Ryan readies for his exit

The former Illinois governor has done his time and paid his dues.

Illinois will lose its unique, but not necessarily envied, status by the end of next week when former Republican Gov. George Ryan is transferred from his prison cell in Terre Haute, Ind., to a halfway house.

When the 78-year-old Ryan makes a move to the halfway house, a transition facility aimed at easing him into full release from custody by July 4, Illinois will no longer have two former governors imprisoned on corruption charges. Former Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who is being held at a federal prison in Colorado, began serving his 14-year sentence March 15.

It might seem like ancient history. But it was only 2006 that Ryan was convicted on a variety of offenses stemming from his tenure as secretary of state and governor. Sentenced to 6 1/2 years behind bars, he'll have served roughly 5 1/2 years in custody upon his release.

No one can say that Ryan did not pay a high price for his criminal conduct.

He's been locked up. He's been disgraced. His finances have been ravaged. His wife died while he was behind bars.

That said, his betrayal of the public trust required a heavy penalty, not only as punishment but to put Illinois' small army of smarmy politicians on notice about the cost of getting caught.

Unfortunately, Ryan's example so far has not been particularly instructive to his one-time peer group. Three current members of the Illinois General Assembly face felony charges.

Ryan was the quintessential old pol, the guy who loved helping people while helping himself at the same time. He started in politics on the Kankakee County Board and was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives, where, with his formidable skills, he moved quickly up the ranks of party leadership. He became former Gov. Jim Thompson's running mate and served two terms as lieutenant governor.

But it was as secretary of state and governor that Ryan ran astray. He was in a position to hand out lucrative favors to friends, and they were in a position to reward him handsomely for his generosity.

Some have suggested that Ryan's practices reflected an old-style of politics abandoned by a younger generation of officeholders. Nothing could be further from the truth — corruption then is corruption now. That Ryan's misbehavior was immediately followed by Blagojevich's demonstrates that point.

Political corruption, of course, is not unique to Illinois. But its depth is, and it will almost certainly continue to be so — even with only one former governor behind bars.

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