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The [Tuesday] Papers

I almost hate to say I told you so. But I'm pretty sure I kinda did.

I watched Chicago Tonight's hour-long show last night on the George Ryan verdict and I was once again struck by how weak Dan Webb's defense strategy was. That's not to blame him necessarily--he didn't have a lot to work with. But the media sure bought his talking points hook, line, and sinker, didn't they?

Perhaps it was out of an "objective" need to "balance" each side of the case, but in so doing the media didn't present a true picture of reality: That the evidence was heavily against Ryan.

Webb outlined his three-point defense in a news conference at the beginning of the case that Chicago Tonight re-broadcast in part last night. This was how he planned to - and in fact did - defend Ryan.

1. After reviewing the indictment, Webb said, he was most struck by the fact that the government's six-year investigation had not produced a single witness seeing Ryan accept payment for anything. This was Webb's first and foremost line of defense. And this became the chief talking point repeated by reporters and pundits alike who wondered if the government had really proven its case.

It was a desperate talking point crafted by a lawyer without much else to hang his hat on. I never understood why the press bought into this as a legitimate line of defense. As the prosecution said, they were under no burden to produce any such witness. Ryan was not charged with accepting a bribe. He was charged with racketeering; what the government showed in abundance was that Ryan presided over a criminal operation mainly as secretary of state, but continuing as governor, that used state resources including employees to fund Ryan's political career and campaign warchest, and rewarded employees with promotions and raises based on their participation.

At a higher level, campaign contributors such as the also now-convicted Larry Warner, were rewarded with sweetheart contracts. The media's focus on Harry Klein paying for Ryan's Jamaican vacations also missed the point: It wasn't the relatively petty perk of a couple free vacations that Ryan got as much as the state leases that Klein got in return. That's how you and I were ripped off. Our taxpayer money was used by Ryan to reward his friends, who put him in public office and kept him there.

At the heart of the operation was the already easily-convicted Scott Fawell, Ryan's right-hand man. Ryan may not have known every detail as Fawell did, by design and practicality, but the government won the right to argue that an "ostrich" defense not be allowed to be argued--that showing Ryan did not know what was going on in his behalf was no excuse.

So the prosecution didn't have to produce a witness who saw an exchange in which cash went into Ryan's pocket. And this was the best defense Webb could come up with. You have to wonder what the discussions were like with Ryan about copping a deal.

2. Webb's second line of defense, he said in that initial press conference, was Ryan's enactment of the death penalty moratorium. By this act of courage, Webb argued, the jury would come to know the character of the man.

Of course, while Webb was allowed to use anti-death penalty activists as character witnesses, the death penalty moratorium was as utterly irrelevant to the charges at hand as what I had for dinner last night. This being Webb's second-best defense argument pretty much meant the case was already lost; I suspect in his heart he thought his best hope was creating and gathering reasons for a successful appeal on technical grounds or a mistrial that might at least get Ryan a better plea bargain or buy him more freedom before conviction.

3. Webb's third line of defense was that Ryan was not a man of financial means. He lived modestly on his pension and Social Security, in a modest Kankakee home. And that didn't square with a man on the take.

Tim Novak reports today in the Sun-Times, however, that Ryan's pension amounts to $197, 037.60 a year. Does anyone really consider that modest? That's 30 percent more than the current governor makes, according to Novak. Ryan, in fact, has already collected $566,660 since leaving office in January 2003. (And remember, he has no legal bills because Webb and his politically-connected, Jim Thompson-led law firm, Winston & Strawn, provided him with a $10 million defense for free. Hey, could Ryan be indicted for that political favor? And isn't that evidence in itself of $10 million not so much in Ryan's pocket but spent on his behalf?)

But this case wasn't about showing that Ryan had put prodigious amounts of money in his own pockets, it was about Ryan putting money in the pockets of his political pals (as well as his daughters) in order to attain and retain public office. It's almost always more about power than money with pols; the private sector is much more lucrative. If it was about money for Ryan, he could have become a lobbyist or a consultant or a vendor bidding for state contracts. Besides that, though, there was testimony that Ryan was planning to squirrel away a million dollars or so from his campaign fund for his retirement. Either way, he would be taken care of.

Still, I'm surprised like everyone else that Ryan was convicted on every count rather than a split verdict, but for different reasons, I suspect, than most pundits. Many commentators, as I read, watched, and listened to them, predicted Ryan would be found guilty on what many described as the ticky-tacky charges, such as filing a false income tax statement and making false statements to the FBI (which should never be considered a small deal) but that the racketeering charge would be the tough one to get beyond reasonable doubt.

I saw it just the opposite, and I see now where I was wrong. In our Political Odds feature (now updated), I had put the chances of Ryan being found guilty on all counts at 5 percent. Why? "The volume of counts is a prosecution strategy, yet some reporters have taken the bait," I wrote.

I was wrong about that. U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said recently that the government doesn't just pile on extra charges to intimidate defendants or hope something will stick. I think government prosecutors probably do do that, but we should never mistake Fitzgerald for a typical prosecutor. Fitzgerald is earnest, not cynical. I was being cynical.

But my big mistake was in thinking that Ryan would be found guilty of racketeering, but that not all of the lesser charges would stick, just because there were a bunch of lesser charges that, again, I guessed were the result of piling on or being super technical. What I should have realized was that if Ryan was found guilty of racketeering, all the other charges were likely to fall in place logically and be upheld as elements of the scheme.

Like the observers seeing things the other way, I failed to see the ultimate connection between the major charge and the lesser charges. They were all of a piece.

I also wrote that the chances that Ryan would be found guilty on most counts was 80 percent. "Webb wasn't as impressive to the jury as he was to the pundits," I wrote. "They like [lead prosecutor Patrick] Collins more."

Of Ryan's guilt, well, I thought that was 100 percent, writing, "Is there really any doubt?"

But among our press corps, there weirdly was.

Perhaps it had something to do with the media's obssession about the lack of a "smoking gun," still evident in much of today's coverage, as if that's now the legal standard for conviction. Maybe the problem with the media is that there were tons of smoking guns, too many for them to comprehend at once.

For example, Mark Brown, who can read, interpret, and analzye an indictment with the best of them, stated in his Sun-Times column today that "jurors in the Ryan trial couldn't pick out one witness or piece of evidence" that swayed them.

That's because they had so much to choose from to pick just one. Juror James Cwick, for example, was asked what Ryan did wrong, and he said: "I don't think I have enough time to sum that up."

Then he tried: "There were a lot of things with tax issues and hiding taxes, diverting funds from his campaign funds to his family members, stopping investigations with the state's internal investigation department. There's a whole lot of stuff out there. You could pretty much take your pick."

On our Politics page today, I'll continue with further observations of what the pundits had to say, what Mayor Richard M. Daley didn't have to say, and what the otherwise altogether impressive Patrick Collins said that rankled me.

The Beachwood Tip Line: Accepting both guns that are smoking and those that are not smoking yet but have the potential to smoke later.


Posted on April 18, 2006

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