Illinois’ Ryan Gets 61/2 Years for Corruption

Times Staff Writer

Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize after placing a moratorium on executions, was sentenced Wednesday to 6 1/2 years in prison for his part in a widespread corruption scandal.

Before hearing the sentence, Ryan acknowledged that he had failed the public and his family, and that his poor health could mean he would die behind bars.

But Ryan, 72, would not take responsibility for the rampant corruption in his administration, which ended a political career that spanned more than three decades.


In April, a jury found Ryan 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 to friends and associates.

The trial, which lasted nearly six months and involved scores of witnesses, covered crimes from 1991 to early 2003, when Ryan was Illinois’ secretary of state and governor. It also highlighted the state’s long history of political graft and cronyism.

In the packed courtroom, Ryan told U.S. District Judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer that it was the saddest day of his life: “People of this state expected better, and I let them down.... 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.”

Ryan’s conviction marred the legacy of a man who suspended executions in 2000 after reports that some inmates had been wrongly convicted. On the eve of leaving office in 2003, he commuted the sentences of all 167 death row inmates. (He decided not to run for reelection because of the federal investigation.)

On Wednesday, Pallmeyer also sentenced codefendant Lawrence E. Warner, 67, a businessman and longtime Ryan family friend, to 41 months in prison. Together, Ryan and Warner were convicted of 22 counts, including racketeering conspiracy, mail fraud, filing false tax returns and lying to investigators.

“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. Atty. Patrick J. Fitzgerald said after the hearing. “Maybe at some point, it’ll sink in and this will stop.”


But Mike Lawrence, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, wondered whether the sentence would matter much in a city where the FBI had more corruption investigation units than any other -- and in a state where five of the last nine governors had been tainted by allegations of criminal activity.

“You’d like to think that this sentencing will send a message to others,” Lawrence said. “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 of eight to 10 years. Ryan’s attorneys pleaded for no more than 2 1/2 years, saying that anything more would be a life sentence for an elderly man who had diabetes and Crohn’s disease.

“He’s already been punished severely,” said defense attorney Dan K. Webb. “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 a bond to allow Ryan to avoid prison pending his appeal. Pallmeyer, who set Jan. 4 as the day Ryan is to report to prison, postponed ruling on the request.

The judge said public corruption undermined people’s confidence in government.

“Government leaders have an obligation to stand as the example.... Mr. Ryan failed to meet that standard,” Pallmeyer said.


Seventy-nine people -- including state workers, political operatives and business owners -- have been charged in the corruption scandal, and 75 have been convicted.

The incident that led to the investigation took place Nov. 8, 1994 -- election day. The Rev. Duane “Scott” Willis and his wife, Janet, after voting to reelect Ryan as Illinois secretary of state, piled into a van with six of their children and began driving to Milwaukee to visit family. In front of them was a truck, driven by a man who had paid a bribe to get his commercial driver’s license from the secretary of state’s office. A piece of the truck fell off. The Willises’ van drove over it, and the van’s gas tank exploded, killing the children.