Column: Blindness, greed earn Ryan his six-year prison sentence

By Brenda Zylstra

A gray-haired old man, surrounded by his devoted wife of over 50 years, loving children and grandchildren, stands before a judge. This man, a public servant who has devoted years of his life toiling untold hours for the betterment of the people must now be ripped apart from his family to spend six and a half of his precious last years trapped behind bars because, in his own words, “I simply didn’t do enough. I should have been more vigilant. Should have been more watchful.”

Nearly twelve years ago, another family was forcibly ripped apart. A semi smashed into Scott and Janet Willis and their six young children in a fiery explosion that took the lives of all six children. Benjamin, Joseph, Samuel, Hank, Elizabeth and Peter. Young and innocent, their lives were snuffed out and just like that, Scott and Janet were left alone, and no amount of watching on their part could have prevented that heartbreaking tragedy.

It is the truck driver who connects these stories. A man who couldn’t even understand English and yet had his CDL license. A license received in exchange for a contribution to former Gov. George Ryan (at the time Secretary of State), who if you haven’t already guessed, is the pitiful old man described above.

Last week Ryan was sentenced to six and a half years. Ryan and his lawyers pled the image of an elderly family man who deserves mercy for his years of public service.

This representation fails to mention the massive corruption, bribery and dishonesty under Ryan. It forgets those who worked below Ryan, who had the choice of going along with the corruption or losing their paychecks. It leaves out the thousands of incompetent truck drivers loose on expressways across the country. It overlooks the nine people who lost their lives, including the six Willis children, because Ryan would rather increase his gubernatorial chances than do his best to ensure the safety of the citizens of Illinois – his job.

Perhaps the most despicable thing about this whole ordeal is Ryan’s lack of contrition. After the death of the Willis children, Ryan lied, manipulated the investigation, even closed the inspector general’s office to ward off blame. Never did Ryan personally extend his condolences to Scott and Janet Willis. Not so much as a letter did they receive from the man who sold their children’s safety for 30 shekels of silver. He never said sorry. Daily Southtown columnist Phil Cadner referred to Ryan as “evil incarnate” and after just a brief summation of his crimes, it’s hard to disagree.

From the beginning of the eight-year investigation into Ryan’s wrongdoings, through the six-month trial, up to his sentencing last week, Ryan has never admitted to criminal wrong-doing or expressed regret for any crime. He has maintained an attitude of proud naivety. The best he could offer last Thursday was “When they elected me governor of this state, they expected better, and I let them down, and for that I apologize,” later adding, “I am proud of the life I have had.”

Proud of what, George? Proud of pretending you have done nothing wrong? Proud of your contribution to the loss of nine human lives? Proud of nullifying any good you might have done by becoming just another crooked politician? Proud of making everyone who knows your story just a little bit more cynical?

I am ashamed. Ashamed that Ryan refuses to own up to his misdeeds. Ashamed of the leniancy of the judge. Ashamed that it has taken so long for this justice to arrive. Ashamed that our current governor is already under investigation for corruption.

But most of all I am saddened. By the thought of the broken and battered Willis family. How Ryan not just as a governor, but as a human being, so callously ignored their tragedy. And how much harder Ryan has made it for myself and others to believe in the possibility of an honorable man who could be a servant of the people, uncorrupted by power.

I’ll be watching for that man.