- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 17, 2003

CHICAGO (AP) — Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan was indicted yesterday on federal charges of taking payoffs, gifts and vacations in return for government contracts and leases while he was governor and secretary of state.

Mr. Ryan, 69, a Republican known worldwide as a leading critic of the death penalty, gradually became the focus of a corruption investigation that began even before his 1998 election as governor. The scandal was a factor in his 2001 decision not to seek a second term.

The investigation initially focused on bribes purportedly exchanged for licenses for unqualified truck drivers, but was later expanded to a range of suspected bribery and other corruption in the Ryan era.

Mr. Ryan, who served as secretary of state from 1991 to 1999, has said he knew there was a culture of corruption in the Secretary of State’s Office, but was unaware of the specifics.

The indictment purports that for more than a decade, Mr. Ryan let his friends wield great influence in state government and profit from his positions as secretary of state and governor.

“The charged conduct by former Gov. Ryan reflects a disturbing violation of trust,” U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald said in a statement. “Ryan is charged with betraying the citizens of Illinois for over a decade on state business, both large and small.”

Mr. Ryan did not immediately return a telephone call for comment, and no one answered the door at his home in Kankakee. Lawyer Timothy Rooney, a legal partner of Ryan’s defense attorney, Dan K. Webb, said there would be no immediate comment, but that a statement would be released.

Mr. Ryan became the 66th person charged in the investigation; 59 persons and his campaign committee have been convicted so far.

Mr. Ryan, a hearty, deep-voiced former drugstore owner, had served as a state representative, lieutenant governor and secretary of state before his election as governor.

Soon after his election as governor, though, federal prosecutors began presenting evidence that bribery was widespread at driver’s licensing stations when he was secretary of state.

The federal investigation was launched after six children in one family died in a fiery accident on a Wisconsin expressway involving a trucker who may have bought his driver’s license.

Prosecutors traced $170,000 in payoff money to the Citizens for Ryan campaign fund.

Prosecutors eventually won convictions against two of Mr. Ryan’s top aides, including his chief of staff and the inspector general, who was supposed to ferret out misconduct in the Secretary of State’s Office, but admitted spending seven years covering up scandals instead.

Mr. Ryan declined to seek a second term, and his unpopularity was considered a major reason Republican candidates were routed statewide in the 2002 election.

While his popularity plummeted in his home state, Mr. Ryan was winning praise nationally and internationally as a leading critic of capital punishment.

He declared a moratorium on capital punishment in Illinois after it was discovered that 13 wrongfully convicted men had been sent to death row.

In January 2003, just before leaving office, he pardoned four condemned prisoners and commuted the death sentences of 167 others to life in prison.

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