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Why George Ryan is Still in Terra Haute Federal Correctional Complex

Jim Ridings 30 December 2010 7 Comments

George H. Ryan and his family were deeply disappointed last week when Federal Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer declined to release the former governor from a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Ryan didn’t get his release because he didn’t “get it.”

Patrick Fitzgerald, the federal prosecutor who put Ryan behind bars, said at the time of the trial in 2006 that Ryan “doesn’t get it.” By that, he meant that Ryan could never understand just what he did wrong.

That is why Ryan has never apologized for his crimes. He doesn’t get it.
And that is why Ryan didn’t get his release.

Ryan continues to try to convince us that he was a regular politician and what he did was “politics as usual,” nothing more than what every other politician did.

But his list of crimes is too long to list here. One instance of his license-for-bribes scheme resulted in the deaths of six Willis children. And when the law began looking into all of this, Gov. Ryan tried to kill the investigation.
A Chicago Tribune story from July 11, 1982, shows a picture of House Speaker George Ryan with a quote under the photo, “I haven’t done anything wrong.” It was a quote that Ryan repeated again and again, year after year, scandal after scandal.

He never thought he did anything wrong.

The 1982 case involved a scandal with Westview Terrace nursing home in Kankakee. Ryan’s pharmacy got $60,000 in Medicaid prescription business annually from the facility. That ended when a new owner took over. When the state Department of Public Health investigated Westview Terrace for serious neglect charges, Ryan quashed the investigation, and his pharmacy got back Westview’s business.

Similar scandals happened more and more over the years, and are documented in a July 3, 2010, Chicago Daily Observer column, and in my book, “Len Small, Governors and Gangsters.”

Ryan has tried to feign innocence and ignorance. He is now playing the sympathy card. But instead of an honest plea, it is another demonstration of George Ryan’s craftiness and trickery.

He is trying to use his wife’s illness as a key to the jailhouse door. Apparently, it isn’t working, not in the federal court nor in the court of public opinion.
It especially does not work in his home town of Kankakee. His hometown newspaper, The Daily Journal (founded by another crooked governor from Kankakee, Len Small — and still owned by the Small family, with Len R. Small today as publisher) has continuously editorialized for the release of George Ryan. It’s editorial policy is in stark contrast with public opinion in Kankakee. Since Ryan’s incarceration, whether it is a “man on the street” column, its Speakout phone-in column, or its web site comment line, the people of Kankakee have overwhelmingly favored keeping George Ryan behind bars.
Sometimes the comments are quite nasty — a point that Daily Journal columnists and editorial writers have noted and condemned. Some have commented that Ryan should be kept in prison “till he rots.” Others suggest that if George wants to be with his wife Lura Lynn, then she should be put in prison with him, since she benefitted from his deeds.

And some have doubted the truth of Lura Lynn’s critical condition. One blogger noted that Ryan’s top aide Dean Bauer, who pleaded guilty in January 2001 to obstructing justice, was released early because he was dying of cancer and had just months to live — and now, years later, Bauer is “better than ever.”

Like the fable of the boy who cried wolf too many times, a lack of sympathy may be the result of a lifetime of deception by the Ryans. The 40-year history of their trickery led some cynics to question Lura Lynn’s medical prognosis, even as pictures of a decimated Mrs. Ryan were printed.

Is George Ryan & Co. using Lura Lynn as a pawn in his legal defense? Even the less cynical can make a case that Lura Lynn’s pitiful condition is being used for George’s benefit.

Ryan was only a year into his sentence in November 2008 when his lawyer, former governor Jim Thompson, supported by Sen. Dick Durbin and Gov. Rod Blagojevich, sought a presidential pardon or commutation as President George W. Bush was about to leave office. Thompson cited Ryan’s age and his wife’s health. But Blagojevich’s arrest a few weeks later made it a bad season for Illinois governors.

Thompson made another bid in court a year later. It did not work.

And Thompson was back in court in February 2010, with Lura Lynn Ryan.
On June 24, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the “honest services” law. Part of this law was used in Ryan’s conviction, but not the part that was declared invalid. Nevertheless, Thompson used this as a reason for another attempt to free Ryan.

In a July 2010 hearing, there was the sight of Lura Lynn in court, carrying her oxygen bottle. It was announced that she had a terminal lung disease and possibly only a few years to live.

Ryan’s lawyers argued again in court on Sept. 9, 2010. Lura Lynn was there, with an oxygen bottle, and the that news she had three years to live. She was in court on Nov. 22, also with her oxygen tank, and a new prognosis of 6 months to one year to live.

As Pallmeyer’s decision grew nearer, lawyers were again in court on Dec. 15. Mrs. Ryan was there again, this time with an announcement that she also had cancer, in addition to her lung disease, and now had three to six months to live. She also made a well publicized visit to a Kankakee hospital.

Every time she went to court, the prognosis grew dramatically dimmer.

Even the cynics should have sympathy for Mrs. Ryan. Only God knows how long she has to live. She really has a terminal illness, and her family is in deep pain watching her suffer.

But the suffering of a family member never has been a legal reason for freeing a prisoner.

George Ryan isn’t very consistent in his sympathy pleas. His legal plea has been based on his age, or his ill health, or his wife’s ill health. The argument changes from day to day.

