Former governor's corruption trial set to finish in a war of words

Monday, March 6, 2006

CHICAGO -- Former Gov. George Ryan's racketeering and fraud trial heads into a new phase this week -- a four-day war of words designed to win over jurors.

As much as 22 hours of closing arguments are set to start this morning and go through Thursday, with U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer saving Friday for instructions to the jury.

Once the jurors are instructed, they will retire to try to reach a verdict.

Assistant federal prosecutors Joel R. Levin and Laurie J. Barsella are due to lead off the closing arguments. They have five hours between them today to sum up five months of testimony from scores of witnesses.

Ryan's chief defense counsel, Dan K. Webb, takes over on Tuesday. He has seven hours to tell the former governor's side of the story.

Next, Edward M. Genson, the defense counsel for Ryan's 67-year-old co-defendant, Larry Warner, is due to address the jury on Wednesday. He has five hours.

Patrick M. Collins, the federal prosecutor who has led the investigation for the past eight years, is due to deliver his rebuttal argument on Thursday. He has five hours.

22-count indictment

Ryan, 72, and longtime friend Larry Warner, 67, are charged in a 22-count federal indictment with racketeering, mail fraud and other offenses.

The indictment says that as secretary of state for eight years in the 1990s and governor for one term starting in 1999, Ryan steered state leases and contracts to Warner and other friends.

In return, he was rewarded with free vacations, loans for his brother's floundering business and even money to pay the band at his daughter's wedding reception, prosecutors say.

Ryan and Warner say nothing they did was illegal.

In fact, Webb plans to tell the jury that far from making decisions in office that were designed to help his friends, Ryan made "good faith decisions" designed to give Illinois its money's worth, defense attorney Bradley E. Lerman told Pallmeyer this week.

Reaching a verdict is probably not going to be easy.

Pallmeyer and the attorneys labored all last week over jury instructions. The government alone proposed 133 pages of instructions that the jurors must follow in doing their work.

Coming up with a final set of instructions and related last-minute housekeeping chores proved to be such a tough job that the judge and lawyers hammered out the wording of the instructions during a hearing in federal court on Saturday to make certain closing arguments would start on time.

Once the verdict is returned, there will be more work to do, even if Ryan and Warner are acquitted on all charges and sent home free men.

Still to be determined are the sentences of former Ryan campaign manager and chief of staff Scott Fawell and his fiancee, Andrea Coutretsis.

Fawell is serving a 6 1/2-year racketeering sentence after being convicted in 2003 of corruption in the secretary of state's office. He is still unsentenced, though, in another corruption case involving bid-rigging at Chicago's Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority.

Coutretsis, who was his administrative assistant in the secretary of state's office and at "McPier," is also awaiting sentencing on corruption charges.

Urged by Coutretsis, Fawell worked out a deal with federal prosecutors under which he would cooperate in the Ryan case. In return, he would serve less time and Coutretsis would get a sentencing break as well.

But Fawell's performance as the leadoff witness in the Ryan trial last fall was marked by offbeat and smart-alecky answers to questions from prosecutors. The government has yet to say what it will recommend when it comes time for the two to be sentenced.

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