Management & Labor

Tragic Official of the Year

Every year, this magazine honors people who have accomplished impressive things in state or local government.
by | October 2002

Every year, this magazine honors people who have accomplished impressive things in state or local government. This year, there are 11 of them; as always, one is a governor. I'm not supposed to say who it is yet--that gets announced next month--but I can disclose the name of one governor who didn't get a moment's consideration: George H. Ryan of Illinois.

Ryan is leaving office after one term as a pariah, shunned even by his old colleagues and friends. Fellow Republicans run commercials denouncing him. The GOP gubernatorial nominee says Ryan "ran the worst administration in the history of Illinois." When it came time for the annual Governor's Day at the Illinois State Fair this summer, the sponsors changed the name to Republican Day to avoid embarrassment. Nevertheless, hardly anyone came.

Humiliation of this sort would be somewhat unusual punishment even for a governor who had done everything wrong--squandered the treasury, picked fights with the legislature, misbehaved horribly in his personal life. But Ryan has done none of those things. In fact, many who denounce him in public admit in private that he has been competent, effective and often courageous.

He will leave office in disgrace next year not because of anything he did as governor, but because of crimes committed by other people long before he became governor. Is that fair? I'm afraid so.

To understand what's happened to Ryan, it might be helpful to take a short detour into the recesses of my home state's politics. In Illinois, the Secretary of State is not merely an election referee or document collector, as in many other states. He is the czar of motor vehicles and driver registration. When you want a driver's license, you go to a branch office of the Secretary of State. And it has been common knowledge for decades, all over Illinois, that you may need to pay a bribe to get one.

When I went for my first road test there, in 1966, I was counseled by my driving instructor not to worry if I failed--I might have an examiner who wouldn't pass anyone without money changing hands. As it happened, I never found out; I failed the test because I couldn't make a U-turn.

But it's clear that lots of people were being hassled, and there was no way to separate this petty corruption from the Secretary of State. Huge pictures of him hung all over every office. On the license itself, the signature of the Secretary appeared in type larger than the name of the motorist. For years, when I rented a car out of state, I was sure the agent would think my name was Paul Powell.

Nor was there much doubt that some of the money that bought licenses ended up in the Secretary of State's pocket. When Powell died, in 1970, $150,000 in cash was found in shoeboxes in his apartment, leading Adlai Stevenson III to deliver his famous eulogy: "This is a man whose shoeboxes will be hard to fill."

So when Ryan took over as Secretary of State in 1991, he was moving into an office with deeply rooted problems. He may not have made them worse, but he didn't do anything to clean them up, either. "Corruption was there when I was there, probably going to be there in the future," the governor once reflected. "It's part of the culture."

The way the culture worked under Ryan has been made clear in the federal probe called Operation Safe Roads, which began in 1998. The employees in the motor vehicle offices were required to contribute substantial sums annually to the Republican Party, including the Secretary of State's campaign fund. Some of the branch managers have said they were pressured to buy as much as $20,000 worth of tickets to fund-raisers in a single year--a requirement they could not meet with their own money. So they took bribes for licenses, and paid their party dues with the proceeds.

It's quite possible, as has been argued, that some crooked employees were pocketing most of the bribes, and used the party contributions mainly as an excuse. But prosecutors have also said that $170,000 clearly identified as bribe money ultimately reached Ryan's campaign fund.

The governor has always insisted he was unaware of this connection, and that anybody taking bribes in his department was doing it free- lance. No evidence has emerged contradicting him, and there has been no move to indict him.

Still, even if you believe him, it's not much of a defense. This wasn't isolated corruption, it was a massive department-wide shakedown scheme, and he was a direct beneficiary of it. Any public official who didn't know this was going on can be justly accused of gross negligence.

