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Author James L. Merriner
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3 Governors Found Guilty—3 Claims of Political Prosecutions

Chicago Sun-Times
September 11, 2006
James L. Merriner, Special to the Chicago Sun-Times

Let's see, three Illinois governors convicted of corruption charges in 33 years. Either our governors are exceptionally corrupt or the U.S. attorneys here are exceptionally zealous. Maybe both.

Last Wednesday, former Gov. George Ryan was sentenced to 78 months in prison for racketeering and fraud. His supporters—like those for others in the trio of gubernatorial felons, Dan Walker and Otto Kerner—complain that his prosecution was politically motivated.

Such objections have been heard before and probably will be voiced about the next big-shot defendant, whoever he or she is. In Walker's case, he is leveling new charges that he was a victim of politics. His memoirs, to be published next spring by Southern Illinois University Press, accuse then-Gov. James R. Thompson and then-U.S. Attorney Anton R. Valukas of conspiring to "get" him.

Now 83 and living in Rosario, Mexico, with his third wife, Walker pleaded guilty in 1987 to bank fraud and perjury having nothing to do with his term as governor in 1973-77. Walker expected to get probation in exchange for pleading guilty, but instead he was sentenced to seven years in prison. He served 17 months before the sentencing judge released him.

Walker's defense attorney was Tom Foran, who had become famous as the U.S. attorney who prosecuted the Chicago Seven conspiracy trial after rioting at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The U.S. attorney in the case, Valukas, in effect had been placed in office by the governor, Thompson. Previously, as U.S. attorney himself, Thompson had put former Gov. Kerner in jail in 1973. Thompson's law firm, Winston & Strawn, now defends former Gov. Ryan. (Yes, it's hard to keep straight all these defense attorneys and prosecuting attorneys and which side of the fence they are on in a given case.)

Walker agreed to send me the manuscript of his book. He writes that "Valukas took the unusual step of controlling our case personally. Did he discuss the investigation with his old boss Jim Thompson, who was still governor? I don't know, but I have very little doubt that he did.

"[Plea bargain] negotiations began in earnest between Tom Foran and Valukas. I met Tom at his office, and he told me how the conversation went.

" 'Dan, this guy is determined to nail you,' Tom began. 'When I told him the case against [Walker's wife] Roberta is damn weak, Valukas actually said, "No matter. Look at all the publicity I'll get." ' "

Foran died six years ago. Valukas, now with the law firm of Jenner & Block, said in an e-mail, "My experience is that many people who have pled guilty spend their life explaining that they did nothing wrong. Tom Foran was not only a superb lawyer but a very good friend of mine. . . . [Walker's] description of a conversation that I had with Tom Foran is a fabrication."

Valukas added, "at no time while I was United States attorney did I ever discuss any case with former Governor Thompson."

Thompson, in an interview, called Walker's scenario "the wackiest theory I have heard in a long time." He said that he never talked with Valukas about Walker and, contrary to another allegation by Walker, he never feared that Walker would run against him for governor.

The Walker case was 19 years ago and all three men obviously still have vivid perceptions of it. That's nothing. The Otto Kerner cae was 33 years ago and some people still argue that he was unfairly prosecuted and convicted in a racing stock scandal. Kerner, at the time a federal judge, supposedly was hammered because (1) the Nixon White House wanted to hurt Kerner's pal, Mayor Richard J. Daley, and (2) Thompson wanted to ride a publicity rocket into the governor's office.

Thompson took pains to deny the latter point in his closing argument at Kerner's trial. He said, "An ambitious prosecutor doesn't indict a federal judge, particularly in Chicago. He just goes after the poor, the weak, the friendless, the powerless and ends up with a 95 percent conviction rate." Kerner was sentenced to three years in prison but was soon released for ill health and died in 1976.

In any event, the charge that Kerner and Walker were targets of partisan bias at least has a grain of plausibility. They were Democrats who were pursued by U.S. attorneys appointed by Republican presidents. In Ryan's case, though, a Republican former governor was prosecuted by a Republican Justice Department.

Actually, say people who like to think they have inside knowledge, the feds went after Ryan in reprisal for his commuting the sentences of everyone on Illinois Death Row in 2003. This rumor is so widespread that prosecutors felt impelled to deny it outright at Ryan's sentencing hearing.

We are so besotted with politics in Illinois that we think we can detect the hidden political agendas behind everything. It seems to me that a more reasonable inference from all these indictments and convictions of public officials from governors on down is: Yep, our government really is that corrupt.

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