CHICAGO – Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan (search) won accolades for clearing the state's death row, but a scandal that destroyed his popularity and made him unelectable in 2002 has now brought him to a critical confrontation.
Accused of doling out big-money state contracts and leases to political insiders, the 71-year-old veteran politician is scheduled to go to trial Monday, charged in a 22-count indictment with racketeering conspiracy (search), mail fraud, lying to the FBI and tax fraud.
He denies the charges and says he'll be acquitted.
"They haven't got one witness that said they gave me a corrupt dollar or they paid me off in any fashion with money," the husky-voiced Republican said in a July interview with Chicago's WGN-TV.
Ryan and his co-defendant, lobbyist Larry Warner (search), are due in court Monday for jury selection.
The charges grew out of the federal government's Operation Safe Road (search), which initially focused on bribes exchanged for drivers licenses but over seven years expanded into a full-blown investigation of political corruption when Ryan was secretary of state and later governor.
Seventy-nine people -- including many state employees -- have been charged, 73 convicted and none acquitted.
Ryan's campaign committee has been found guilty of racketeering along with his former campaign manager and chief of staff, Scott Fawell, who is now serving a 61/2-year sentence.
Fawell is penciled in as the government's leadoff witness and prosecutors say he could be on the stand for as long as three weeks.
Ryan, an old-school politician known as a masterful deal maker, was elected secretary of state in 1990, served two four-year terms and was elected governor in 1998. But he retired after just one term as the so-called bribes-for-licenses scandal grew and his support in opinion polls took a swan dive.
"He was basically unelectable by the time he made the decision not to run," said University of Illinois-Springfield political scientist Kent Redfield.
Just before leaving office, Ryan commuted the sentences of all 167 Illinois death row inmates to life and pardoned four men convicted of murder, saying evidence against them was unconvincing. He had earlier put a hold on state executions, citing a flawed system that sent 13 wrongfully convicted men to death row.
That made Ryan a hero to capital punishment critics -- some of whom are now standing by his side.
"My assessment is that the government case relies entirely on witnesses of extremely dubious credibility whose testimony has been procured under extreme coercion," said Rob Warden, the executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University law school.
Fawell, he notes, said early on that he knew nothing that would help convict Ryan.
At the core of the indictment is an allegation that Ryan gave Warner all but free reign to see that leases and contracts in the secretary of state's office went to Warner's clients.
Millions of dollars for computers, license plate stickers, laminated strips for vehicle titles and a digital drivers licensing system were awarded this way, according to prosecutors.
Warner, in turn, funneled two loans totaling $145,000, one of which was never paid back, into the floundering business of a Ryan family member, prosecutors claim. They say that Warner pumped $6,000 more into a Ryan family business and paid more than $3,000 in Ryan family wedding expenses while furnishing other unspecified money and gifts to his political benefactor.
Ryan declined to discuss the trial with The Associated Press.
"It's one of those things that's happened. We'll see how it all comes together," he told the AP in a recent interview.