Ex-Gov. Ryan sentenced to more than six years in prison

Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, left, leaves federal court in Chicago after his conviction of racketeering and fraud charges in this April 17, 2006, file photo. On Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2006, Ryan was sentenced was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in a corruption The Associated Press

Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, left, leaves federal court in Chicago after his conviction of racketeering and fraud charges in this April 17, 2006, file photo. On Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2006, Ryan was sentenced was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in a corruption The Associated Press

CHICAGO – Former Gov. George Ryan, who gained international fame as a critic of the death penalty, was sentenced Wednesday to 6 1/2 years in federal prison for steering big-money state contracts to political insiders, using taxpayer dollars for his campaign and other offenses.

“When they elected me as the governor of this state they expected better, and I let them down,” the 72-year-old Ryan told U.S. District Judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer before she imposed the sentence.

“I should have been more vigilant, I obviously failed,” Ryan said. He called it “the saddest day of my life” and asked the judge to give him a break “if you believe there is some good in me and my life is not solely confined or defined in the pages of an indictment.”

Ryan was convicted April 18 of racketeering, mail fraud, tax fraud, filing false tax returns and lying to FBI agents. Businessman Larry Warner, who was being sentenced later Wednesday was convicted along with Ryan.

The sentencing capped an eight-year federal investigation of corruption in state government in the Ryan era that has seen 79 individuals charged and 75 convicted.

“Government leaders have an obligation to stand as the example,” Pallmeyer said. “Mr. Ryan failed to meet that standard.”

In addition to his sentence, Pallmeyer ordered Ryan to pay $603,348 in restitution for money the state lost through overpriced leases that Ryan was convicted of steering to political insiders. However, it remains unclear if he will be able to pay any of it because his attorneys say he is broke.

Pallmeyer ordered Ryan to report to prison Jan. 4, but whether he will actually have to do so remains unsettled. His attorneys are trying to keep him free on bond pending appeal – a matter that Pallmeyer will decide on later.

Federal prosecutors had asked for a sentence of eight to 10 years. Defense attorneys argued to Pallmeyer that even a sentence of up to 30 months could deprive Ryan of the last healthy years of his life.

A jury deliberated for 10 days before convicting Ryan in April of racketeering conspiracy, mail fraud and other offenses while he was secretary of state from 1991 to 1999 and governor of Illinois for four years after that.

The guilty verdict capped the state’s biggest political corruption trial in decades.

Even as Ryan faced the federal charges, he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his January 2003 decision to commute all Illinois death sentences to life in prison after 13 men sentenced to death in the state were later found to have been wrongfully convicted and freed.

The trial of Ryan and Warner stretched for seven months. Prosecutors say evidence at the trial shows Ryan doled big-money contracts and leases out to his longtime friend, businessman-lobbyist Warner and other insiders and in return received benefits ranging from Caribbean vacations to a free golf bag.

Ryan, a husky-voiced former pharmacist from downstate Kankakee, also used state money and state workers for his campaigns, the government alleged.

Prosecutors contended that Ryan got rid of investigators in the secretary of state’s office to hide the flow of payoff money into the Citizens for Ryan campaign fund from the sale of driver’s licenses.

Ryan and the soft-spoken, 67-year-old Warner have maintained that nothing they did in connection with leases and contracts was illegal. During the trial, Ryan’s attorneys pounded away on the theme that no one ever testified to seeing Ryan take a payoff.

The same jury that found Ryan guilty convicted Warner of racketeering conspiracy, mail fraud, attempted extortion, illegally structuring bank withdrawals and money laundering.

Prosecutors argued in advance of the sentencing that Ryan should get between eight and 10 years in prison. They said federal guidelines called for a sentence in that range. But the guidelines are no longer mandatory.

The maximum sentence for racketeering conspiracy alone is 20 years. In addition to that charge, Ryan was convicted of mail fraud, lying to FBI agents, tax fraud and filing false tax returns.

Defense attorneys pleaded for mercy in court papers saying that Ryan had reached an “advanced age” and was plagued by Crohn’s disease, diverticulitis and high cholesterol.

They said anything more than a short term would end up being a life sentence.

“The public shaming that Ryan has endured combined with the impending loss of his pension greatly lessens the need for the court to punish through the sentencing process,” Ryan’s lawyers said in court papers.

They said Ryan “has been publicly and universally humiliated.”

“It is not necessary to impose a life sentence to reflect the seriousness of the offense,” they said.

Ryan’s campaign manager and chief of staff, Scott Fawell, is currently serving a 61/2-year sentence in federal prison for racketeering and other offenses in the secretary of state’s office under Ryan.

Prosecutors said anything less for Ryan himself would be unfair.

The death of six children in a November 1994 Wisconsin expressway tragedy was the catalyst that helped to set in motion the government’s eight-year investigation of corruption in the Ryan era.

A heavy steel part broke off of a truck and slid under the van carrying the family of the Rev. Scott Willis and his wife Janet. The steel piece ripped open the van’s gas tank and set it ablaze. Five of the six children were killed immediately and the sixth died hours later.

Investigators found evidence that the truck driver was unqualified to be behind the wheel but had gotten his license through a payoff at the secretary of state’s corruption-riddled McCook licensing station.

Federal prosecutors eventually traced thousands of dollars in payoff money to the Citizens for Ryan campaign fund.

The investigation began by focusing on bribes paid for truck drivers licenses but gradually expanded to include a smorgasbord of payoffs, campaign corruption, money laundering, lobbying abuses and cover-ups.