Citizens group argues case its against Illinois governor

Wednesday, May 22, 2002

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- Illinoisans should not have to wait on reluctant public officials to take legal action to stop public corruption, a taxpayer group argued Tuesday before the Supreme Court.

Citizens represented by the Better Government Association sued over a bribery scandal during Gov. George Ryan's two terms as secretary of state. They want to recover the salary Ryan made, along with the salaries of employees who were taking bribes to issue drivers licenses to unqualified truck drivers.

"Taxpayers have an absolute right to get at funds ... that are ill-gotten gains," BGA attorney Robert Atkins of Chicago told the court. "They belong in the state treasury. They do not belong sticking to the hands of the defendants."

Lower courts have dismissed the lawsuit the BGA filed in 2000, saying only the state attorney general has that authority. Atkins said the BGA asked Attorney General Jim Ryan to sue, but he declined.

Former Gov. James Thompson, who is representing George Ryan, told the Supreme Court that the attorney general must have discretion to decide which lawsuits to file.

Allowing citizens to sue would destroy "boundaries hemming in thousands of lawsuits against state employees and state officials every time they made a discretionary decision," he said.

But Justice Charles Freeman challenged that. "At some point, citizens would be left out because of inaction by the attorney general unless citizens can come forth," Freeman said.

Thompson, elected Illinois governor four times, had a simple answer -- vote out the attorney general.

More than 40 people have been convicted in connection with the bribery and efforts to cover it up. Federal prosecutors have determined that people donated at least $170,000 in bribes to George Ryan's campaign fund.

The court will rule on the case later this year.

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