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Ex-Illinois Gov. May Take Stand in His Trial

Strong-willed George H. Ryan could make or break his corruption case. His attorney says his silence could raise doubts among jurors.

January 25, 2006|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — Since the corruption trial of former Illinois Gov. George H. Ryan began four months ago, the jury has listened to the testimony of more than 70 witnesses -- including a lottery winner and the head of domestic security in California.

But with the prosecution planning to wrap up its arguments this week, the defense is poised to put the one person on the stand who could make or break the case: Ryan.

Ryan, 71, and his attorneys have said that the pharmacist-turned-politician could take the stand as soon as next week.

Defense attorney Dan K. Webb, who has said the defense team could take two months to present its case, said Tuesday that Ryan would testify, but he wasn't sure when.

There's always a risk in having a defendant testify -- he can say things that make matters worse -- but in Ryan's situation, taking what is usually a safer route could raise questions in the jurors' minds.

"He's a politician, and any jury is going to wonder what he was trying to hide by not getting on the stand," said attorney Albert Krieger, former president of the National Assn. of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "Besides, it's a national joke that Chicago and Illinois and corruption go hand in hand. It's like putting someone on the stand that has a prior criminal record."

Prosecutors have charged that while Ryan served as Illinois secretary of state and governor from 1991 to early 2003, he and his relatives accepted tens of thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for state business contracts.

Ryan allegedly took free tickets to Chicago Bulls playoff games, lounged in Jamaica at someone else's expense, and enjoyed complimentary trips to casinos in Las Vegas with co-defendant Lawrence E. Warner.

Prosecutors have charged that Warner, a businessman and longtime Ryan family friend, profited the most from Ryan's alleged wrongdoings. Among other things, prosecutors have said that Warner, 67, paid to fix a flooding problem at the apartment of one of Ryan's children, and paid for the band at Ryan's daughter's wedding.

Together, Ryan and Warner face 22 counts, including racketeering conspiracy, mail fraud, filing false tax returns and making false statements to investigators.

Both have pleaded not guilty.

If convicted of all charges, Ryan faces a maximum penalty of $4.5 million and 95 years in prison.

Webb -- the former U.S. attorney in Chicago who led investigations into judicial corruption in Cook County, Ill., and successfully prosecuted John M. Poindexter in the Iran-Contra affair -- has acknowledged to jurors that Ryan might have made some mistakes in trusting members of his staff. But "those mistakes are not crimes," Webb said.

The Ryan investigation began with allegations of bribes being paid for driver's licenses, after an unqualified trucker was involved in an accident that killed six children.

Vulnerability and humility could be important traits for Ryan to show jurors, say legal experts, particularly if the notoriously strong-willed politician testifies.

"If he's been governor, you can be sure that he's going to be persuasive under pressure. The question will be whether the jury thinks he's sincere," said Leonard L. Cavise, professor of criminal law at DePaul College of Law in Chicago. "He's going to either be his own best advocate -- or the worst."

For months, federal prosecutors have been painting Ryan as an arrogant politician who lived extravagantly and blithely doled out millions of taxpayer dollars to friends and family.

Jurors have had to wade through mountains of paperwork and lengthy, often dull, testimony. Still, the trial has been dotted with surprises.

One of the fieriest exchanges came during the testimony of Phil Gramm, the former U.S. senator and onetime political ally of Ryan's.

Gramm denied Ryan's assertion that Gramm's staff had given Ryan thousands of dollars in consulting fees in exchange for an endorsement in the Texas Republican's failed presidential bid in the late 1990s.

When asked outside of the jury's presence why he might have paid for such an endorsement, Gramm quipped, "It's a difference between love and prostitution," adding that he was "not looking to buy support."

Gramm's words so outraged Ryan that he told reporters in the courthouse lobby that investigators should reexamine the collapse of Enron and whether Gramm and his wife, Wendy, played a role.

Wendy Gramm, former chairwoman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, was on Enron's board of directors and was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation. Phil Gramm reportedly got more than $95,000 in political contributions from the scandal-ridden energy company.

Ryan said that he was paid a consulting fee to head Gramm's presidential campaign in Illinois, and that he "earned every penny of it."

One of the key issues in the case is Ryan's habit of carrying thick wads of cash, and often splurging on steak dinners, expensive sports tickets and high-stakes poker on gambling boats.

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