- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 2, 2003

CHICAGO (AP) With Gov. George Ryan down to his last few days in office, the question is whether history will remember him for his stand against capital punishment or for a corruption scandal that shattered his party and his career.

Mr. Ryan, 68, has tried to build his legacy around his crusade to reform Illinois' death penalty. In 2000 he took the unprecedented step of suspending all executions. And before he leaves office on Jan. 13, he will decide whether to commute the sentences of any or all of the 160 inmates on death row.

At the same time, a scandal that began with an investigation into the payment of bribes for driver's licenses has engulfed Mr. Ryan's administration. And federal prosecutors appear to be closing in on Mr. Ryan himself.

When he steps down after a single term, Mr. Ryan will leave behind a Republican Party demoralized by the scandal and torn apart by infighting. Illinois Republicans lost almost every statewide office in November even as the GOP swept to victory elsewhere around the country.

"In the last two weeks, if he found Osama bin Laden, it would not be his legacy it would be the scandal he has endured throughout his entire term as governor," said Paul Green, a professor of public policy at Chicago's Roosevelt University.

Mr. Ryan won acclaim in many quarters for declaring a moratorium on executions and for touring the country to rail against a system that has released 13 wrongfully convicted men from Illinois' death row since 1977.

But even on that issue, Mr. Ryan has made missteps. After he indicated last spring that he might grant blanket clemency to all death-row inmates, most of them filed petitions seeking his help. That set the stage for a widely criticized series of hearings in the fall that replayed some of the state's most gruesome murders in front of victims' families. After the hearings, Mr. Ryan said he was no longer inclined to grant blanket clemency.

Just before Mr. Ryan was elected in 1998, prosecutors launched an investigation into the buying of driver's licenses when Mr. Ryan was secretary of state. The secretary of state oversees Illinois' motor vehicle agency.

Indictments piled up during Mr. Ryan's four years as governor, eventually reaching his inner circle of friends. Investigators' focus shifted to accusations that his campaign operation used state workers and resources.

The governor's approval ratings had hit rock-bottom in 2001 when he announced he would not seek re-election.

The result was a bitter, three-way Republican primary that emphasized divisions between conservatives and centrists. The eventual GOP nominee, conservative-leaning Attorney General Jim Ryan, spent much of the general election reminding voters that he was not related by blood or politics to the governor.

On Election Day, the Democrats captured all but one statewide office in Illinois and both chambers of the Legislature. Rep. Rod R. Blagojevich was elected Illinois' first Democratic governor in 26 years.

"Even though Ryan got some very good marks for his review of the death penalty, the bottom line was that voters simply felt embarrassed by his administration," said John Zogby of the political polling firm Zogby International.

Although Mr. Ryan has not been charged in the scandal, court papers filed by prosecutors in mid-December claimed for the first time that Mr. Ryan knew aides were destroying documents to try to thwart the investigation.

Mr. Ryan has declined to talk about the latest filing, but in the past has denied knowing anything about wrongdoing in the office. He issued a statement that said "there are two sides to every story" and that his conscience was clear.

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