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M. Spencer Green/AP
Former Illinois Governor George Ryan

Durbin Considers Pushing Bush to Free George Ryan

November 25, 2008 05:41 PM
by Isabel Cowles
The Democrat may ask Bush to commute former Republican Gov. George Ryan’s sentence, anticipating charges against Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Playing Politics With Presidential Pardons

As President George W. Bush begins the pardon season, the future of more than one Illinois governor could be at stake.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said at a recent news conference that he is considering asking President Bush to offer a commutation to former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, a Republican—a move that could help the state’s current governor, Democrat Rod Blagojevich.

Sen. Durbin told reporters in Springfield, “I’m taking into consideration the situation with the former governor, and whether or not a commutation should be recommended to the president, and I am considering it at this moment,” Chicago Breaking News reports. Durbin has yet to send an official letter to the President, however.

Gov. Ryan was indicted in 2003
on federal charges that included accepting bribes in exchange for government contracts and leases before becoming governor in 1998. The investigation began while Ryan was Illinois Secretary of State (1991–1998) and was a factor in his decision not to seek a second term as governor in 2001.
Ryan was sentenced to serve six and a half years in prison after being convicted of fraud, racketeering and corruption in 2006. He has been in federal prison for slightly more than a year.

Durbin’s decision to pardon the Republican former governor comes at a sensitive time for Democrats: Gov. Blagojevich has been consistently tied with Antoin “Tony” Rezko, an Illinois food and real estate entrepreneur convicted of corruption relating to kickback schemes.

Blagojevich worked to push Illinois laws outlawing campaign donations in excess of $50,000 from individuals hoping to pursue business contracts with the state and state legislators.

Although the bills passed, some considered Blagojevich’s efforts a transparent cover of his own corruption: State Sen. Ira Silverstein, D-Chicago, was quoted by the Chicago Tribune as calling Blagojevich’s package mere “face-saving legislation.”

The majority of Chicago voters believe that Blagojevich has failed to make good on his campaign platform of ending corruption in government. According to a poll conducted by the Chicago Tribune, Blagojevich has a 13 percent approval rating and a 71 percent disapproval rating—”the lowest ratings ever recorded for an elected politician in nearly three decades of Tribune polls.” The poll also showed that Blagojevich is even more unpopular than Governor Ryan was during the official investigation against him in 2002.

Facing such damaged Democratic leadership, Durbin’s show of concern for Ryan may underscore a hope that Republicans will be sympathetic to Blagojevich if and when he is charged with corruption.

Durbin said of Ryan (age 74), “His family name has been damaged. … He has lost the economic security which most people count on at his age. And he is separate from his wife at a time when she is in frail health. To say that he has paid a price for his wrongdoing, he certainly has. And the question is whether continued imprisonment is appropriate at this point.”

If Bush offers the commutation, Ryan would be released from prison but his conviction would not be stricken from the record, as would occur with a full pardon. According to the Chicago Tribune blog Clout Street, Durbin has emphasized that he will not encourage a full pardon for Ryan.

Background: Ryan goes from Nobel nominee to prison

On Jan. 11, 2003, Ryan commuted the sentences of 167 death-row prisoners, an act that earned him the attention of the Nobel Prize committee, which nominated him for a Peace Prize. The Chicago Tribune won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of editorials criticizing the death penalty in the wake of the case. But in 2006 Ryan was found guilty of fraud and racketeering, and in November 2007 he began a six-year prison sentence.

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