State of the State: Government service isn't supposed to be about helping yourself
To hear him tell it, Scott Fawell never let good government get in the way of politics.
His approach wouldn't be unusual for a high-priced political consultant. The problem is, Fawell has "been on a lot of state payrolls."
And it's hardly a revelation. Much of the first day of testimony in the federal corruption trial of former Gov. George Ryan focused on a faulty firewall between government and politics.
Fawell, Ryan's former chief of staff, is the prosecution's star witness. And he delivered a first-day performance worthy of marquee status. But the headliners are Ryan, a Kankakee Republican, and Larry Warner, a Chicago businessman who benefited from close ties to the former governor and secretary of state.
The questions are whether Ryan went out of his way to see that Warner and other pals were enriched at taxpayer expense, and whether he received illicit rewards from elected office.
Citizens expect their elected leaders to put the public interest first. Politics might run a close second. But government service isn't supposed to be about helping yourself. Over the next few months, a jury will have to decide:
Was George Ryan loyal to the public or beholden to a handful of loyalists?
"This is a case about betrayal of the public trust," Assistant U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon rather succinctly declared in a 90-minute opening statement that wound through a maze of state contracts and leases, ultimately leading to a briar patch of alleged payoffs. Prosecutors hope that, after months of testimony, jurors will follow the same path to guilty verdicts.
They pointed out that before Ryan became secretary of state in 1991, Warner had no interests in government. He then reaped $3.1 million from state leases and contracts under Ryan. "He gave Larry Warner the keys to the state government kingdom," Fardon told jurors.
In exchange for helping Warner and other insiders, prosecutors say Ryan "lived large," enjoying casino junkets and Caribbean vacations while routinely carrying a "thick wad of cash."
"For over a decade, these defendants participated in a scheme, a scheme to make money at the expense of the taxpayers," Fardon said, arguing that the parties were too smart to get caught engaging in outright bribery. "This is not," he said, "a case about unsophisticated defendants who stand out in public squares under crystal blue skies and hand each other money."
Meanwhile, Ryan and Warner have retained a team of high-priced defense attorneys who argue that the former governor could have been more circumspect with his inner circle, but certainly didn't commit any crime.
Over the next few months, a jury will have to decide: Was George Ryan loyal to the public or beholden to a handful of loyalists?
"The government did today what I call cherry picking," Ryan attorney Dan Webb told jurors a few hours after Fardon delivered his stinging rebuke. Warner was Ryan's longtime friend, not a "two-dimensional, comic-book character called 'fixer,'" said Terry Gillespie, who delivered opening remarks for Warner, a Chicago insurance adjuster.
"He didn't get off a park bench in 1991 and get into business," Gillespie told jurors. "His friendship didn't start in 1991, just like his business interest didn't start in 1991."
On a large overhead screen that dominated one corner of the federal courtroom, Webb displayed the Kankakee house Ryan and wife Lura Lynn purchased four decades ago for $34,000. If Ryan had been raking in illicit payoffs, Webb asked, how could the modest home be his only asset?
But prosecutors say even the house was entangled in a web of corruption. In a 22-count indictment against Ryan and Warner, prosecutors allege that Warner fronted Ryan the money to put a new roof on the home. The 1996 loan, a portion of which Ryan may have repaid, is among $167,000 in perks prosecutors say Ryan received. The tainted benefits, they charge, include a $3,185 check Warner wrote to cover the band at Ryan's daughter's wedding.
Gillespie dismissed that piece of evidence as a "bridal gift, not a bribe."
He applied a similar rationale to $145,000 in loans Warner made to a failing security business owned by Ryan's brother and $8,326 in construction work to fix a flooding problem at the home of a Ryan daughter. These and other benefits are why four of six Ryan children have been barred from the courtroom.
The prosecution plans to put them onthe stand.
While part of the prosecution's case, most of those perks don't feed the perception that Ryan lived large. For that, there was Harry Klein, a Chicago currency exchange mogul who frequently hosted Ryan at his Seven Seas Villa in Montego Bay, Jamaica. The prosecution filled the courtroom's large projection screen with several shots of the resort, including one of a poolside patio.
