Illinois Governor Small Makes Ryan Look Saintly Print
Commentary/Politics - Illinois Politics
Tuesday, 23 December 2003 18:00
“A prosecutor once described political corruption as a ‘time-honored tradition’ in Illinois, but the scandal outlined in a 91-page indictment against former Governor George Ryan might be the worst yet,” claimed the Associated Press last week.

At the risk of sounding like an apologist for this state’s Public Enemy Number one, gimme a break.

Most of the allegations contained in the indictment amount to fairly small-time stuff. He accepted free lodging in Jamaica from a friend. He steered some contracts to his buddies, and then some of those same pals invested in his brother’s business, loaned some money to a relative at zero interest, and paid for part of his daughter’s wedding. Ryan also spent money from his campaign account on himself and underreported the expenses on his income-tax reports.

For a bit of perspective, let’s take a look at the last Kankakee governor who was accused of corruption.

Len Small was governor throughout the Roaring Twenties – that gilded age of prohibition and lawlessness.

Small was a close political ally of Chicago Mayor Big Bill Thompson, who was the mafia’s chief enabler in the state. Small was also closely affiliated with Johnny Torrio, the guy who united the city’s innumerable rackets and gangsters under one umbrella during the beginning of Prohibition and turned it all into a giant money-making machine. Al Capone was Torrio’s top lieutenant, and when Torrio split town, Capone further refined Torrio’s vast organization.

Len Small was known as the “pardoning governor.” He is alleged to have sold hundreds of pardons, mostly to gangsters.

Small went so far as to even pardon cop killers. In 1922, a group of Torrio’s bootleggers were on their way to Chicago when they shot and killed a motorcycle cop who was in full pursuit. Small pardoned the whole bunch.

Walter Stevens, the “dean of all Chicago’s gunmen,” was Johnny Torrio’s top trigger man. Stevens bumped off many of Torrio’s rivals.

The murder of an Aurora policeman landed Stevens in prison, but Governor Small dutifully pardoned him. There were reports at the time that Stevens played a crucial role in helping Small beat an embezzlement charge. The jury was reportedly tampered with and some key evidence was “accidentally” burned by a janitor, who died soon afterwards.

The malfeasance charge alleged that Small, when he was state treasurer, loaned state money to an outfit-connected company at 6-percent interest, but turned over just half the profits to the state’s bank accounts. He was acquitted, but he lost a subsequent civil case and had to pony up several hundred thousand dollars.

“Umbrella Mike” Boyle ran the electricians union during Small’s tenure. Boyle brokered many of the pardon deals between Governor Small and the mob. Boyle was once tossed in jail for refusing to testify in a grand-jury investigation of his union’s extortion of money from Chicago builders. Small pardoned him, too.

At the behest of Johnny Torrio, Small even pardoned a husband-and-wife team of brothel owners before they began serving their sentences.

But Small’s dirty deeds didn’t stop with selling pardons or skimming state funds.

Small appointed Chicago 2nd Ward boss Daniel Jackson to the Illinois Commerce Commission during a time of unprecedented corruption in the electric-power industry. Jackson was a “gambling king,” and just about every speakeasy in the city’s black neighborhoods operated under his protection.

Small was widely known as the “roads governor” because he passed a $100-million bond issue to build thousands of miles of roads. Not often mentioned is that the mob controlled many of the road-construction unions and, by extension, the companies they organized. You can bet your house that Torrio and Capone pocketed a big chunk of that bond money.

Okay, back to George Ryan. Was he corrupt? It looks that way. The most serious allegations are those surrounding his alleged cover-up of the license-for-bribes scandal while he was secretary of state.

I loudly sounded the alarm about Ryan during the 1998 campaign, when almost nobody else wanted to touch the story. So I don’t feel any need to go overboard now to make you forget how easy I went on him back then.

If the allegations are true, then Ryan should be punished. No argument there. But let’s keep some historical perspective while we’re gnashing our teeth. Yes, the feds are alleging some completely unacceptable behavior. But compared to Len Small, George Ryan was a saint.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at (
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