George Ryan's final campaign Facing his corruption trial, ex-governor tries to shape his legacy

By Steve Mills
Tribune staff reporter
Published September 10, 2005, 11:45 AM CDT

George Ryan waits on a sidewalk downtown, wife Lura Lynn beside him, both of them looking for their van and a ride home.

Behind him is the DePaul University law school, where, to great praise and applause, he has just told the improbable story of how he—a small-town pharmacist by training, a politician by trade—came to reckon with the death penalty.

Just down the street is the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse building, where, come Sept. 19, he will go on trial on federal corruption charges.

Passersby stare. Some stop and wish him well. A woman asks, "Didn't you used to be Governor George Ryan?" drawing a laugh from the former governor. Then a man approaches. "Didn't you get busted?"

Blinking behind large eyeglasses on this mild day, Ryan briefly stammers and says, no, he has not been arrested. He glances down Jackson Street, searching for the van and looking more than a little like someone eager for an escape.

Ryan gathers himself, then looks the man in the eyes and offers a slight clarification: He was indicted, that is true, but his trial has not yet started.

"Well, if you didn't do it, I hope you beat it," the man says. "If you did, well ..." He then disappears into the thick pedestrian traffic.

This is George Ryan's world: heady afternoons and evenings in which he is greeted as a hero for his historic actions to stop the death penalty, mornings when he wakes to the frightening prospect that, at age 71, he may go to prison.

Ryan passes this time not like a man under siege, but almost as if federal prosecutors never obtained the massive federal indictment that accuses him of selling his office to cronies for cash and favors for him and his family.

Instead, Ryan presses ahead with what he calls his "mission," speaking publicly against the death penalty.

On that issue, Ryan has been in demand since he left office in January 2003, speaking at colleges and law schools across the nation, to activist groups and other organizations, from the American Civil Liberties Union in Peoria to a Rotary Club in Dallas.

On those stages, Ryan finds himself embraced by people who do not care or do not know about the indictment or the scandal that tarnished his tenure as governor.

In Austin, Texas, people ask for his autograph. In Champaign, they marvel at how he did what no other politician would do. And in Mobile, Ala., they tell him that only God could have sent him.

"You've just got to go on," Ryan says during one of a series of interviews during the last seven months, conducted as he traveled to and from the speaking engagements and at his longtime home in Kankakee.

Without a doubt, what happens at the trial will color the legacy of a politician who rose through the ranks over the course of three decades to become governor of the state of Illinois. It may not, however, answer the fundamental questions that continue to trail him.

Is George Ryan a hero of the anti-death penalty movement, an elected official who, by simply following his conscience and emptying Illinois' Death Row, helped change the debate on one of this country's more contentious issues?

Or is he a corrupt politician who adopted capital punishment as an issue to steer attention away from a growing scandal and save his own skin?

Or is he both?

Embracing a new routine

Ryan is in his element: standing at the podium, bathed in the lights of a hotel ballroom. The scene is Austin, the annual conference of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Ryan is the keynote speaker.

The speech Ryan gives now is little different from the one he has given for the last 2 ? years, since the day he stood in Northwestern University law school's ornate Lincoln Hall and commuted the sentences of the 167 inmates then on Death Row to life in prison without parole.

As he often does, Ryan jumbles a few of the facts. As he always does, he mispronounces the last name of Andrew Kokoraleis, who was convicted of the 1982 mutilation and murder of an Elmhurst woman and whose death sentence was the only one Ryan allowed carried out as governor.

These days, however, he gives a more forceful, more articulate defense of his actions and a better explanation of his views on the death penalty.

He describes how, as a state legislator in 1977, he voted to reinstate the death penalty, though he gave the issue little thought. Then, he simply accepted that some convicted murderers—the worst of the worst, he calls them—should be executed.

But, he says, as he learned more about how the death penalty is applied, he came to question it. So in 2000, citing the exoneration of 13 Illinois Death Row inmates, Ryan declared a moratorium on executions.

