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Being Sure About George Ryan

When I first saw that former Gov. George Ryan had written a book about his efforts to put a halt to the death penalty In Illinois, I became concerned. What bothered me was that Ryan might attempt to use the book to reverse the stigma he earned from a 35-year political career replete with corruption.

On April 17, 2006, a jury found Ryan guilty on 22 counts of corruption (later reduced by a judge to 20) linked to his time as Illinois Secretary of State. I became aware of his corruption as early as 1993 while being assigned as a special agent/investigator for the Secretary of State's Office. My partner Russell Sonneveld and I investigated several cases Involving multiple subjects obtaining commercial driver's licenses in exchange for bribes - and that bribe money ending up in the Citizens for Ryan campaign fund.

Those cases were being prematurely closed without prosecutorial review by SOS inspector general Dean Bauer, our supervisor and Ryan's close friend. Then, on Election Day in 1994, six children were killed in a fiery crash on I-94 south of Milwaukee by a truck driver who obtained one of those licenses for bribes. When Bauer also closed our investigation on that tragic case, we knew the obstruction had to be stopped. We arranged to meet with an investigator with United States Department of Justice. Nine years later, on December 17, 2003, after completing two terms as Secretary of State and one term as governor, Ryan was indicted. The charges included obstruction of justice.

I voted for Ryan when he ran for Secretary of State the first time, in 1990, only to be disappointed with his administration's new political appointees and their disregard for policy and the rule of law. It seemed to me they were more interested in catering to Ryan's personal interests.

Like Ryan, I am opposed to the death penalty. I agree with Ryan's moral objections regarding the death penalty as stated in his book Until I Could Be Sure. What I question is Ryan's motivation and sincerity.

Early in his book, Ryan quotes Bob Mann, a liberal Democrat from Hyde Park, as saying, "It's a moral dilemma. Remember, you can't justify killing by the State unless you really feel that killing by one justifies killing by another." I wholeheartedly agree. However, is Ryan's book an attempt to whitewash his tarnished years in politics and government?

There is one investigation Sonneveld and I conducted in the spring of 1994 that specifically leads me to believe the whole Ryan death penalty moratorium plan was simply an attempt to distract both the media and the public from the criminality of the Ryan organization. Sonneveld and I were assigned to investigate a $2,500 cash shortage at the Naperville driver's license facility. After gathering information on the shortage and interviewing the facility manager, we were certain the manager stole the $2,500 to pay for Ryan fundraiser tickets. The next day the manager failed a polygraph exam and agreed to repay the $2,500 but would not admit to stealing it.

That same night Bauer ordered Sonneveld to call Ryan at home. He called and after advising Ryan of the pending investigation, Ryan replied, "It looks like somebody is in trouble." The next day Bauer ordered the Naperville investigation closed.

That November, the tragic traffic fatality that resulted in the deaths of the six Willis children occurred, initiating a scandal reported almost daily by the media over the course of next few years. The focus of the scandal revolved around truck drivers obtaining licenses in exchange for bribes at Secretary of State testing sites.

Six years later, in January 2000, the Sun-Times reported on the Naperville driver's license facility investigation. It was the first time illegal fundraising was publicly linked to Secretary of State employees.

Conveniently for Ryan, the next day a Chicago Tribune editorial suggested it was time for a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois. Up to that point it was well-known that Ryan was under federal investigation. Could the Sun-Times article have been the tipping point for Ryan to take this action? Or did Ryan really believe the State taking the life of another human being was a moral dilemma?

After ordering the moratorium and before leaving the governor's office, Ryan commuted the sentences of 164 Death Row inmates to life in prison. He also pardoned four Death Row inmates. Nine years later, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation abolishing the death penalty in Illinois.

The George Ryan They Knew

Before supposedly having a change of heart, Ryan writes, "[T]he only real attention I paid to the death penalty was to vote in favor of expanding it . . . I voted for [aggravating circumstances] whenever I was given the opportunity because I believed that there was a place in the system for the death penalty."

