By Mark Rhoads
"Of all the words of tongue and pen, the saddest of these are it might have been." This once famous quote is of dubious origin but it has circulated for decades because it has the ring of truth. The closest quote similar to it that one can document is from the writer Arthur Gutterman (1871-1943) whose work Prophets in Their Own County included the words "Of all cold words of tongue or pen, the worst of these are, "I knew him when."
I am sad about the Ryan verdict not because I think the jury was arbitrary or justice was not served, it was. I am only sad because when I knew George Ryan as Speaker of the Illinois House in the early 1980s, he was always fair with me, supportive, and always appeared to be trying to do a decent job under difficult working conditions. Were it not for the Willis family tragedy, one could be more sympathetic for the self-made series of wrongful acts that have resulted in the conviction of the former governor.
I have thought for some months that I would not be surprised at either a guilty or not guilty verdict. George Ryan had the best possible defense attorney in Dan Webb and his diligence and skill is widely respected in legal circles. The Willis tragedy showed jury members there were real-world consequences to official misdeeds and that opened the door to rendering a judgment on the entire Illinois political culture of misusing office for political and financial gain.
The Ryan trial all along has reminded me somewhat of the fate twelve years ago of Congressman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Chicago). "Rosty" was has hard working as they come. But over time, his priority became the pursuit of power for its own sake. The former Democratic ward committeeman of the 32nd Ward and Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Rosty was indicted for a penny-ante assortment of misdeeds including his key role in the congressional check-kiting scandal, trading in what were supposed to be official use stamps for cash at the House Post Office, putting ghost employees on his payroll, and buying personal gifts for friends through his office supply account at the House stationery store.
In 1996, Rosty pleaded guilty to reduced charges of mail fraud and served 15 months in prison. President Bill Clinton gave Rosty a meaningless pardon in 2000. But it was not meaningless to Rosty and his family.
Like Ryan, many of the crimes that Rosty was accused of were considered to be minor infractions by people who had served in office much too long. I am certain to this day that in 1994, Rosty did not see himself as a criminal but merely as a successful office holder who was taking maximum advantage of the perks of his office.
It reminded me of the bad old 1950s when state legislators in Springfield gave General Assembly tuition-waiver scholarships at state universities to their own children or the children of other lawmakers because they openly stated that was the purpose of the law, to increase their compensation. But the voters in his district and the federal court system came to the right conclusion that Rosty's abuse of his perks rose to the level of criminal behavior.
The jury in the Ryan case chose to make the same evaluation. No, it is not OK to put that level of pressure on state employees to hustle or buy tickets to fundraisers if they think they will be fired for not performing. No, it is not OK to accept gifts or vacations or stock or things of value when you are in a unique official position to help someone with a reward from government.
The conduct of Rosty and Ryan were not unusual in the gray world of Illinois official corruption. There have been and probably are still other examples of the same type of offense that might yet be uncovered in Illinois.
Illinois is not unique. But if there were a school for future candidates in Illinois, Ethics 101 should be the first required course.