George Ryan, former governor of Illinois, was on Monday found guilty on all 18 counts of fraud, racketeering and other charges in a verdict that could trigger copycat probes against elected officials across the US.
The clean-sweep jury verdict caught most observers by surprise after a complex trial lasting almost six months, but will provide other prosecutors with ammunition to examine the relationship between state and local politicians and business interests.
The decision is a coup for the prosecution team led by Patrick Fitzgerald, the special counsel who brought perjury charges against Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the former chief of staff of vice-president Dick Cheney.
Mr Ryan immediately pledged to appeal against the verdict after the case came close to a mistrial when two jurors were dismissed for failing to declare past criminal records, requiring the installation of two replacements. The new juries had deliberated for 11 days.
The former governor was found guilty of awarding contracts to close friends and business associates in return for cash and gifts during his terms as secretary of state of Illinois. The jury also found him guilty on charges of tax evasion and providing false information to investigators.
Mr Ryan’s legal team maintained the government had failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt, but legal analysts said the verdict had widespread ramifications because the jury accepted Mr Ryan’s guilt required only his knowledge of the business deals, rather than direct involvement.
Prosecutors said after the decision that it could “mark the end of political prostitution in the state of Illinois”. Patrick Collins, the assistant US attorney who led the government’s case in court, cautioned that wrongdoing would continue until voters realised that corruption in high office created victims.
The former governor was tried alongside Larry Warner, a close friend and business associate, who was also found guilty of racketeering charges, which carry a maximum jail penalty of 20 years for both men. The two defendants did not testify during the trial but maintained that they did nothing illegal. “There will be an appeal,” said a calm-looking Mr Ryan after the decision. Sentencing is scheduled for August, pending any appeal.
The charges followed an eight-year investigation called Operation Safe Road, which uncovered allegations that state officials awarded trucking licences in return for bribes. These came to light after an unqualified driver was involved in a crash that claimed the lives of six young children.
Mr Ryan was governor from 1999-2003, and gained international attention when the Republican switched tack on the death penalty and commuted the sentences of 163 prisoners on the state’s death row.