George Ryan always played the game.
In the early 1960s, as a young pharmacist with an interest in politics, Ryan attached himself to state Sen. Ed McBroom, boss of the local Republican, which wielded as much power in Kankakee as the Democrats did in Cook County. The number one prerequisite for a county job was buying a car from McBroom’s dealership.
Ryan was McBroom’s campaign manager in 1962. Four years later, he was rewarded with a seat on the Kankakee County Board, of which he became chairman. Ryan’s brother, Tom, was mayor of Kankakee. Their political influence was great for the Ryan pharmacies, which won lucrative nursing home contracts.
In 1972, McBroom promoted Ryan to the General Assembly. He quickly mastered that outfit, too, becoming Speaker of the House after only eight years. During his single term as speaker, he teamed up with Phyllis Schlafly of Alton to prevent Illinois from approving the Equal Rights Amendment. Most legislators were in favor, but Ryan created a rule requiring a three-fifths majority for a constitutional amendment. Thanks to Ryan’s rule-bending, Illinois was the only northern industrial not to ratify the ERA.
Ryan wanted to be governor, but he had a loooong wait. First, he served eight years as James Thompson’s lieutenant. Then, another eight years as Secretary of State. As Patrick Arden wrote in Salon, “there his troubles began.”
On Nov. 8, 1994, Ryan was reelected Secretary of State. That same evening, on an interstate highway, a mudflap flew off of a semi driven by a trucker named Ricardo Guzman, who obtained his driver’s license by bribing someone at the Illinois Office of the Secretary of State. The mudflap hit the gas tank of a minivan driven by the Rev. Duane Willis. The minivan burst into flames. Willis and his wife, Janet, escaped, but their six children were killed.
The Operation Safe Road investigation was announced in October 1998, less than a month before Ryan was elected governor. At the time, prosecutors said Ryan was not the subject of the probe. That’s obviously changed.
While Ryan was Secretary of State, not only had his employees handed out licenses for bribes, but the bribe money had ended up in his campaign fund. As a result of his corruption, six children burned to death. Rep. Glenn Poshard, Ryan’s opponent in the 1998 race for governor, tried to raise the charges in the last month of the campaign, but his complaints against Ryan were unavailing. The Tribune even scolded Poshard for attacking Ryan.
Ryan won the election, but spent most of his governorship defending himself against charges he had handed out licenses for bribes. Ryan didn’t run for another four-year term. Instead, he got a six-and-a-half year federal prison sentence for racketeering, bribery, extortion, money laundering and tax fraud. He is scheduled to be released on July 4, 2013.
George Ryan’s greed and corruption killed people. That’s why he’s in prison, and that’s why he is Number 5 on our list.
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