Then, three years later, frustrated that the General Assembly did not act on a slate of proposals to reform the state's death penalty system, Ryan pardoned four Death Row prisoners and granted commutations to the rest.

Now, he says, he wants to abolish capital punishment altogether. He tells audiences he has "come full circle for a guy who used to be a strong believer to a guy who doesn't see any reason to have it."

Ryan finishes to a rousing standing ovation. Afterward, people surround him in front of the stage, get his autograph and ask to have their picture taken with him. He obliges every request.

Emptying Death Row made Ryan a hero of capital punishment opponents all over the world. Offers to speak about the death penalty began to come in.

But leaving the governor's office also left Ryan adrift. His power was gone. The comforts of office were gone. Instead of traveling with his state police security detail and aides, Ryan now travels mostly alone, which he says he does not mind though friends and others say he dislikes it.

He pulls his own suitcase through airports. He sits at small tables in airport restaurants and eats by himself. He waits alone for his flights.

Other travelers recognize his florid face and corrugated brow, his great mass of shoulders, the dusting of snowy white hair, always neatly combed. And the voice—the baritone. When Ryan speaks, any uncertainty other travelers have of who he is immediately disappears.

They approach him, say hello, pump his hand up and down. For a moment, Ryan is on the campaign trail again. One morning, a man with his young son riding on his shoulders introduced himself to Ryan, and Ryan chatted him up, asking where he was going. Ryan tugged gently at the boy's feet.

Not everyone considers him benignly. Some travelers shake their heads when they see him or, out of earshot, mutter, "His next flight will be on the prison plane" or "Hey, how about getting me a free job."

He knows people say things like that. He does not much care.

"The people who say I'm going to be on the next prison plane," he says, "well, they haven't got the balls to come up to me and say it."

The indictment has changed everything for Ryan, including the company he keeps. Now, he counts radicals, activists and students among his friends. He even agreed to be honorary chairman for an international anti-death penalty group, Hands Off Cain, "a radical, left-wing group I probably shouldn't be involved with," he says.

The Northwestern University law school's Center on Wrongful Convictions offered Ryan the warmest embrace, essentially becoming his staff after he left office and needed to sort through speaking requests. Lawrence Marshall, who had grown close to Ryan as the center's legal director, offered to help him.

Marshall, now a Stanford University law school professor, says he set aside an hour to talk with Ryan. "He said, 'Why do you want to talk about it? I trust you. Just decide which ones are best,'" Marshall says. "He decided that I was an OK guy who he could trust."

Marshall never considered turning his back on the embattled Ryan.

"Look. This guy had stuck his neck out and sacrificed a lot," Marshall says. "The last thing we're going to do is leave him high and dry."

But some friends and former aides, feeling betrayed by the scandal that helped persuade Ryan not to seek re-election, abandoned him.

"Some friends we used to have, we don't hear from them so much anymore," Ryan says. "But you know, I'm not governor anymore, and I don't have anything to give anyone. People call when they want something."

Says Joe Hannon, who headed the state's trade office when Ryan was governor and remains one of his closest friends: "There's an awkwardness. It's a little like going to the hospital to see someone who you know isn't going home."

But in Ryan's new world this awkwardness seldom intrudes, in part because it is not allowed to. Through all of the travel, all of the speeches, all of the awards, the federal indictment is almost never spoken of. It is as if it were a family secret.

At the DePaul law school, professor Andrea Lyon—who invited Ryan and whose client Madison Hobley was one of the Death Row prisoners Ryan pardoned—asked her students not to bring up the indictment.

Lyon, who has since joined Ryan's defense team, did not want to embarrass him.

In Champaign, at the screening of a documentary that focuses on Ryan and the commutations, he was again protected from difficult questions.

