Corruption Come-uppance

Here in Illinois, we have a special retirement plan for our ex-Governors: We send them to prison.

The latest resident in the “governor’s suite” at the local prison (actually, he’s in a federal prison in Indiana) is George Ryan, our most recent ex-Governor. He attained national prominence in 2003 when he commuted the sentences of everyone on Death Row, sparking a national debate on capital punishment.

But upon leaving office, Patrick Fitzgerald (of Scooter Libby fame) prosecuted him for racketeering and fraud and he was convicted on all counts. His lead defense attorney was one of the few recent ex-Governors who did not go to prison, Jim Thompson.

This was more than just “business as usual”, even for Illinois which has a long and proud tradition of public corruption.

While Secretary of State, George Ryan handed out truck driver’s licenses in exchange for bribes. The money was then routed to finance his run for governor. This all came to light as the result of a traffic accident (in which six children died) caused by one of these unqualified, yet licensed, truck drivers.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal. Now his only recourse is a presidential pardon or commutation, which they are now seeking.

In announcing this latest strategy, his attorney Jim Thompson said:

“The man has gone from being the governor of the state of Illinois to being a prisoner in the federal penitentiary,” Thompson said. “His career is gone. His reputation is gone. His pension for the moment is gone. . . . I think everybody’s interests have been served.”

This seems about par for the course: what matters is not whether justice was served, or whether some penance has been paid for the deaths of six children (as well as the harm that came to many, many others as a result of the licenses-for-bribes scheme), but whether the criminal has been harmed.

It is this same logic, I suppose, that keeps poor people locked up because the only thing they have to lose is their freedom, while rich folk get to keep their freedom because they can sacrifice their careers and their reputations. This strikes me as the same “pay to play” that got them all into trouble in the first place.

An interesting side note here, though, is the intra-party squabbles that have been sparked by this quest for executive clemency.

To [commute the sentence]…for Ryan would not only be amazingly cynical and coercive, but it would destroy what little remains of the Illinois GOP.

“If the president commuted Ryan’s sentence and released the convicted felon from prison, it would be another terrible black eye for the Republican Party of Illinois,” said former state Sen. Steven Rauschenberger, a Republican. “It would remind everybody about the drawn-out trial, the whole process to rid Illinois of that kind of pay-to-play politics.”

Perhaps this is just another symptom of the GOP collapse across the country, but I am cheering it nonetheless.

Let’s pop some popcorn!

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