Insurance tycoon heads governor's trust fund

Sunday, July 21, 2002

CHICAGO -- The insurance executive who heads a new trust fund that might end up paying Gov. George Ryan's legal bills in a federal corruption investigation is a big campaign donor who has stayed out of the limelight during a long friendship with Ryan.

Richard Parrillo, chairman of Miami-based United Automobile Insurance Co., makes money by selling auto liability policies to drivers who have been turned down as too risky by other insurance companies.

Ryan associates could not say how long the governor has known the 68-year-old, cigar-chomping businessman, who drives a Jaguar convertible and is known in Ryan's circle as "Richie." But the two men have been dining together for years, and a Ryan spokesman said Parrillo is among those who can get the governor on the phone whenever he wants.

"I'm sure that he could," said Ryan press secretary Dennis Culloton. "He and the governor are good friends."

Since 1997, Parrillo and members of his family have contributed at least $81,000 to the Republican governor, who chose not to seek a second term in 2002. Last year, Parrillo and family members gave $20,000 to Rod Blagojevich, the Democratic congressman running to replace Ryan.

Parrillo has had a relatively low profile until last week, when Ryan's office acknowledged the existence of the Friends of George Ryan Trust and said it might be used to pay the governor's legal bills from the four-year federal investigation that began when he was secretary of state.

Ryan has not been accused of any wrongdoing. But his campaign committee and his former campaign manager are facing charges of secretly using taxpayer dollars and state employees for political purposes, starting in 1994.

In addition, 57 people have been charged with crimes stemming from fixing drivers license tests to hiding evidence of corruption from prosecutors. Prosecutors have traced $170,000 in bribe money, given to illegally obtain drivers licenses, to Ryan's campaign fund.

Ryan has paid more than $1 million out of his campaign fund for his legal expenses and those of others in the investigation. U.S. District Judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer has frozen the bulk of what's left -- $1 million -- to pay restitution if the campaign is found guilty of racketeering.

Ryan has defended the creation of the trust fund and denied that there is any link between it and people hoping for his support on casino gambling.

Rosemont Mayor Donald Stephens, who is battling with state gambling regulators to locate a floating casino in his Chicago suburb, is among those committed to raising money for the trust fund. Susan Leonis, an investor in the stalled Emerald casino project in Rosemont, acknowledged that she has tried to raise money for the fund.

Parrillo is the sole trustee for the fund. His son, Michael, is also an investor in the Emerald project.

Parrillo did not return calls to his home in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood and his Miami office.

Although United Automobile is based in Florida, Parrillo started in Chicago at the Safeway Insurance Co. -- now based in Westmont.

Both are "nonstandard" insurance companies that specialize in insuring drivers the most particular companies won't accept.

While Parrillo hasn't been listed as a Safeway manager since 1995, the company is still controlled by his family. Its latest report to state regulators lists the Robert Parrillo Trust as the largest shareholder.

Safeway's latest annual financial report to the Illinois Department of Insurance listed net worth of $158.7 million; United, a Safeway spinoff, listed a net worth of $21 million.

Safeway has consistently been among the most complained-about companies in state insurance records. Of 45 companies with 10 or more complaints in 2001, only eight had more complaints than Safeway.

Eighteen had more complaints than United.

Safeway has had a clean record with state insurance regulators, with a minor exception. They fined the company $5,000 last year for exceeding the limit on the amount of premium they can write.

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