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Ryan’s son calls judge’s ruling ‘heartless and cruel’

Homer Ryan is comforted by his wife Amy Kankakee Tuesday. | Charles Rex Arbogast~AP

Homer Ryan is comforted by his wife, Amy, in Kankakee on Tuesday. | Charles Rex Arbogast~AP

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 Judge's ruling against Ryan

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Updated: April 19, 2011 5:09AM

It was about a week before Christmas in 2003 when a justice system that former Gov. George Ryan once called “rotten to the core,” turned on him.

Ryan was indicted on widespread federal corruption charges.

Seven years later and again just days before Christmas, the wheels of justice Tuesday gave Ryan no relief.

The same former governor who freed four Death Row inmates and commuted the sentences of 167 others was himself denied a bid to be freed early from prison and join his terminally ill wife in their Kankakee home.

A 58-page ruling that Ryan’s family called “heartless and cruel,” but one that U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer said was painful for her to make, dashed what many believed was Ryan’s best chance at winning an early prison release.

His lawyers vowed to file appeal papers this week.

It was Ryan’s crimes -- racketeering, mail fraud, making false statements to the FBI, and tax violations -- that warranted a lengthy sentence, Pallmeyer said.

“His conduct has exacted a stiff penalty not only for himself but also for his family,” Pallmeyer wrote.

Ryan, 76, has served about three years of a 6 1/2-year prison sentence at a federal prison camp in Terre Haute, Ind. It’s a term he began in late 2007 after he won an extraordinary year and a half delay following his 2006 conviction.

Pallmeyer shot down legal arguments from Ryan’s lawyers that said Ryan should be freed now because a U.S. Supreme Court ruling limited the honest services law, putting the former governor’s conviction into question. Lawyers asked Pallmeyer to consider Lura Lynn Ryan’s poor health.

Pallmeyer said there was no legal reason to release Ryan; his conviction struck to the “solid core” of honest services fraud, she said.

Downstate, Ryan’s son said his father was “devastated” by the news.

“It’s been a long road,” George “Homer” Ryan Jr. said as he stood on the snow-laden sidewalk in front of his parents’ Kankakee home.

“We are tremendously saddened by Pallmeyer’s cold-hearted decision, which is heartless and cruel. Is this what the American justice system all about?”

It’s yet another chapter in the storied saga of George Ryan’s criminal travails. It’s one that was preceded by the landmark Operation Safe Road investigation, a probe that began in the Illinois Secretary of State’s office while Ryan was at the helm. All told, it saw some 75 convictions -- including Ryan’s.

“I sympathize with him,” said Ryan juror Jim Cwick. Still, Cwick said he thought it was too early for Ryan to go home.

The probe into Ryan unearthed dozens of drivers who paid employees bribes for their licenses. Prosecutors linked bribe money to Ryan’s campaign fund after some employees used the cash to buy fund-raising tickets for the then-secretary of state.

Prosecutors blamed Ryan for derailing a probe into a 1994 fatal crash in Wisconsin that killed six children. The trucker in the crash, Ricardo Guzman, got his license through a bribe at the McCook licensing facility. The supervisor there was a top Ryan fund-raiser who was later convicted of selling licenses for bribes.

The father of the children who perished in that crash said Tuesday that he’s still never heard from the former governor.

“We’re going to respect the system of the courts. We certainly don’t take joy that they’re not together. You know, that was Mr. Ryan’s doing,” said Scott Willis. “Our only hope and prayer is that someday Mr. Ryan would call us so we can talk to him. Our phone is always open. We’ve never had that opportunity.”

Ryan’s historic, six-month trial was initially delayed six months so Ryan could have the lawyer of his choice — Dan Webb. It was then nearly derailed when two jurors were tossed off the panel after failing to disclose criminal pasts.

Ryan proclaimed the morning before he left for prison that he had a clear conscience.

Scott Fawell, former chief of staff to George Ryan and a critical witness for the prosecution, said his father died while he was in prison for corruption under Ryan. He was allowed to attend the funeral for two hours with two FBI agents at his side. Fawell though said Pallmeyer should have released Ryan because of the honest services challenge.

“Justice is supposed to be blind. Well, if it’s blind it should be to him too. And it isn’t,” Fawell said. “You shouldn’t be punished more than you’ve already been punished because of who you are.”

Attorney Andrea Lyon, who was with Ryan’s son, characterized Pallmeyer’s ruling as a dishonest decision.”

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court said the honest services law — which generally says one cannot deprive another of an official’s “honest services” — was too broad and could only be charged in cases of kickbacks and bribes. Pallmeyer ruled that the narrowed law still applied to Ryan.

Longtime friend and lawyer, the former Gov. James Thompson, said if an appeal fails, he would make a plea with the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to place Ryan on supervised release and allow him to tend to his ill wife.

“The BOP policy would be a last resort if he has no judicial relief,” Thompson said on a phone interview from Paris. He said the Ryan family never held their hopes high.

“Obviously, they wanted it to happen very desperately. But it didn’t.”

Pallmeyer said she did take into consideration the ill health of Ryan’s wife. Lura Lynn has aggressive lung cancer her family said was just discovered. “The court has had the same painful duty to take action in circumstances more compelling than these,” Pallmeyer wrote.

One juror who voted to convict Ryan thinks he should get a chance to get out of prison if his wife’s health takes another turn.

“If she goes into hospice, maybe that’s the time to let him come home,” juror Kevin Rein said.

The legal saga is not yet over, noted former Ryan prosecutor Patrick Collins who said the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals will undoubtedly weigh in on Ryan and the honest services law. Said Collins: “There will always be another chapter in this case.”

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