Curtain goes up on Ryan political corruption trial.
Former Gov. George Ryan was a corrupt public official who disregarded what was best for the people of his state to enrich a "chosen few" of his friends and supporters, prosecutors said as the widely anticipated trial got under way today.
"This case is about betrayal of the public trust," Assistant U.S. Atty. Zachary Fardon said in a stinging 90-minute opening statement in which he lashed into Ryan's tenure as secretary of state and governor.
From the time Ryan, 71, took office as secretary of state in 1991, he was plotting with his friend and co-defendant, Chicago insurance adjuster Lawrence Warner, to fleece the agency along with companies that wanted its business, Fardon saidf.
"George Ryan used those public offices…to dole out taxpayer dollars to a chosen few of his friends and family," Fardon said.
Fardon's opening was so strongly worded that Ryan's attorney, Dan Webb, stood up as soon as the jury was dismissed for lunch and moved for a mistrial.
"Prosecutors are to set forth facts. What they are not supposed to do is draw conclusions and make arguments," Webb said.
U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer denied the motion.
The defense was to present its opening statement this afternoon.
A 22-count indictment has charged Ryan with racketeering conspiracy, mail fraud, lying to federal agents and tax fraud.
Ryan came to court looking much the same as he did as governor, wearing a dark suit and the same, square, oversized glasses. His wife, Lura Lynn, and son George Jr. sat near him with other family members.
He greeted the members of the media and shook Warner's hand after coming into court. Once the jury was seated, he did not speak except to stand and greet the panel after Webb introduced him. While Fardon spoke, the former governor took notes or looked straight ahead at the prosecutor and jury.
During his opening, Fardon laid out a series of insider contracts and lease deals that he said enriched Warner, a private businessman with no official state job, to the tune of $3 million.
Warner then "took care" of Ryan, who rarely withdrew money from his personal bank account while in office but was known to carry fat wads of cash with him wherever he went, the prosecutor said.
Anticipating the defense argument that prosecutors will not adequately establish a money trail from Warner to Ryan, Fardon called on jurors to listen carefully to evidence and draw their own conclusions about how the alleged scheme worked.
"This is not a case about unsophisticated defendants who stand out in the open under crystal blue skies and hand each other cash," he said.
But, he added, money did change hands.
Warner paid Ryan's friend and political supporter, Donald Udstuen, a cut of money he received from crooked deals, Fardon said. The money was shuffled through a middleman, Alan Drazek, another Ryan associate, who allegedly passed manila envelopes to Udstuen stuffed with cash.
"Warner had no previous relationship with Udstuen and no reason to share money with Udstuen other than George Ryan," Fardon said.
Udstuen has pleaded guilty to a related charge and is expected to testify for the prosecution, along with Ryan's former chief of staff, Scott Fawell, and a host of former state officials and salespeople and executives who did business with Ryan's office.
Ryan's friend, Springfield lobbyist Ron Swanson, also benefited from Warner's and Ryan's largesse, Fardon said. Warner sent Swanson $36,000 in tainted money. Ryan, after he was elected governor, appointed Swanson to the plum, $5,000-a-month job as lobbyist for the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority.
The authority never had a lobbyist, "didn't want it, didn't ask for it, didn't need it, never used it," Fardon said.
Ryan, meanwhile, enjoyed trips to Las Vegas casinos where his rooms were paid for in cash, Fardon said. Ryan and his wife also took annual trips to a plush resort in Jamaica owned by Ryan's friend Harry Klein.
Ryan created a sham paper trail to make it appear he had paid Klein for the use of his property, Fardon said. In return, the prosecutor alleged, Klein got a sweetheart lease deal from the secretary of state's office.
"For a decade, these defendants participated in a scheme, a scheme to make money at the expense of taxpayers," Fardon said.
The jury was to return to court at 1:15 p.m. to hear opening statements from Webb and Warner's attorneys.
Earlier this morning, Pallmeyer empanelled 12 jurors and six alternates after six days of jury selection.
Chosen for the jury of five men and seven women were a candy wholesaler, a daycare worker, an office manager, two postal workers and a hospital employee. Also picked were a delivery service employee, a baker, a carpenter and a computer executive, along with one current and one retired telephone worker.
Prosecutors are trying to prove the former governor was not just a bystander, but an integral part of schemes at the secretary of state's office that he led from 1991 to 1998—from doling out low-digit license plates to campaign contributors to rigging state leases and contracts to the gutting of the agency's internal investigative arm.
The scandal began with allegations that Ryan's secretary of state office had granted driver's licenses for bribes. Soon known as Operation Safe Road, the investigation that followed has netted 73 convictions so far.
Ryan's attorneys are expected to argue the charges against him stem from innocent, unrelated acts cobbled together by prosecutors to make a case against an honest man. Ryan and his lead attorney, Dan Webb, consistently have argued that prosecutors have no direct evidence that Ryan took money.
[Source: By Rudolph Bush, Tribune staff reporter, Chicago Tribune, 28Sep05]
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