As the movie ended, Ryan walked to the front of the theater to a huge ovation. He was prepared to answer questions from the audience. The event's organizer, Rachael Dietkus, issued the audience a stern warning, saying that she would cut off any questioner who went "off topic."

No one did.

Where it all started

It is a Sunday morning. Ryan, just returned from Austin, is speeding south across the state he governed for four years.

At the wheel is Champ Witoski, a retired tool and die maker, a bullet of a man whose mother was so fond of the Hollywood singing cowboy Gene Autry that she named her son after his movie horse, Champion.

Witoski often drives Ryan to his speaking engagements. Ryan sits in the back of his 1991 Ford custom van, in one of the captain's chairs. Witoski calls him "sir."

From his seat—the faux-wood paneling giving the van the look of an office, a syrupy sun flooding in—landmarks and highway signs trigger a stream of memories.

At Kankakee, he asks Witoski to pull off the road for a short tour. Here, he points proudly, is a children's water park named for Ryan and his wife. There is an ice rink under construction, a product of Ryan's $12 billion Illinois FIRST public works program. Here is the George H. Ryan Activities Center at the Kankakee Community College.

In all, Ryan estimates, he delivered more than $150 million in roads, bridges, schools, jails, firetrucks and other projects to Kankakee and the surrounding communities throughout his career.

"I feel pretty good about the 30 years I was in government," he says, ticking off a list of other projects. "We got a lot of things done."

The son of a pharmacist, Ryan was a child when his mother and father came to Illinois from Iowa, first to the South Side of Chicago, then to Kankakee, where the Walgreen's drug store chain transferred his father.

Ryan became a pharmacist, too, helping to run what eventually became the family's chain of four drug stores around Kankakee.

Ryan got his start in politics on the Kankakee County Board. He had helped his brother Tom win election as mayor of Kankakee, and when a spot on the County Board opened, Republican Party officials approached him.

"It was a chance to serve in government without leaving home," Ryan recalled. "It was a chance to get involved."

After six years on the board, the last as chairman, Ryan won a seat in the General Assembly. In time, he became the Republican leader, then speaker of the House, the post in which he began to develop his reputation as a deal-maker who could work across party lines.

He then moved into statewide offices. He served two terms as in the largely ceremonial post of lieutenant governor under Gov. James Thompson, then two terms in the job-heavy secretary of state's office.

Ryan reached the governor's office without any guiding political philosophy, a moderate Republican who governed viscerally, by instinct. He felt free to change his mind and often did, something that he prided himself on but that aides sometimes found frustrating. He could be swayed by an emotional appeal, by the last person who had his ear.

He was a hands-off manager with little interest in the fine details, a governor who preferred bold moves to the tinkering that occupies some chief executives. And he enjoyed the business of politics, especially the job of governor.

"I didn't want to go to bed at night. I couldn't wait to get up in the morning," he says.

Even before his actions on the death penalty, Ryan found ways to anger and alienate his party, especially its more conservative wing.

He opposed abortion, yet supported the use of Medicaid funds for abortions for poor women whose health was in jeopardy. He was a hunter and generally opposed gun control, but favored several gun-control packages. In spite of the U.S. travel restrictions, he visited Cuba twice and met with its leader Fidel Castro.

On no issue, however, did Ryan alienate the Republican faithful more than on the issue of capital punishment.

For most of his political career, Ryan gave it little thought. Then, in a matter of six weeks in 1999, Ryan watched one Death Row inmate go free after university journalism students and a private investigator proved that he was not guilty, and he had to decide if another should be put to death.

Scott Fawell, Ryan's former chief of staff, remembers that Ryan agonized over Kokoraleis' execution, even though there was little doubt as to his guilt.

Now in federal prison for his role in the corruption scandal, Fawell is set to testify against Ryan in exchange for leniency for his girlfriend, who also was swept up in the federal investigation. Fawell, contacted by the Tribune, provided written responses to questions about Ryan, who once treated him as a son.

