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Kirk splits from Durbin, opposes Ryan clemency bid
By John Patterson | Senior State Government Editor

Congressman Mark Kirk


Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

George Ryan


Associated Press

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Published: 12/2/2008 3:13 PM | Updated: 12/2/2008 5:01 PM

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SPRINGFIELD - The topsy-turvy tale of George Ryan's efforts to get out of federal prison becomes a bit more twisted by the day.

On Tuesday, Republican Congressman Mark Kirk sent a letter to President Bush urging him not to reduce the former Republican governor's prison term, saying it would "embolden the corrupt and criminal."

"His crimes struck at the fabric of our democracy and invited a new wave of public corruption in Illinois," Kirk said in the letter.

This comes on the heels of Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin announcing recently that he'd sent a letter to Bush asking that the 74-year-old Ryan be set free.

Durbin's push was backed by current Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Chicago Democrat, who won election in 2002 on a campaign that vilified Ryan's tenure in politics.

Meanwhile, the Illinois Republican Party, beholden to Ryan for decades, came out against clemency for its former standard-bearer.

Whether any of this will have any bearing on what Bush does is anyone's guess.

While there is a formal process - complete with its own federal office - for seeking pardons and clemency from the president, in the end it doesn't matter. The president is free to do whatever he wants, as the country learned last year when Bush wiped out the prison sentence of top vice presidential aide Scooter Libby before Libby ever served a day in prison.

Executive clemency powers are unfettered and cannot be appealed. And there's arguably not a single inmate anywhere in the country who knows that more than George Ryan.

Ryan used similar authority instilled in him by the Illinois Constitution to switch every death row sentence to life in prison just hours before leaving office in early 2003. Ironically, that move - which made Ryan a global celebrity among death penalty opponents - could come back to hurt his own clemency bid.

Bush is an ardent death penalty supporter, having presided over more than 130 executions during his tenure as Texas governor.

It's among the myriad reasons observers and experts doubt the effort to free Ryan will be successful, pointing to Bush's general reluctance so far to use his clemency powers and a lack of political angles that would seem to make Ryan fit as an exception.

"I think it's a long shot for a couple reasons," said Dan Kobil, a law professor at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, who studies executive clemency. "One, he hasn't served that much of his sentence.

"He doesn't have the personal or the political connection with Bush that Scooter Libby had."

Indeed, Ryan has served just over a year of a more than six-year prison term. And while Ryan and Bush are both Republicans, they are diametrically opposed on the death penalty, the Bush administration criticized Ryan's trade mission to Cuba, and Bush had the misfortune of campaigning in Illinois with Ryan on a day that a top Ryan aide was indicted in the investigation that ultimately sent Ryan to prison.

Kobil points out that, statistically, Bush has so far been among the least merciful presidents in terms of using his clemency powers.

As of Tuesday, Kobil said Bush had issued 171 pardons and commuted eight prison sentences out of more than 10,000 requests. In comparison, his father received far fewer requests - 1,400 in all during his one term - and granted 74 pardons and three commutations. Bill Clinton granted 396 pardons and 61 commutations out of nearly 7,500 requests in his two terms.

"He's a terrible president to be asking for mercy, to be honest with you," Kobil said of the younger Bush.

Longtime Illinois political observer Paul Green, sees little political logic in Bush helping Ryan.

"I don't think Bush is going to do it because I simply don't think he'll want to do it. What's in it for him?" said Green, director of Roosevelt University's School of Policy Studies. "If there's no political motive, it's tough to figure out what Bush would do. There's no, in my thinking, logic to any of this."