`Most distasteful thing I've ever done' nears for Fawell

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When Scott Fawell takes the stand to testify against his close friend and mentor, George Ryan, it will be the "the most distasteful thing I've ever done," he wrote in a recent letter to the Tribune.

Once as close as a son to the former governor and now the star witness against him, Fawell, 48, could sit before a jury as soon as Thursday in the federal corruption trial of Ryan and his co-defendant, lobbyist Lawrence Warner.

Opening statements are expected to begin Wednesday morning and last all day.

Fawell will then take the stand for several weeks, and prosecutors said his testimony will reveal that Ryan, as secretary of state from 1991 to early 1999, approved of and assisted in widespread corruption.

Fawell, Ryan's chief of staff during that time, is serving a 6 1/2-year prison sentence for using state resources and employees to bolster Ryan's 1998 campaign for governor.

Though he is expected to provide some of the most damning testimony in the case, he suggested in his letters that the case against Ryan might not be as airtight as prosecutors have presented.

"[T]here are at least two sides to every story. We haven't seen but one side--the Government's side," he wrote in one of two letters sent from the minimum-security prison in Yankton, S.D.

Fawell agreed to cooperate in the case in hopes of sparing his fiance, Andrea Coutretsis, a prison sentence in an unrelated fraud scheme.

Ryan and Warner, who is also a close friend, understand that his loyalty to her has to come first, Fawell wrote.

"I have to do all I can to keep Andrea safe--by that I mean get her out of harm's way. She is my first priority as Lura Lynn [Ryan's wife] and Cindy [Warner's wife] would be for them," he wrote.

Fawell also praised his former boss in the letter.

"He's a proud man who I respect a lot, and who has had a fine and distinguished career in public service, and who I think as years go by will be viewed as a very successful governor," Fawell wrote.

Fawell's loyalty as a political soldier was long unquestioned. He rose rapidly in Illinois Republican politics, not because he was a scion of a powerful DuPage County family, but because he was smart and capable, said Republicans who worked with him.

"All one needed to say was that something needed to be accomplished, and he never asked for details or how or why or when," said one longtime senior Republican aide who asked not to be identified.

Fawell's first statewide political assignment came in 1984, when he was hired to drive Sen. Charles Percy (R-Ill.) around the state during his re-election campaign.

The man who hired him, Percy's campaign manager Carter Hendren, recalled Fawell as bright, eager and personable.

He also possessed a keen political sense.

"He's got great instincts, and he works as hard as the people who work for him," Hendren said.

Although Percy lost to Paul Simon, Fawell's political career was launched. He was hired part as a "local government coordinator" with the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority in 1988. But his real work was political, and he ran then-Vice President George H.W. Bush's presidential campaign in Illinois.

Even then, the charges that eventually sank him were swirling.

A Tribune column at the time noted that for all but two weeks of the year, Fawell continued to draw his state salary despite word that he spent most of his time campaigning.

While on the Bush campaign, Fawell also did political work for Ryan, then lieutenant governor.

Ryan appreciated Fawell's attention to detail and his willingness to let him focus on the bigger picture, Republicans familiar with their relationship said.

"Scott took care of everything. He was exceedingly good at that," the senior Republican aide said.

They became close personally, as Fawell cultivated a reputation as a brash, young political charger to Ryan's gruff but grandfatherly demeanor.

When Ryan became secretary of state, Fawell was his right-hand man and political sounding board. They even vacationed together.

Ryan was deeply loyal to Fawell and showed his appreciation when he was elected governor by appointing his protege to a plum state job as head of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority.

It was a bid-rigging scandal at McPier, which Fawell has pleaded guilty to, that ultimately led to his fiance's indictment, and, in turn, Fawell's cooperation with prosecutors.

In his letters, Fawell recognized Ryan's devotion to him, although he knows he no longer will return it.

"I always said his loyalty was his greatest attribute as well as his greatest detriment," Fawell wrote.

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rrbush@tribune.com

smmills@tribune.com

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