As Kokoraleis' execution date drew near, Fawell wrote, Ryan "kept saying 'I can't put someone to death' and I kept arguing, 'You're not, the legal system has determined his fate. You just have to get out of the way."

After much thought, Ryan allowed Kokoraleis to be put to death.

"I have no doubt that while he let that one execution be carried out that he knew that was it," Fawell wrote.

Less than a year later, Ryan declared a moratorium on executions and appointed a commission to study the state's death penalty system and to make recommendations for reform. The panel returned with 85 proposals.

After the legislature did not enact his reforms, Ryan faced leaving the governor's office with a death penalty system that was, in his words, "broken."

In his final days as governor, Ryan announced the pardons and the blanket commutation. They were his last significant acts as Illinois' governor.

'Absolutely not guilty'

It was Dec. 23, 2003, and Ryan was sitting in a conference room in his lawyers' downtown offices, surrounded by attorneys, his wife, his friends. His big hands were clasped together. The mood was dark.

"There were two things that I never thought would happen," he told his closest friends that day. "That I'd be governor, and then this."

Days earlier, U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald had announced Ryan's indictment, saying that "what we're alleging in the indictment is that basically the State of Illinois was for sale, for [Ryan's] friends and family at times."

In response, Ryan defiantly told the judge that he was "absolutely not guilty."

Ryan will not discuss specifics of the allegations against him, but he does offer a blanket denial: "I've got nothing to be ashamed of for all the years I spent in government. Those are allegations, and we'll prove they're wrong."

Ryan's indictment was a product of the Operation Safe Road investigation, which has netted six dozen convictions. Launched as an investigation of truck drivers paying bribes to Ryan's secretary of state's office to get licenses, it soon was expanded to encompass broader political corruption.

Federal prosecutors claim that the corruption defined Ryan's tenure as secretary of state and governor and that he took money and favors for himself and for his family in exchange for steering lucrative state contracts to his friends and cronies. He also is charged with lying to federal agents.

Ryan is scheduled to go to trial with Lawrence Warner, a longtime friend and a member of Ryan's so-called "kitchen cabinet" of his closest advisers, in front of U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer. Prosecutors allege that Warner provided cash, loans, gifts and services to Ryan family members totaling $167,000.

Warner also has pleaded not guilty.

Ryan's harshest critics draw a line from the financial corruption to the deaths of six children in a highway crash involving a trucker who paid a bribe to get his license—the event that sparked the investigation and ultimately led to Ryan's indictment.

"His office was a cesspool of corruption," says Joe Power, the attorney who represented the parents of the children killed in the highway crash and who pushed hard for Ryan to be held accountable. "When there's the death of six innocent children, you can understand why public sentiment would call for accountability."

Ryan's supporters suggest Warner and others took advantage of Ryan's good nature and hands-off management style, of a governor who never read the full text of a bill and rarely studied details.

These friends of Ryan's, aides say, had such a run of the office that it sometimes was difficult to get work done.

"If I'd had my druthers I'd have kicked them all out," says Robert Newtson, Ryan's former chief of staff. "These are people who knew George's management style, how he was as a person. I think that they simply took advantage of it."

"Did he do things that were violations of the law? Probably," says former Budget Bureau Director Stephen Schnorf, adding that federal prosecutors twice have interviewed him in their investigation. "Did he do them knowingly, intentionally? I can't imagine that."

Power says Ryan had to know about the wrongdoing in his office.

"Either he was aware of everything going on in the office ... or he's the village idiot," he says. "I will leave that up to others to be judge of."

Prosecutors have suggested Ryan's death penalty actions were corrupt as well, taken only after Ryan knew federal agents were investigating him and intended to deflect attention away from the scandal.

They say, too, that Ryan is trying to use his death penalty actions to construct an image of someone who never would have taken part in corruption.

They point to a Web site, the Friends of George Ryan Fund at, that extols Ryan's accomplishments on capital punishment and solicits contributions.