But it is never really based in a proper legal defense. It always is based on a carefully orchestrated tug at the heartstrings, with the additional promise that he “will not re-offend,” and is not a danger to society, and that sympathy should be given to an old man and his ill wife.

Unfortunately for Ryan, a legal decision is based on legal facts and arguments, not on emotions and sympathy. That is what Judge Pallmeyer said in her decision to deny Ryan’s release.

This also is something Ryan “does not get.” His legal team continues to fail to make the legal argument. Instead, they rely on media coverage of a dying woman, to substitute sympathy for the law.

And through it all, Ryan continues to defiantly refuse to admit guilt or or show remorse. However, even when sympathy is considered in a decision, admission of wrongdoing and remorse is a major factor in reaching a decision. Ryan gives neither.

Ryan demands sympathy for himself and for his wife, but he has never shown sympathy for the six dead Willis children or for the thousands of people he has stepped over during his rise to power.

Mrs. Ryan also did not “get it,” when in a Nov. 26, 2008 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, she was asked “if there was anything George Ryan would change, Lura Lynn Ryan said neither she nor her husband has any regrets.” She was quoted, “His conscience is as clear as his mind. If he had it to do over, and I’ve heard him say this, he would govern the same way as he did before.”
Ryan’s son calls the judge’s decision “cold and heartless.” Ryan’s defenders say those who are against Ryan’s release are “haters.” This is all part of the Ryan campaign of deception and trickery. It is not cold, heartless or hateful to favor keeping a felon behind bars to serve his sentence — especially when the six-and-a-half-year sentence was a light one.

That is something George Ryan and his supporters still do not get.


Jim Ridings is a regular columnist for the Chicago Daily Observer.  His latest book “Chicago to Springfield:: Crime and Politics in the 1920s ” is available here

image Vigo County Courthouse, Terra Haute Indiana


  • John Powers said:


    Ryan was at closest three steps removed from the accident that put him behind bars. He was not driving the truck, did not maintain the truck, nor did he accept any bribes to give the truck driver a license. The worst that can be said, is that he did not do enough to prevent it, which could be charged against every Illinois Secretary of State since the beginning of automobile licensing.

    Yesterday a point-blank murderer was given 4 years of probation for shooting his neighbor with a pistol after a dispute over a dog.


    There needs to be some sense of proportion regarding sentencing and repsonsibility for crimes, or the whole process become a matter of political attack rather than justice.


  • Jim Ridings said:

    You are right, and George Ryan was not convicted for the deaths of the six Willis children. But he does have a degree of culpability, even if it is a small degree. However, the issue becomes clouded when the argument is that Ryan is innocent of those deaths, or that his wife is terminally ill. The issue is one of justice. He got a light sentence, and is trying to cut that short. The Kankakee Daily Journal today (Dec. 30) has yet another column decrying the public “bitterness” against Ryan. But the columnist mistakes bitterness for outrage at the public’s perception that George Ryan is going to receive special treatment because he is a big shot. Ryan wouldn’t be getting this sort of attention or this sort of legal maneuvering if he was an ordinary citizen. It isn’t bitterness on the part of the public, it is outrage at perceived special treatment for a connected politician. The issue of the fatal truck accident clouds the entire matter.

  • John Powers said:

    Given that a man can kill another with a pistol in University Park and get a lighter sentence Jim, the special treatment seems to be more directed at tormenting Gov. Ryan than any notion of justice.


  • Jim Ridings said:

    Life is unfair and so is the judicial system. I agree the University Park killer got off too lightly. His sentence was the capricious decision of a particular judge, and was unfortunate. However, I don’t see George Ryan as being targeted for excessive punishment. A 6-and-a-half year sentence is a light sentence in his case. Keeping him behind bars is not tormenting him, it is a felon serving his sentence.

  • John Powers said:

    I know “life is unfair” but I don’t think bumper sticker type aphorisms are an adequate reason to imprison a former governor.

    If we are analyzing what is a appropriate punishment for a crime, we should look at how the punishment fits the crime, not what the Tribune has drummed up as a sentence to sell newspapers.


  • Rufino Torres said:

    The University Park case involved a man who lived a good life and got into an arguement with an ill-raised thug. It was an arguement over dog piss, but the dog owner pushed the man and punched him in the face. The judge convicted the man and gave him probation. Even the prosecutors didn’t contest the ruling.

    There was another case in which an old woman shot an ill-raised kid who tormented her regularly and broke her windows. She shot the kid and wasn’t charged.

    These two cases show that citizens can defend themselves against thuggery.

    There were no extenuating circumstances with George Ryan. He was convicted if his crimes and he should serve his time. Comparing Ryan illegal thuggery to these two citizens shouldn’t get him free.

    Ryan did his crimes against Illinois and against his wife. It was his actions that set him behind bars.

  • John Powers said:

    “citizens can defend themselves against thuggery” Or murder people who get on their wrong side. I think shooting someone is a last resort to settling an argument over dog urine etc. There are many half measures that would be more appropriate than killing a young man.

    Ryan’s actions had little to nothing to do with his convictions. Sure he was involved with pay-to-play politics, because everyone in politics in the United States is involved with pay-to-play. The vague nature of his prosecution, pretty much the definition of “extenuating circumstances”, has convinced me that Ryan was guilty of getting on the wrong side of the Chicago Tribune, and little else.

    If you don’t like the guy, don’t elect him. But prison is for criminals, not for political opponents.

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