Court back in session today

Court back in session today

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 CHICAGO - Critics of the death penalty worldwide have hailed George Ryan as a prophet.

Admirers say Ryan should get the Nobel Peace Prize for stopping executions in Illinois and using his power as governor to commute the sentences of 167 prisoners on death row.

But for weeks now, the former governor has been sitting in a federal courtroom during his racketeering and fraud trial, listening to prosecutors paint him as a liar and a crook who swapped millions of dollars in state contracts for freebies ranging from vacations in Jamaica to repairs on his leaky roof.

"He worked his whole life to be governor - it was his dream in politics and it turned out to be a nightmare," says political scientist Paul Green who has known and liked Ryan for decades.

In 13 weeks, prosecution witnesses have spun out a tale of cash stuffed in envelopes, hidden in desk drawers and laundered to evade taxes. Ryan's outer office has been described as crowded with lobbyist pals lounging on sofas, smoking cigars, watching TV, talking sports and putting in their two-cents on big-money issues.

The 71-year-old Ryan has remained stoic through most of it.

The trial before U.S. District Judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer begins its 14th week today after a long holiday break.

Prosecutors say they may rest their case by the middle of the month, but defense attorneys say it could be March before the case finally goes to the jury.

Conviction could send Ryan to federal prison for years.

As Ryan left for an 11-day holiday break at the family home in downstate Kankakee where he started his career behind a drug store counter, he told reporters about his plans for a traditional Christmas with his grown children and grandchildren around him and a visit from Santa Claus.

"It's important to have Santa Claus every year," he said.

Prosecutors say Ryan played Santa Claus to an elite circle of lobbyists and business friends, including co-defendant Larry Warner, by steering major contracts their way. Both Ryan and Warner say they did nothing illegal.

Prosecutors say the 67-year-old Warner, who launched his lobbying career following Ryan's election as secretary of state in 1990, landed a $26.8 million state computer contract for International Business Machines Corp.

Warner pocketed $1 million in lobbying fees from the computer giant, prosecutors say.

Retired lobbyist and Ryan political adviser Donald Udstuen says Warner shared the booty with him. Udstuen testified that he hid it in his desk at the Illinois State Medical Society after laundering it through a business consulting firm. Udstuen has pleaded guilty to tax fraud conspiracy and is awaiting sentencing.

The trial's stories of ruse and intrigue keep coming.

"It gives us a great deal of insight into the way government does business," says political consultant Don Rose. "Whether or not you find Ryan guilty, you see the relation of lobbyists to government contracts and how the process of spending the people's money is determined."

Udstuen says that former state Sen. Ron Swanson, a longtime Ryan crony, slipped an envelope stuffed with $4,000 in cash to him in the basement men's room of a Ryan administration hangout.

The 78-year-old Swanson is now awaiting sentence after pleading guilty to lying to a federal grand jury.

y, allegedly described the money as a thank-you to Udstuen for getting a group of Wisconsin utility executives who were having dinner upstairs to hire Swanson as a lobbyist.

Udstuen says he told Swanson that it was Ryan who picked Swanson to lobby Ryan's Environmental Protection Agency in favor of the power plant the executives wanted to build.

"You know I always take care of George," Udstuen quoted Swanson as saying in reply.

But Ryan isn't charged with taking bribes. Instead, he's accused of defrauding the state by denying it his honest services, for eight years as secretary of state and later as governor.

The charge is that he did favors for friends and they showered him with goodies.

Ryan, his wife and an entourage of pals and staff aides spent a week or two every winter for a decade at the Jamaican oceanside villa of currency exchange mogul Harry Klein.

As secretary of state, Ryan also raised fees that currency exchanges can charge customers for license plate services and rented a Klein property for use as a drivers licensing center.

Defense attorney Dan K. Webb says Ryan did nothing illegal.

Webb and a small army from the high-powered Chicago law firm of Winston & Strawn say Klein was merely being a friend to Ryan by serving as his host. They say currency exchanges deserved a fee hike after years of going without and the state got its money's worth from landlord Klein.

Winston & Strawn has mobilized star litigator Webb and a host of others to try to dig Ryan out of legal trouble for free because Ryan ran out of money to pay his legal bills long before the trial started.

Crain's Chicago Business recently estimated that the firm is losing $10 million to provide a deluxe criminal defense to the state's one-time most powerful Republican and do it pro bono.

Webb says that number is too high. But the cost is certain to be hefty.

The reason is most likely rooted in Ryan's longtime friendship with the head of Winston & Strawn, former Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson. They go way back. Ryan was his lieutenant governor.

For Ryan, his problems began on Election Day 1994. While he was winning a second term as secretary of state, six children in one family were burned to death in a Wisconsin car-truck accident.

The death of the six children of Chicago minister Scott and Janet Willis horrified the state and eventually triggered an investigation of bribes exchanged for Illinois drivers licenses.

More than seventy former state officials, truckers, driving instructors and political figures have been convicted in what evolved into a full-blown political corruption probe and prosecutors have traced $150,000 of the payoff money to the Citizens for Ryan campaign fund.

Jurors have heard little about the drivers license scandal. Ryan isn't charged with it.

But there has been no shortage of other scandals laid out during the trial.

Much recent testimony has focused on the tiny town of Grayville - population 1,700 - in southern Illinois where locals hankered for a new state prison and the jobs it would bring.

On Feb. 23, 2001, Ryan decided to put a maximum security prison in Grayville.

That information was supposed to be kept confidential under Illinois law. But former federal prosecutor Matt Bettenhausen testified that Ryan emerged from the meeting to find his old friend, Ron Swanson, standing near the door and immediately blurted out the Grayville selection.

Witnesses say Swanson then hurriedly got Grayville civic boosters to pay him $50,000 to lobby for the selection of their town as the prison site - something he knew was a sure thing.

Defense attorneys say Ryan's tipping off of Swanson was just chitchat - not a corrupt act.

"Did he seem to be hiding anything?" Webb asked Bettenhausen.

Bettenhausen smiled. "No," he said.

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