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American Dream Betrayed

Ways & Means: Pundits Guilty on Almost All Counts

It's not as if George Ryan is the first high-profile Illinois pol - or even the first who served as governor - to become a convicted felon.

But somehow some pundits insist - even rue - that the rules have now changed. As if we haven't seen a prosecution like this before; as if new laws have been written.

It just isn't so.

Lawyer Tom Durkin, for example, said on Chicago Tonight last night that the Ryan verdict lowers the bar on what pols can be found guilty of.

I disagree.

To me, this sounds like the tired argument that the rules have changed, trapping guys like Ryan who practice a kind of politics that was once allowed. We heard that most vociferously when Dan Rostenkowski was convicted in 1996, a decade ago. In researching a story I wrote a couple years ago for Chicago magazine about defense lawyer Ed Genson, I came across a news story about 20 years old that had Genson making the same argument. As long as there have been corrupt pols, there have been federal indictments and convictions. For quite awhile there was an average of one alderman indicted a year around here. How have the rules changed? Instead, the political environment is depressingly the same.

Culture of Corruption
"Jurors heard limited details about the Willis crash because Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer considered the issue too prejudicial for the defense. Pallmeyer did allow jurors to hear that Ryan was a former Illinois governor, however."

- Tim Willette

Cavise Kvetches
DePaul University law professor Len Cavise was exasperated on Chicago Tonight last night, again repeating the tired Dan Webb argument that no one saw Ryan put any money in his pocket. Apparently putting money in his campaign fund - or not needing money in his pocket because others paid his way for everything - doesn't qualify. Cavise even asked sadly what politicians could offer campaign contributors anymore if they can't offer influence. Perhaps they can offer honest service.

Cavise, by the way, is the same guy who said in January that Ryan "absolutely has to take the stand."

Not Even Close
Ten days, by the way, is a very quick verdict considering it was a complicated six-month case. It could take ten days alone just to read through the jury instructions. This was a slam dunk.

Canary in the Coal Mine
Also from Chicago Tonight, Cindy Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, says the root of our state's corrupt political culture is campaign funding. "The shakedown," she says. Illinois is the least regulated state in the nation when it comes to campaign contributions, according to Canary.

So will we now see campaign funding reform?

According to political analyst Don Rose, state legislators will pass new ethics rules once they figure out how to evade them after they are passed.

Imprisoned Warden
Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University, insists Ryan's legacy will still be the death penalty moratorium. And that Ryan didn't enact the moratorium cynically to build a sympathetic portrait for a future jury.

I'd like to believe that, but given that Ryan used the moratorium in an irrelevant bid to gain sympathy from the jury, Ryan's credibility on that is shot.

Warden, I'm afraid, can't see through the prism of his own agenda. This conviction will overshadow the death penalty moratorium as Ryan's legacy.

Bob Crawford, the veteran radio man and political analyst, also on Chicago Tonight, pointed out that legacies can be, and ought to be, mixed, because that can be the only honest appraisal of people and their work. But, he said, Ryan "is the very symbol of everything wrong with pay-to-play. The very thing that did him in was what he was proudest of: The ability to make a deal. That's what put him where he is today."

How Tragic?
Warden agreed with host Phil Ponce's assessment of Ryan as a tragic figure (Warden called him "the ultimate tragic figure").

What's so tragic about him?

Ryan has been Ryan his entire political career. This is who he is and has been. A tragic figure, I think, has to have something unusual befall him, something counter to what he deserves or a single tragic flaw that ruins an otherwise unusually honorable person. That description does not fit George Ryan. George Ryan is, if anything, Illinois personified. The only tragic figures in this case are the Willis family and us citizens.

On To Daley And Blago
Does anyone think anymore that the federal investigations into the current state government doesn't end with Blagojevich? And that the City Hall investigations don't end with Daley? The only real question concerning Pat Fitzgerald's caseload is whether the Plame leak investigation ends with Cheney or Bush.

At least Blagojevich (and Topinka) issued a statement yesterday, meaningless as it was. Here's what our fearless mayor said: Nothing.

"At an unrelated news conference on school issues an hour before the verdict was announced, Daley cut off questions about the Ryan case," the Sun-Times reports today. "He refused to say whether he thought a guilty verdict would embolden federal prosecutors to come after him. 'I'm not going to talk about it,' he said."

To be fair, that was before the verdict, not after. But I still haven't seen him comment and I don't expect to. He doesn't talk.

Here's what he could say, though: "I believe in open, honest government, so I'm not worried about federal prosecutors coming after me. I have nothing to hide. If they can weed out corruption in my administration that has flourished despite my best efforts, I welcome them to because nobody wants a corrupt-free Chicago more than I do."

That is, he could say that if it was true.

Ballot Blues
What a great opportunity this election for an independent reform candidate to run for governor. Instead, we get Blagojevich vs. Topinka.

Worst. Choice. Ever.

Which is why Collins rankled me with one of his statements yesterday. Like reporters, columnists, editorial writers, and pundits have said for years, Collins said in effect that it is up to voters to change the system by choosing clean candidates over dirty ones. The problem with that is that voters can only choose from among the choices they are given. The two (private) parties have a stranglehold on the system. Once again, Blagojevich vs. Topinka. What kind of choice is that?

Maybe voters are sending the only message they can by not going to the polls.

Unfortunately, that doesn't accomplish anything either.

But let's not blame voters for not stripping corrupt pols of power when it's the political parties who most hold the power to do so.

For more Ryan verdict coverage, read why Dan Webb's defense strategy was weak and how the media got it wrong.



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Posted on April 18, 2006


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