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ILGov2014: The George Ryan Connection

Twenty years ago, on November 8, 1994, a tragedy occurred in Wisconsin that so impacted Illinois history we are still feeling the effect of that tragedy in 2014

Recollections of that tragic incident will be recalled in the memories of some as informed and considerate voters decide who is the lesser of two evils in this upcoming election. The Illinois culture of corruption reached an all-time low while an Illinois official attempted to cover-up events connected to this tragedy in order to protect his public image. That same official eventually became Illinois' 39th governor.

On that day, an Election Day, Scott and Janet Willis said a prayer with their six youngest children at their Chicago Southwest Side home asking God to watch over them before they began a journey to Milwaukee. Later that same day, while riding in their family minivan on the interstate not far from their planned destination, a rear taillight assembly dropped from the semi-trailer of the vehicle in front of them. What happened next is so horrific that any parent reading about it in the Chicago newspapers the next day must have felt pain and emptiness deep inside their hearts.

The minivan drove over the fallen piece of sharp metal, which struck the vehicle's gas tank. Ben, Joe, Sam, Hank, Elizabeth and Pete were killed in the ensuing fire. Scott and Janet survived with severe burns. George Ryan was elected to his second term as Secretary of State, the constitutional official in charge of issuing Illinois driver's licenses. His opponent Pat Quinn, was only able to get 38% of the vote.

* * *

For two years prior to the Willis accident, two investigators from the Department of Inspector General of the Illinois Secretary of State had been investigating leads that driver's license examiners were accepting bribes in exchange for issuing commercial driver's licenses.

Additionally, there were allegations that the bribe money was being funneled to the campaign war chest of George Ryan, Citizens for Ryan. Those investigators consistently ran into roadblocks set by their immediate supervisor, Inspector General Dean Bauer, a close friend and political appointee of Ryan's.

The day after the fatal crash, those same two investigators determined that the semi-tractor that lost the part that caused the deaths was driven by Ricardo Guzman, an unqualified truck driver who bribed Marion Seibel, a McCook facility driver's licenses examiner supervisor and a previous target of several bribery investigations. They immediately opened a case. No sooner, Bauer ordered the case closed stating, "Let the Wisconsin authorities handle it."

Concerned about obstruction of justice, a serious crime on both state and federal levels, the state investigators agreed to meet with Don Norton, an investigator with the United States Department of Justice. The secret meeting occurred in January 1995 and the investigators began a routine of passing on information of cover-ups, bribery and official misconduct occurring in the Ryan administration.

Less than six months later, one investigator was fired and the other was demoted and transferred. Ryan dissolved the department responsible for investigating the bribes, but retained his faithful crony Bauer in the position of inspector general.

Quietly over the next three years, the federal government began to unravel the information provided by those two investigators and other concerned state employees. That federal inquiry resulted in a raid in September of 1998 conducted by the U.S. postal inspectors on a driver's license examining station in Melrose Park. The investigation now had a name: Operation Safe Road

Three months after the driver's station raid, despite the bad publicity and finger-pointing George Ryan was elected Illinois' 39th governor over downstate Democrat Glenn Poshard. Prior to the election, Scott Lassar, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern Illinois District, publicly announced that Ryan was not a target of the Operation Safe Road investigation. Lassar was trying to be fair, but later regretted the unusual proclamation.

In the years that followed, Ryan clearly was the target. A house of cards began to fall all around him. Despite 45 Safe Road convictions for bribery, fraud and extortion during the four years of his administration, Ryan continued to conduct business as usual, the old-style pay-to-play politics. He was so tarnished by scandal, though, that he withdrew from running for re-election in 2002, paving the way for Chicago Democrat Rod Blagojevich to win the governorship on a reform platform. (Unfortunately, his Republican opponent's name was Jim Ryan; no relation to George but not helpful.)

Over the next few years and under the direction of Pat Fitzgerald, who succeeded Lassar, the feds continued to dig up evidence in Operation Safe Road, all the while indicting and convicting another 35 individuals, including state employees, Ryan cronies and longtime wheeler-dealers. The Citizens for Ryan Campaign and Scott Fawell, Ryan's chief of staff were co-defendants at one trial. The investigation came to a head in December 2003 when Ryan himself was handed a 22-count indictment.

"The charged conduct by former Governor Ryan reflects a disturbing violation of trust," Fitzgerald said. "Ryan is charged with betraying the citizens of Illinois for over a decade on state business, both large and small."

In September 2005, the long overdue trial began and lasted until the following April. Ryan was convicted on all counts. "One Hundred Percent Guilty," a Daily Southtown headline said.

Ryan was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in federal prison. He left his home in Kankakee to begin serving his time in an Oxford, Wisconsin, facility on November 7, 2007, Another former governor, Jim Thompson, drove him there.

* * *

It has been 20 years since that the Willis accident. Some of the voters in this upcoming election were not born when it occurred. The youngest Willis children, Elizabeth and Peter, if they were alive now, would just be 20-years-old and casting their first votes for governor.

Do any of this campaign's candidates deserve them? Have any lessons been learned?

Pat Quinn, now the incumbent governor, faces two serious scandals of his own. One is the patronage hiring 103 people to jobs at the Illinois Department of Transportation. Sounds familiar. Patronage hiring ran rampant under Ryan; during his trial, prosecutors released a "favors list" detailing jobs requested and filled by fellow pols. The other is the $54.5 million Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, in which the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority doled out anti-violence grants to various social service organizations through Chicago aldermen in the home stretch of Quinn's 2010 gubernatorial campaign.

The state's auditor general has since shown that the program, which was supposed to help save lives, was a dysfunctional political honeypot of political favors and misfires.

Bruce Rauner, the Republican candidate, has no record of scandals in office because he has never served as an elected official. But he, too, has life-and-death blots on his record. For example, a federal bankruptcy trial currently underway is weighing allegations that Rauner's investment firm participated in a fraudulent scheme to avoid liability for a string of deaths at nursing homes.

Then there are the lives impacted by the dozen bankruptcies in the portfolio of Rauner's firm. Certainly, no one is going to bat 1.000, but did Rauner profit, as Quinn's campaign alleges, from the misfortune of others?

George Ryan's operation sold driver's licenses for campaign cash. Corrupt, but seemingly trivial until you consider the tragic result. The actions of Quinn and Rauner also carry ramifications. We must consider those when we go to the ballot box - and long before and after that. In short, we must not turn a blind eye to corruption. Its consequences may be deadly.

Ed Hammer is a retired police captain and author of the book One Hundred Percent Guilty. He can be reached through his website.


Previously by Ed Hammer:
* George Ryan's Park Bench
* George Ryan's Dogs and Ponies
* George Ryan's Other Jailhouse Interview
* Bugging The Chicago School Board
* Cop vs. Teacher
* Signs of Change
* Pols vs. Teachers
* The Terre Haute Redemption
* Rahm's War On Teachers
* About Those Indicted Nurses
* Body Language Bingo: A Guide To Watching The Presidential Debates
* George Ryan's Day Of Independence
* The Ironic George Ryan.
* George Ryan Is Unrepentant.
* Must Like Puppies.


See also: Honoring A True Illinois Hero.


Comments welcome.


Posted on November 3, 2014

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