What's All This Then?

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

I had several things in mind to write about before the year ran out and maybe I’ll get to one of them between Xmas and New Years. But for today - a topic that I find difficult to ignore - the Inspector Javert complex of the Chicago Tribune when it comes to former Illinois Governor George Ryan. Ryan was convicted of various shades of corruption in April, 2006 and sentenced to 6 ½ years in a Federal Penitentiary. Back then I wrote about what I considered to be a vendetta against Ryan by the Tribune and the influence I thought they had on the trial’s jurors. Now they’re at it again. Ryan’s wife has been diagnosed as having perhaps six months to live and his lawyers appealed to the sentencing judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer for early release - an appeal swiftly and not unexpectedly denied. Before the decision was handed down, the Tribune published a lead editorial urging denial. The editorial pointed out that many prisoners face similar circumstances of sickness and death of spouses and other loved ones and are not granted early release from their sentences and Ryan shouldn’t be granted special consideration - a not unreasonable argument. But the Tribune couldn’t leave it there. It had to add arguments that were both vindictive and specious.

The editorial speaks of Ryan "lining his pockets." Whatever crimes Ryan may have committed, none involved "lining his pockets." Yes, he gave out state contracts to friends who gave him perks but they didn’t make him rich. He put family members on his election payroll who allegedly didn’t do much for their pay, (Family members hired by politicians? Whoever would think such a thing possible?) But whatever he did or was accused of in the way of corrupt practices, the man is broke. He was virtually broke when he went to trial. There is no money stashed away in foreign banks. No shoe boxes full of hundred dollar bills have been found. The few illegal perks that he received were petty. And now he has lost his pension. It is not just disingenuous to allege that he enriched himself while he was in elective office - it is unnecessarily vindictive and far removed from the journalistic integrity which the Chicago Tribune claims to have.

But worse than this is the Tribune’s insistence, editorially, in the columns of John Kass and now in an editorial cartoon, that Ryan should remain in jail because he was somehow personally responsible for the death of the six Willis children, killed when part of a truck’s rear assembly fell off and crashed into the car in which they were passengers. The driver of the truck, who spoke little English, had paid a bribe to get his commercial driver’s license while Ryan was Secretary of State and somehow the ex-Governor has been labeled as being indirectly responsible for their deaths and even though he has never been charged with anything concerning the accident and while it was never an issue at his trial - it was nonetheless an "issue" that the Tribune brought up again and again during its trial coverage - coverage that was available to members of the jury that ultimately found him guilty.

Whatever Ryan is or was, he is not a killer and I do not believe it is fair to pin the deaths of the Willis children on him as though he was personally responsible and to cite this "responsibility" as one of the reasons he should not be granted an early release from jail. . Though never charged with anything involving his tenure as Illinois Secretary of State, he was accused of overseeing a corrupt agency where bribery of license examiners was common and that some of the bribe money found its way back to his political fund. Some or maybe all of this may be true, but the accident wasn’t caused because the truck driver had paid someone a bribe to help get his license application approved. It could just as easily have happened with a driver with decades of truck driving experience whose truck suddenly had the same kind of failure that resulted in the deaths of those children.

One news story that I read on line alleged that "absent the corruption under Ryan's watch, the trucker in question would not have been on the road, and six kids would still be alive and on their way to adulthood today." That’s very little different than saying absent the granting of a drivers license to anyone involved in an accident resulting in death, the deceased would still be living and enjoying life. Yes, the driver in this case paid a bribe to get his license. Yes, according to news reports, Ryan or his staff may have quashed any investigation of the tragedy, though of course Ryan denied it. But at the end of the day it was still a tragic accident that could have happened the same way if that same truck driver had obtained his license without any bribes being involved. And when you look at some of the people driving on Illinois roads who somehow were O.K.’d to drive by a State examiner, you have to wonder why anyone would need to pay a bribe.

I guess I’m in the minority on this issue if readers letters to the Tribune can be considered any kind of yardstick - but perhaps the Tribune is being selective in the letters they decide to publish, which of course is their right. Ryan may indeed have been as corrupt a politician as that portrayed by the prosecution at his trial, but nothing that he personally did caused the accident that killed six children. Punish him for the offenses for which he was convicted. Make him serve the full 6 ½ years if that is the final determination of the courts. But don’t insist that he be kept there because he is as some kind of murderer by proxy. And don’t keep implying that he has escaped but deserves greater punishment because of the death of the Willis children. He didn’t kill those kids. Corruption didn’t kill those kids. A horrible accident did - an accident that could have happened anywhere to anyone. I don’t expect the Tribune’s editorial writers or columnist John Kass or cartoonist Scott Stantis to back away from the position they have adopted on the case, but they are wrong and they will continue to be wrong as they continue to attach the name of Willis to every story they write about George Ryan, however removed it may be from the elective office he held at the time the tragedy occurred.