Even so, it's unlikely the scandal would have brought Ryan down had it not been for a catastrophe on a Wisconsin highway in 1994. A metal taillight assembly fell off a long-haul truck and crashed into a passenger van, killing six children. It turned out the truck driver, who was from Illinois, had been warned about the problem but couldn't understand the warning because he spoke no English, even though English literacy is required in Illinois for a commercial truck license. The driver had paid a bribe to skip the language test.

The tragedy didn't become a scandal until 1998, when the details were reported by a Chicago television station. Ryan was in the middle of his gubernatorial campaign at the time. He questioned the evidence, insisted that any bribery in his department was an aberration, and won easily. Only afterward, as prosecutors unearthed seemingly endless stories of corruption in the Secretary of State's office, indicted 57 people and obtained 46 guilty pleas, did the governor find himself hopelessly enmeshed in the scandal, no matter how hard he tried to position himself above it.

The ethical indictment against George Ryan is pretty compelling. The record of his achievements is also compelling.

In January 2000, when he proclaimed that the capital punishment process was unacceptably flawed and placed a moratorium on it, he was moving into uncharted territory. Less than three years later, bills to reform the process have been introduced in 19 states, and while executions continue to take place, the fairness of the law is a national issue in a way it wasn't before. "There will be changes," U.S. Senator Russell Feingold of Wisconsin has said, "and when the history is written, the most important name will be George Ryan."

When Ryan traveled to Cuba in 1999, carrying $1 million worth of medical supplies and declaring it was time for the embargo against Fidel Castro's regime to end, he was taking a step bound to cause him trouble in his own party, and one that promised few political benefits. But he did it anyway, and since then, numerous other elected officials have been willing to take the same step.

Those are largely symbolic issues. Ryan's Illinois First building program is not symbolic. It is a $12 billion investment in infrastructure that no previous administration was able to enact, despite nearly universal agreement that it was needed. A few months after its passage, Ryan reached agreement with Richard M. Daley, Chicago's Democratic mayor, to end an airport-siting dispute that had lasted a decade. "I've worked with many governors," Daley said afterward, "and I tell you very honestly and frankly: This governor gets things done."

Critics point to the numerous pork-barrel concessions that Ryan made to get Illinois First passed, but the smartest thing for him to do politically would have been to sponsor a tax cut. Instead, he raised cigarette and liquor taxes to raise money for capital construction. "In decades to come," says political scientist Paul Green, of Roosevelt University, "a lot of Illinois citizens will benefit from those projects. It took a lot of courage for him to do it."

Such is the case for Ryan's defense, cited regularly by a small but vocal band of loyalists, perhaps most prominent among them the Chicago novelist Scott Turow, who is a Democrat. "What I see," Turow wrote recently, "is the scandalizing of a man who in his time in the governor's office has been good government incarnate."

The whole affair inevitably brings up one of the oldest and most troubling questions in politics: We want to have leaders who are capable and clean. If we can't have both at once, where do we draw the line?

It is a question almost certainly being asked in Providence, Rhode Island, where Mayor Buddy Cianci, who masterminded a dramatic urban comeback, is about to go to prison for taking bribes in exchange for city jobs and contracts. He didn't exactly commit a victimless crime-- some job applicants no doubt lost out because they didn't pay off Cianci. I suppose justice has been done in this case. But who ends up better off with Cianci's demise? I can't think of anybody.

And I might make the same argument about George Ryan--his disgrace ultimately benefits no one--if it weren't for the literal human suffering that the corruption in his department ultimately caused. The crimes in the Illinois Secretary of State's Office were not trivial or harmless in any respect. They were matters of life and death. There are many commodities in government that shouldn't be for sale, but only a few whose sale is morally repellent under almost any circumstance. An election is one of them. The safety of children on the highway is another. George Ryan is a man of proven moral sensitivity. This is something he should have understood.

That's why people in Illinois find it so difficult to forgive him, and why the whole case is so unusual and so troubling. "This is almost Shakespearean," says Green. "He is in many ways a tragic figure."

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