In the next 24 hours, former governor George Ryan is expected to be released from prison after serving five years for political corruption. Guilty of all charges, Ryan has battled the legal system tirelessly since his indictment in 2003, but one of it paid off. Tomorrow, at the age of 78, he officially walks past the prison walls for the first time.
How did one of the state’s most powerful men find himself on the wrong side of the law?
The federal investigation was dubbed Operation: Safe Road, known to many as Licenses for Bribes. It reeled in about 75 convictions. George Ryan was the biggest fish in the pond. He was charged with wrongdoing as both secretary of state and governor. It is the tale of a towering politician toppled by his own greed.
George Ryan was at the top of his game, receiving worldwide attention for his 1999 moratorium on executions in Illinois and for commuting more than 160 death sentences in 2003.
Instead, that same year, after leaving the governor’s office, he found himself in and out of court on racketeering and fraud charges that would scar his reputation, empty his savings and ruin his retirement years because Ryan wanted a trial.
He hired friend and powerhouse defense attorney Dan Webb to represent him.
The 2005 trial lasted about seven months. In that time, Ryan declined to testify, but more than a hundred witnesses were marched in and out of court to tell their version of the licenses for bribes scandal that plagued Illinois. Ryan’s former chief of staff Scott Fawell took the stand as well as countless others, including former Republican senator Phil Gramm. In his testimony, the one-time presidential hopeful referred to Ryan as a “political prostitute.”
Two people who did not take the stand: Rev. Scott Willis and his wife Janet. The parents, who on November 8th 1994, voted to re-elect George Ryan before hitting the road with six of their children in their van. That van burst into flames killing all six kids aboard and setting off the Operation Safe Roads investigation that would, in the end, bring down Ryan. The truck driver involved in the accident got his license illegally through Ryan’s Secretary of State Office.
The lengthy trial was complicated by questionable jury deliberations, giving Ryan, or so he thought, grounds for appeal. In the end, Illinois’ 39th Governor was guilty on all counts and he was forced to served his full sentence, getting out this week for good behavior.
By his side every day in court was Ryan’s loyal wife, Lura Lynn. She was frail, but present-supportive in every way. When George Ryan said goodbye to civilian life in November of 2007, he also said goodbye to his wife of 50 years. In June of 2011, Lura Lynn died while Ryan was serving time. So did his brother.
The pharmacist turned Republican politician’s fall from grace was yet another black eye for the state of Illinois. This week, Ryan will re-enter society at the Salvation Army on Chicago’s near west side. Far from a fresh start for inmate #16627-424 and the end of a very sad chapter.