Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, death-penalty foe, sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison for graft

Thursday, September 7th 2006, 8:38 am
By: News On 6

CHICAGO (AP) _ Former Gov. George Ryan and his legal team are holding on to a slim hope that he still can avoid federal prison despite his 6 1/2-year sentence for racketeering conspiracy and other crimes.

Claiming that jury deliberations were flawed, Ryan's lawyers are trying to keep him out of prison on bond while his case is being appealed.

``Because of the errors that occurred at trial an appeal bond should be granted,'' defense counsel Dan K. Webb told reporters Wednesday after Ryan was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer.

Ryan, 72, was convicted in April of racketeering conspiracy, fraud and other offenses for taking payoffs from political insiders in exchange for state business while he was Illinois secretary of state from 1991 to 1999 and governor for four years after that. At the same time, Ryan was acclaimed by capital punishment foes for suspending executions in Illinois and emptying out death row.

The verdict capped Illinois' biggest political corruption trial in decades.

Before granting an appeal bond, Pallmeyer would have to believe Ryan has a good chance of getting his conviction overturned. Ryan's lawyers claim that's likely.

``Someday his conviction will be reversed and Gov. Ryan will put this conviction behind him,'' Webb said.

Prosecutors say Ryan steered big-money state contracts and leases to his longtime friend, businessman-lobbyist Larry Warner, and other insiders while in office, used tax dollars in his campaign and covered up campaign fundraising through the sale of truck drivers licenses.

Ryan struck an apologetic tone before he was sentenced Wednesday.

``When they elected me governor of this state, (people) expected better and I let 'em down, and for that I apologize,'' Ryan said.

He called Wednesday ``the saddest day of my life.''

Defense attorneys had argued that even a sentence of up to 30 months could deprive Ryan of spending the last years of his life with his family. They said he has illnesses including Crohn's disease, diverticulitis and high cholesterol.

The scandal that led to Ryan's downfall began over a decade ago with a fiery van crash in Wisconsin that killed six children. The 1994 wreck exposed a scheme inside the Illinois secretary of state's office in which truck drivers obtained licenses for bribes, and the probe expanded to other corruption.

Seventy-nine former state officials, lobbyists, truck drivers and others have been charged. Seventy-five have been convicted, including Ryan's longtime top aide, Scott Fawell, a star witness at Ryan's trial.

Prosecutor Patrick Collins referenced Fawell in arguing for a tough sentence for Ryan.

``Mr. Ryan's conduct is more egregious,'' Collins said. ``Mr. Ryan took the oath of office. Scott Fawell did not. Mr. Fawell did the dirty work, but Mr. Ryan was in charge.''

Pallmeyer also ordered Ryan to pay $603,348 in restitution for money the state lost through overpriced leases that Ryan was convicted of steering to Warner and other political insiders.

In 2000, Ryan, as governor, declared a moratorium on executions in Illinois after 13 death row inmates were found to have been wrongly convicted. Then, days before he left office in 2003, he emptied out death row, commuting the sentences of all 167 inmates to life in prison. He declared that the state's criminal justice system was ``haunted by the demon of error.''

Even as he faced scandal back home, Ryan accepted speaking invitations across the country and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his criticism of the death penalty.