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Honoring A True Illinois Hero

The few tributes that have come in over the last few days for former Secretary of State's Office investigator Russ Sonneveld, who died last week from cancer, have been heartwarming reminders of real heroes in our midst, but hardly sufficient recognition and reward for a man who had the courage to do what was right - and face the consquences - instead of going along to get along. That, my friends, is not the Chicago Way.

Let's take a look at Sonneveld did for the citizens of Illinois, through those tributes as well as excerpts from One Hundred Percent Guilty, the book by his partner Ed Hammer about how their role in taking down George Ryan.


"[O]n Saturday, a man was buried with no media frenzy," John Kass writes. "His death wasn't a big story. It was an important story, but a quiet one. Russell Sonneveld was 63. He died last week after a lengthy battle with cancer. He left a son, Nathaniel; a wife, Florine; a sister, and two brothers.

"He wasn't some politician. He didn't dangle tax dollars before the people as a feast so they'd eat his sins. Sonneveld was a cop. He did his job. That led him to investigate his boss, Ryan. Without Sonneveld and his partner, Ed Hammer, George Ryan would probably be a free man today."


"[I]t is because good men and women have stepped forward in recent years that politics and government in Illinois, for all our scoffing cynicism, are a measure cleaner today," the Sun-Times says in an editorial.

"We are thinking here of Russell Sonneveld, of Orland Park, who died Tuesday. While working in Gov. George Ryan's inspector general's office in 1994, Sonneveld made the link between a highway collision that left six children dead and a bribery operation in a state driver's license facility."


"By any measure, to those who knew him, Russell Sonneveld was a hero who spoke the truth and played a major role in bringing down an Illinois governor," writes the Sun-Times's Dave McKinney, who assisted Hammer with his book.

"Yet, despite driving the investigation that led to Ryan's conviction and imprisonment for the licenses-for-bribes scandal, Mr. Sonneveld lived out his life with an improbable guilt of not having been able to do more to save the lives of the Rev. Duane and Janet Willis' kids."


"Ryan would often leave messages on the family's telephone answering machine when he couldn't reach Sonneveld directly," ABC7 reports. "Yet, during the tumult, Ryan stated he even denied knowing Sonneveld."


And excerpts from One Hundred Percent Guilty:

"Russ Sonneveld was hired by the Illinois Secretary of State Department of Inspector General in February 1993. He had a strong law enforcement background, bringing with him more than 23 years of experience. In 1970, Sonneveld started as a Forest Park, Illinois, police officer. He later joined the Chicago Police Department, where he worked both patrol and investigations.

"He left CPD to work for Elk Grove VIllage, Illinois, as both a patrol officer and a detective. Sonneveld eventually became an investigator with the Division of Internal Investigations in the Illinois State Police. There he was promoted to area commander.

"Eventually he took a leave of absence from ISP and took on the assignment of chief investigator for the medical section of the Illinois Department of Professional Regulation. Sonneveld worked in the medical section for 7 1/2 years. There he met Nancy Ryan, George Ryan's daughter, who would eventually help him get into the SOS IG department.

"After working with Professional Regulation, he had a brief stint with the Illinois Department of Public Aid before he left state government. Sonneveld tried a private enterprise for a year before he decided to return to his area of expertise, busting the bad guys.

"In 1992, Sonneveld decided to contact his former acquaintance from Professional Regulation, Nancy Ryan. Sonneveld sought out George Ryan's daughter to assist him in obtaining a job in the Secretary of State's Office. Sonneveld applied for the position of special agent in the SOS Department of Inspector General and was granted an interview.

"In the interview process, he was asked about his knowledge of government employee official misconduct and bribery. His knowledge and experience apparently got him the job. He was assigned to work in the Northern Illinois office located in Hillside. His job assignment was to root out corruption with the Office of the Secretary of State under the direction of Ryan's number-one corruption buster, Inspector General Dean Bauer. At least that is what Special Agent Russ Sonneveld believed."


"Up to this point, I did not know Russ Sonneveld personally. I had only heard of him through professional channels. I had a slight distrust for cops that achieved positions of command in highly politicized environments. He had been through a roller-coaster ride of police command assignments. Now he was being brought in by the very obstructionists that wanted to halt the work of the investigators attempting to live by their oaths. Needless to say, I was more than apprehensive to work with the new kid on the block.

"By my analysis, Sonneveld is a very private person. He took that privacy into official duties. In order to carry out the duties of an investigator, it is often wise to discuss only the aspects of your cases necessary to effectively resolve the issues. When Sonneveld first started working in the office, our conversations were limited to those necessary aspects and the typical office niceties. We eventually became partners and friends. I do not recall when i began to trust him. When asked, Sonneveld likewise did not specifically recall when that trust became mutual."


"Sonneveld was raised in the Chicago South Side neighborhood called Roseland. His father was active in local politics and worked for state senator Ron Swanson. Little did we know that while we were doing all this bonding, the former state senator was conspiring with Ryan in money-making schemes that would rip off the Illinois taxpayers. When Sonneveld became a Chicago cop, he worked the Roseland neighborhood."


After Hammer and Sonneveld worked their first case together, Hammer was impressed.

"The fact that he was appointed to his position in the Department of Inspector General through a connection to the George Ryan camp was negated. I wholly respected Special Agent Russ Sonneveld as a police investigator and a man. The new guy brought in under Ryan was a partner I could trust. Ironically, that trust would become a valuable asset in uncovering the Ryan corruption."


