Ryan Defense: Innocent Acts Warped by Politics

Former Gov. George Ryan's (search) defense against allegations he took payoffs in return for letting associates profit from state contracts and leases will show it was politics as usual and nothing more, his lawyer said.

"The government has cobbled together a number of unrelated acts, innocent acts that are nothing more than the fabric of what goes on in Illinois politics and Illinois government. They are not crimes, they are innocent acts," defense attorney Dan Webb said.

Ryan pleaded innocent Tuesday to charges of racketeering conspiracy (search), mail fraud, tax fraud, filing false tax returns and making false statements to agents investigating corruption.

"I'm absolutely not guilty of those charges," Ryan said after his arraignment.

The charges in the 22-count indictment announced last Wednesday against Ryan and lobbyist Larry Warner could send them to prison for years. Warner, who allegedly collected at least $3.1 million through his friendship with Ryan, pleaded innocent Friday.

Ryan, a Republican who served as secretary of state from 1991 to 1999 and governor from 1999 to January, was freed on $4,500 bail. He is accused of breaking the law while he was secretary of state and governor.

Ryan was the 66th person charged in the investigation; 59 have been convicted and none acquitted.

The scandal was a factor in Ryan's decision not to seek a second term, and his unpopularity was considered a major reason GOP candidates were routed statewide in 2002, including the election of a Democratic governor for the first time since 1972.

Prosecutors allege that Ryan and members of his family shared in $167,000 in graft (search) that included payoffs, free vacations and cash siphoned out of his campaign fund and camouflaged as expenses.

Webb outlined three themes for the defense:

He said prosecutors did not have witnesses who could testify that Ryan had taken a bribe; that the jury would be impressed by Ryan's "courage" in addressing problems in Illinois' death penalty system (search); and that Ryan was a man of modest means who makes ends meet on his pension and Social Security checks, and therefore obviously had not enriched himself through corruption.

"He has no assets, no stocks, no bonds. He has a modest house in Kankakee, Illinois, and that is not the financial picture of a person who has engaged in the conduct that the government has alleged in this case," Webb said.

Outside Illinois, Ryan is best known as an ardent critic of the way capital punishment is administered. He declared a moratorium (search) on executions in Illinois because of the discovery that 13 wrongfully convicted men had been sent to death row.

In January, just before leaving office, he cleared out Illinois' death row, pardoning four condemned prisoners and commuting the death sentences of 167 others to life in prison.