 1987, former Gov. Daniel Walker was convicted in a bank loan corruption scandal after he left office and spent nearly two years in federal prison.

"You'd like to think that this sentencing will send a message to others," said Mike Lawrence, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.

"But while George Ryan served in public office, there was a former attorney general, two former governors and an untold number of local and state legislators who have been convicted and sent to jail for corruption. And that obviously didn't have a deterring effect on him."

Prosecutors had asked for a sentence that, at a minimum, ranged between eight and 10 years.

Ryan's defense attorneys pleaded with Pallmeyer to sentence Ryan to no more than two years, insisting that anything more would be a life sentence for an elderly man whose health was failing because of diabetes and Crohn's disease.

"He's already been punished severely," defense attorney Dan K. Webb told the court. "The many years of investigations, the toil this has had on his family. George Ryan has been publicly and universally humiliated."

Defense attorneys have also asked the judge to issue an appeal bond, in order to allow Ryan to avoid prison while he appeals his conviction. Pallmeyer, who set Jan. 4 as the day Ryan is to report to prison, postponed ruling on the request.

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

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