"Inspector General Dean Bauer ordered Special Agent Sonneveld to close the case . . . never mind that there was real physical evidence like the fictitious driver's licenses and the license applications. Never mind that there were potential witnesses that could easily testify to the actions by the defendant. Never mind that we could arrest co-conspirators and negotiate deals, giving them consideration in exchange for their testimony against the corrupt government official, a bigger fish. What mattered was this was George Ryan's neighbor and friend. What mattered was the public would become aware that a political appointee of George Ryan was arrested and indicted for issuing illegal licenses to underage lingerie models. The story was not only about political corruption, otherwise known as business as usual in Illinois. The story was also about sex, and that had the potential for destroying Ryan's later bid for governor. Dean Bauer, Ryan's inspector general and official guardian of the boss's public image, ordered Special Agent Sonneveld to prepare a memo officially closing the lingerie models' case.

"Sonneveld and I discussed Bauer's decision over one of our many lunches together. We felt it was at least bordering on obstruction of justice.

"With both of us being fathers of young girls, the moral issue that involved underage girls working in a sleazy occupation in bars with groping drunks was also a concern. We did not know where to turn with this new obstruction, but the pile of them was beginning to stink."


"Sonneveld telephone me at home. He told me that Dean Bauer had called him at home and had ordered him to immediately call George Ryan. Sonneveld decided to call me first. I had never spoken directly to the secretary of state since I started working there in 1977. During Edgar's administration, I frequently briefed Inspector General Redenbo or Deputy Director Burke, but had no access to Secretary of State Edgar.

"Now my partner was being ordered to contact the current secretary of state, George Ryan. I asked Sonneveld to immediately call me back after he spoke with Ryan. Sonneveled said, 'I feel like I have to puke!'

"About half an hour later, Sonneveld called me back. He told me Ryan had asked for a briefing of the case. Specifically Ryan wanted to know how we developed a theory that the Naperville manager stole the money to pay for the fund-raiser tickets. Sonneveld explained our theory to him. Ryan abruptly ended the conversation with the comment, 'Looks like somebody is in trouble.'

"This telephone call between Sonneveld and Ryan became significant in the federal criminal case against Ryan. In later interviews with the press, Ryan insisted that he did not know either Sonneveld or me and that he had no knowledge of employee corruption connected to his fund-raising. Sonneveld's testimony later proved Ryan to be a liar."


"Dean Bauer was waiting for Sonneveld and me in the reception area of our office when we arrived the next day. He ordered us into separate rooms to write memos apart from our routine reports. Those memos were to explain our investigative techniques, including why we had asked questions of the suspect regarding fund-raising. This was a highly unusual demand since we also wrote case reports on our findings.

"After completing the memos, Bauer took the disk on which they were saved by Carolyn Miller, the office secretary, and placed it in his suit jacket pocket. He then faxed printed copies to Roger Bickel. Bauer ordered the case closed with no further investigation. We were never allowed to follow any leads to determine if the manager's various scenarios were true or false.

"The disk that Bauer took from us was found by FBI agents a few years later in Bauer's desk drawer. Both Ryan and Bauer were indicted on federal obstruction of justice charges related to that incident."


"Sonneveld eventually told me that he thought Ryan's people were a bunch of Nixonian characters. He said, 'They were so paranoid, stupid, and thought the spy stuff was for real.' He described them as, 'Amateurs at best, riding on the instant success power train.'"


"On June 1, 1995 . . . I learned that George Ryan had dissolved the Department of Inspector General, effective immediately . . .

"The person most hurt by this purge was Russ Sonneveld. He was on vacation at the time and would not get the bad news until he returned. I called him that evening and told him what was happening. We were pretty certain he would be fired.

"Later in the George Ryan federal trial for corruption, evidence would be introduced by the prosecution that Scott Fawell, Ryan's chief of staff, prepared a memo planning the dissolution of the Department of Inspector General.

"In the memo, Fawell told Ryan that they needed to get rid of certain investigators. Fawell's memo said, 'we need . . . someone in there who won't screw our friends, won't ask about fund-raising tickets.'"


"Sonneveld's testimony was split in half because of a lunch break. He went to eat in the cafeteria on the second floor of the Dirksen Building. After purchasing his meal and sitting down, Ryan and his wife, Lura Lynn, entered the same cafeteria. Mrs. Ryan, with one of the attorneys, sat down only two tables away and stared at Sonneveld. He saw Ryan standing with his lunch tray, hesitating as if he did not want to sit at the table chosen by his wife. Sonneveld told the attorney he would move so no one would feel uncomfortable.

"By the afternoon, Sonneveld felt relieved that this chapter in his life was coming to an end. Throughout his testimony, he made eye contact with Ryan. Every time he did, Ryan looked away. That had to hurt Ryan. If the jury saw it, they had to wonder if Ryan's inability to look his accuser in the eye was due to guilt."


"After being fired by Ryan in 1995, Sonneveld obtained a job as an insurance investigator in Minnesota. He investigated life insurance claims when there were questionable circumstances surrounding the policy holder's death. Sonneveld was the first insurance investigator to resolve a false claim connected to the September 11, 2001, World Trade Center bombing. He found the alleged deceased living in Atlanta.

"Sonneveld seemed to enjoy the work, and it paid well. Illness struck and he was forced to go on disability. I cannot help but believe the stress from his years of exposing Ryan's corruption contributed to Sonneveld's current struggle with his illness. If he had not been fired by Ryan, he would have been able to complete his years of law enforcement service with the State of Illinois and would now be receiving a generous police pension that includes a health insurance benefit. He is a quiet, humble man who does not want pity or sympathy. Sonneveld would be embarrassed by my writing about him as if he was a hero, but he is one."


Russell B. Sonneveld's Guest Book.


Comments welcome.


Posted on October 24, 2012

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