Those close to Ryan's decisions on the death penalty say the federal investigation was never a factor. They say Ryan acted, as he did on other issues, because he believed that it was right.

"There was no upside at all for us in that issue," Newtson says. "The people we needed on other issues all were mad at us. And all of the death penalty people, well, they'd never be with us on other issues."

Even Scott Fawell, the prosecutors' star witness, contradicts the government's suggestion that Ryan used the death penalty to deflect attention away from the investigation or to curry support with potential jurors.

He wrote, "The death penalty issue was a moral decision he made. Period."

Either way, Pallmeyer ruled recently that Ryan's lawyers cannot tell jurors about his actions on the death penalty as part of his defense.

Finding order, purpose

"If I didn't have that issue," Ryan says, "I'd just be retired."

He is sitting in the family room of his Kankakee home, talking about the death penalty, trying to explain how it fills his days, informs his life.

He is clad in what passes for casual for a man who has worn a suit nearly every day for the last 30 years: gray slacks, a dress shirt, a blue blazer. A portrait done when he was speaker of the Illinois House gazes down at him from over the mantle.

When he's not on the road, life revolves around the modest brick home he has lived in for 40 years, near the Kankakee River and just a block from the house in which he was raised, where his sister still lives.

He runs to the grocery store for his wife. He visits relatives and friends, an increasing number of whom are becoming ill or even dying, he says.

He has been sorting through years of clutter in the basement and the attic, a history of his campaigns, elections and political offices.

He drives a few blocks for donuts, then comes home and climbs the back steps into the kitchen, joking to his wife that maybe he saved two glazed for her.

Last weekend, they drove to Niagara Falls.

If the trial weighs on his mind, it does not show. Although friends say Ryan is fearful of being convicted and sent to prison—and of losing his pension—he speaks of the trial with supreme confidence, as if it is merely a nuisance to be dispatched with as quickly as possible.

When he leaves home it usually is because he is speaking on the death penalty. The issue—reading the latest articles and books, talking with advocates, proselytizing—has given his life a sense of order, purpose. Recently, he has been speaking Sundays at area churches.

For Ryan there are the crowds that support him, crowds that he hopes to win over and crowds he has no chance of winning, although he appears to relish the chance to try.

One warm and humid morning late in the spring, Ryan strides into a private club on the outskirts of Dallas for a local Rotary meeting. The Dallas skyline is in the distance.

Unlike the majority of Ryan's other audiences, this one is almost exclusively male and almost all white. It is well-to-do, mostly Dallas-area business people. They also are ardent death penalty supporters.

This is the first time Ryan has encountered a crowd that is not on his side from the start and likely will not be converted easily.

As the club members push away their breakfast plates and turn their chairs to listen to Ryan, they appear respectful but skeptical.

Because Ryan does not tailor his speech for each new audience, there sometimes are odd moments. When he asks whether anyone in the suit-and-tie crowd knows anyone on Death Row, the crowd appears puzzled.

Then, after talking about how racism has infected the system, he asks the crowd, "How would you like to sit before an all-white jury?"

Again, puzzled.

Then he heads into the body of his speech and, as he always does, he gains a head of steam. He tells his story, from the man who pushed the green button as a legislator to reinstate the death penalty in Illinois, to the man who ended it.

"Who the hell am I," he says, "to say that a man should die?"

At the end, Ryan agrees to take questions. One man asks about abortion, seeming to confuse Ryan briefly. Ryan gives the question a brusque dismissal. "I'm here," he says, "for the death penalty."

When Ryan dodges a question, someone from the back of the room says, "You're not answering the question, governor." No one on the lecture circuit has said something like that before. But when a member tries to come to Ryan's rescue, Ryan shrugs it off and asks for more questions.

"Come on," Ryan says. "Bring them on."

When no one raises a hand, he gives the audience a satisfied look.

"Any more?" Ryan asks, almost baiting the audience. "No? You guys are easy."