Analysis: Sharks circling Ill. governor

By MARCELLA S. KREITER   |   May 23, 2002 at 2:27 PM
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CHICAGO, May 23 (UPI) -- Republican Gov. George Ryan is an old-style politician, quick with the handshake and the smile, a consummate dealmaker who honed his skills in the raucous state House before rising to the speaker's post and then heading for executive office.

If the pharmacist-turned-politician had been born in Chicago instead of Kankakee, he'd have been a Democrat. Even with his GOP credentials he got along well with the likes of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill. -- better it seems than with maverick Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald.

Now Ryan, 68, appears to be following in the footsteps of some of his Democratic predecessors, specifically Otto Kerner, Dan Walker and Len Small. All were tried -- and Kerner and Walker convicted -- of wrongdoing.

Ryan's woes stem from his tenure as secretary of state, an eight-year stewardship he used to wait out the gubernatorial caretakership of Jim Edgar. Fifty-one people have been indicted, convicted or pleaded guilty in what has become known as the license-for-bribes scandal -- Operation Safe Roads in the U.S. attorney's lexicon -- which broke in the wake of a horrific 1994 traffic accident that took the lives of six of a Chicago minister's children.

The driver of the truck involved in the tragedy had obtained his license illegally.

During the 1998 gubernatorial campaign, Ryan's opponent, Democrat Glenn Poshard, tried to tie Ryan to the accident. He was roundly criticized for an accusatory campaign ad and soundly defeated at the polls.

In the subsequent years, however, federal prosecutors have been painstakingly assembling their cases, with the latest indictments touching Ryan's inner circle.

A WBBM-TV/Chicago Sun-Times poll released late Wednesday indicates 73 percent of those queried want Ryan to resign now based on what they know of the scandal. Only 19 percent of the 403 people surveyed said he should stick out the rest of his term, which will end in January.

For his part, Ryan said he has not "thought about resigning, not at all."

Ryan opted not to seek re-election, presumably because of the all the negative publicity generated by the investigation -- despite what the governor has said in public. And he's hurt by the suspicions.

"I was in the pharmacy business for 40 years in Illinois, 43 years as a matter of fact, and built a good reputation, served the public well, and did my public duty," Ryan said at a news conference in response to the charges. "And the only reward that I've ever had from public service is the fact that we've been able to provide, I think, and make a difference for the people of Illinois."

Nevertheless, the Republican candidate to succeed him, state Attorney General Jim Ryan (no relation), has been running hard to distance himself from his namesake. The Democrat, Rep. Rod Blagojevich, D-Ill., has been working just as hard to try to make voters link both Ryans. Jim Ryan has said the governor should give some thought to leaving office.

The latest indictments involve Don Udstuen and Larry Warner, whom Ryan describes as friends he's known for 35 years. In fact, Ryan had dinner with Warner last weekend, just days before the indictments were handed down.

The indictments accuse Warner and Udstuen of engaging in a $2.8 million influence-peddling scheme. The indictment referred to "Official A" who shared in kickbacks. On Wednesday, Ryan said: "I sure as hell don't think I am (Official A) and would have no reason to think I am. ... I have not taken any kickbacks."

"If in fact those charges are true, I'm absolutely outraged to think that anybody would try to profit with my name and my office," Ryan added. "In 35 years or 30 years in state government, I've never done that myself and I'd be outraged if anyone else did it in my name."

Asked directly by a reporter if he had accepted kickbacks, Ryan retorted, "No, have you?"

Ryan matured in a different political age when backroom deals and clout were the norm. It was a time when one had to know the precinct captain to get a city job, had to see the county chairman or a local legislator for a state job.

Ryan met Udstuen when the latter was then Gov. Richard B. Ogilvie's patronage chief. Ogilvie's personnel director, Alan Drazek, also was indicted this week, accused of being Udstuen's bagman.

Warner is described as a member of Ryan's "kitchen cabinet." Though not a government official, he often sat in on staff meetings and could be found in a corner of Ryan's office, using a telephone. He was known as a "fixer" and is accused of using his influence to funnel contracts and leases in exchange for kickbacks.

Earlier indictments have included Ryan's campaign manager and the former inspector general of the secretary of state's office, a childhood friend of the governor's who was accused of shutting down the investigation of the initial licenses-for-bribes accident.

If the scandal does nothing else, it may put an end to politics as usual. House Republican Leader Lee Daniels is preparing ethics legislation that would bar state employees from making political contributions to their elected bosses and limit what they can do for campaigns on their own time.

The measure, which Daniels hopes to introduce before the end of the current session, also would require lobbyists to reveal what they're being paid by clients and reinstate a ban on lobbyist gifts to state officials.

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