Then, he says, he began to have doubts.

"I think my shifting attitude on the death penalty surprised a great many people," he writes. "It didn't sound like the George Ryan they knew or thought they knew."

It was certainly a surprise to me. I have always felt Ryan's public persona was short and harsh, a stereotypical grump. He certainly comes across as a person who does not want to be bothered with other people's problems.

In the summer of 2010, I met and befriended former Cook County Sheriff's Deputy Tom McGill. In 1992, two years before the tragic Willis children accident, McGill's mother and 12-year-old brother were killed in a horrendous traffic accident in Chicago involving a semi-truck whose driver had recently received his commercial license.

McGill was suspicious that the young truck driver illegally obtained his CDL. Regulations required CDL applicants to understand English. This driver did not. McGill reported his concern to the Chicago Police Department, the Illinois State Police and the FBI. Nobody seemed to listen. He eventually ended up in the Hillside office of Dean Bauer. Bauer advised McGill to not discuss his complaint with other law enforcement agencies. After a few short meetings and follow-up telephone calls, Bauer did not want to be bothered anymore. During their last telephone conversation, McGill said he heard Ryan yelling in the background, "Tell him to stop calling."

The Weight On His Shoulders

"I had never in my life felt such a weight on my shoulders," Ryan writes of signing the death warrant of convicted rapist and murderer Andrew Kokoraleis. "I focused on the crime more than the person or the process."

What about McGill's mother and brother or the six Willis children? Did you not have any feelings of weight on your shoulders for them and their families? Did you not realize you had the ability to prevent tragedies like those from being repeated?

Ryan's statement regarding the Kokoraleis execution contradicts the point he makes with his book. Ryan covers the list of all the reasons why the State should not execute convicted murderers. Morality, religion, psychology, bad policing and zealot prosecutors are all mentioned. He also consults with experts, clergy and celebrities to support him and praise his decision, including Sister Helen Prejean, Mike Farrell, Desmond Tutu and Jesse Jackson, to name a few.

I'll give Ryan some credit. He finally alludes to his indictment, trial and conviction in his book's Epilogue. "I let [voters] down," he writes. "For that I apologize . . . I should have been more watchful." The problem with that "apology" is that it sounds like his only failure was that there were others committing crimes and he should have reported them. His credibility ends there. In fact, those felonious state employees were sycophants committing crimes on his behalf.

Additionally, in an attempt to detract from his federal crimes Ryan states a law professor said, "I was certainly punished for conduct that is not a crime."

What is true is that Ryan benefited politically from Bauer's obstruction of the investigations of licenses for bribes. What is true is that six children and several other motorists were in fatal accidents as a result of the unqualified truck drivers bribing workers to obtain commercial driver's licenses and that bribe money went to Ryan's campaign fund. What also is true is that a long list of Ryan cronies were also convicted of crimes geared to their profit and political gain.

When reading Until I Could Be Sure, you'll have to ask yourself if all of Ryan's proclamations of morality are sincere or are they simply meant to win your sympathy for a convicted politician. Unless you're looking to highlight and write in your personal copy like I did, this book is not worth the $30 price tag. I suggest you make use of your tax dollars and check out a copy from your local library if you really have a need to read it.

Ed Hammer is the author of One Hundred Percent Guilty.

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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.
* ILGov2014: The George Ryan Connection.
* Exclusive: Trump Puts Lion Killer On VP Short List.
* The Statues Of Kankakee.
* Now Even Statues Of Dirty Illinois Governors Want Your Money.
* Ex-Con George Ryan To Personally Appeal For Statue.
* Kankakee Statues Saga Takes Mayberryesque Turn.
* Ten Years Ago Today: 100% Guilty.

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See also: Honoring A True Illinois Hero.

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Comments welcome.



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Posted on January 19, 2021


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