"We'd sit around that table, drink some Red Stripes, you know, bullshitting," Fawell said, telling prosecutors that was the spot where Ryan told him to write Klein a $1,000 check for a week-long stay. Free lodging could look bad, Fawell said, because Ryan's secretary of state's office regulated how much Klein's currency exchanges could charge for state license plate stickers. Fawell testified that it was the first of several times he would write a $1,000 check, and Klein would hand him 10 $100 bills.
Before becoming governor, Ryan hiked the fee currency exchanges could charge for selling vehicle stickers. It was the only fee Ryan raised in eight years as secretary of state, Fawell testified.
Increasing fees makes for bad press. And Scott Fawell's job was to avoid bad press. And to run elections. In 1988, Fawell was overseeing George H.W. Bush's presidential campaign in Illinois. Fawell was working 12 or 14 hours a day, seven days a week for the Bush campaign. But that didn't stop him
from taking a job with Ryan, who was lieutenant governor at the time.
The prosecution displayed state payroll checks cashed well before Election Day 1988. It wasn't until late January of 1989 that Fawell set foot in Ryan's lieutenant governor's office. His first office task? "I was looking for political talent that I could then use for a campaign," Fawell testified. "I view everything through the eyes of politics."
That is the problem. And the reason why Fawell is serving six and a half years in federal prison for what he blithely described as "racketeering and other assorted misdeeds."
Fawell was good at his job. He helped Ryan win his first term as secretary of state. Then, in 1994, team Ryan "beat [Pat] Quinn like a tom-tom" for a second term, Fawell boasted.
When Ryan ran for governor in 1998, news reports showed that he had raised more than $1 million from secretary of state employees. Former U.S. Rep. Glenn Poshard, Ryan's Democratic opponent, tried to connect the campaign cash to a licenses-for-bribes scandal at a Libertyville licensing facility. The Ryan campaign dismissed the scandal as an isolated incident, arguing Ryan should not be held accountable for the misdeeds of a few rogue employees.
The Ryan camp expressed outrage when a Poshard TV commercial linked malfeasance in the secretary of state's office to a fiery 1994 accident that killed six Chicago children. A part had fallen off a semitrailer and ruptured the gas tank of their parents' minivan. The truck driver, who spoke no English, allegedly paid a bribe to receive his commercial license from an Illinois secretary of state facility.
The accident launched the federal Operation Safe Road investigation that has led to 79 indictments, including roughly 30 against current or former state employees and state officials. Two of the indictments were Fawell's. He is among 73 individuals convicted since the probe began in 1998.
At first, Fawell remained loyal to Ryan, an interesting position for a man prosecutors say had extramarital affairs with seven or eight women in the dozen years he worked for the state. Fawell wouldn't roll for a chance to reduce his prison sentence.
But these days, his strongest loyalty is to Alexandra "Andrea" Coutretsis, Fawell's former assistant and partner in one of those affairs. She's now his fiancée, and Fawell hopes to keep her out of prison.
Coutretsis was charged in connection with a bid-rigging scheme prosecutors say took place while Fawell ran McPier. The agency oversees McCormick Place, Chicago's sprawling lakefront convention center, and Navy Pier, one of the city's top tourist attractions. A plum position, the McPier job was a post-election gift from Ryan.
Later, Ryan allegedly convinced Fawell to help lobbyist Ron Swanson land a $60,000-a-year McPier contract that required no work. Prosecutors say it was one of many instances when Ryan made sure that Swanson — a close associate with nearly unfettered access — made money off state government.
In one case, Fawell said the hallways of a Springfield building were counted as office space so that a lease Swanson was to profit from would look like a better deal for taxpayers. Fawell's chief concern was that Swanson's name be "buried in the paperwork" so "the press wouldn't find him."
Fawell said he had similar worries over deals involving Warner. And, apparently, there were a lot of them. Fawell expressed disbelief when prosecutors said Warner's requests took up only five pages of a massive favors list Fawell compiled while working for Ryan. This list became so cumbersome, Fawell charged subordinates with making regular updates.
This is what taxpayers paid George Ryan's right-hand man to do. But whether the prosecution snares Ryan, citizens have a right to expect better from their elected leaders.
Pat Guinane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illinois Issues, November 2005