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'Ryan gets nothing,' state's high court rules in pension fight
By John Patterson | Daily Herald Staff

Former Gov. George Ryan

 

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Published: 2/19/2010 9:12 AM | Updated: 2/19/2010 12:29 PM

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SPRINGFIELD - Saying the taxpayers of Illinois have no duty to the governor who victimized them, the Illinois Supreme Court stripped George Ryan of any pension benefits, wiping away a nearly $70,000 annual retirement check a lower court said he deserved for the years not tied to his corruption conviction.

"As victims of Ryan's crimes, the taxpayers of the state of Illinois are under no obligation to now fund his retirement," Justice Robert Thomas said in the blistering majority opinion decision. Thomas is a Republican from Wheaton.

The opinion blasted Ryan for turning 30 years of public trust into a "wholly self-serving criminal enterprise." Ryan, a Kankakee Republican, was governor from 1999 to 2003 but his government service dated back to 1966 and included stints as secretary of state, lieutenant governor and state representative.

"Here, although Ryan held multiple public offices over the course of his time in the (pension) system, all of those offices were in service to a single public employer - the state of Illinois. And it was the state of Illinois whose trust Ryan betrayed when he committed 16 job-related felonies," Thomas wrote in the opinion published Friday morning.

"Ryan gets nothing," Thomas and the court bluntly concluded.

It was a 6-1 ruling with only Justice Anne Burke of Chicago dissenting and suggesting the other justices were letting their emotions get the best of them.

"I do not intend to diminish in any way the seriousness of the criminal acts committed by the former Governor. Also, I understand the very human impulse to want to punish Ryan for his wrongdoings by depriving him of all of his pension benefits. However, while I sympathize with such impulses, our constitutional obligation is to follow the law, not our personal preferences," Burke wrote in a dissenting opinion.

She argued the court ignored previous decisions that allowed a public employee to keep part of a pension despite a conviction. Burke noted Ryan was never accused of wrongdoing in his tenure as a lieutenant governor and member of the General Assembly.

That's the portion of his pension Ryan sought to keep, service spanning a couple decades that would have granted him a state pension check of roughly $5,700 a month or $68,400 annually. Had the former governor not run afoul of the law, Ryan, who is 75, would now be collecting nearly $197,000 annually.

In pressing the case before the Illinois Supreme Court, former Gov. Jim Thompson, Ryan's attorney, argued that each time someone is elected to office, it's a new membership in the pension system. Therefore Ryan's early years of service are still valid grounds for granting a pension, he said.

Thompson said Ryan's been stripped of his reputation, his pension and will sit in prison until the age of 80 while his aging wife sits at home in Kankakee with no income.

Contacted Friday, Thompson called the opinion "very disappointing" and "just wrong."

He said he'd not yet informed Ryan, and agreed with Burke that the court was changing the law with this ruling.

"You read the majority opinion - it's quite clear that public anger about corruption goes all the way to the top, and I understand that," Thompson said. He said he would not ask the court to reconsider. "There's no point to it, not with a 6-1 opinion."

The opinion issued Friday reflects many of the arguments made by Jan Hughes, the attorney representing the state's pension system. When the case went before the court last year, she countered Thompson by saying Ryan betrayed the public at large regardless of what specific office he worked in and should be held accountable. She noted that the contributions to that pension system do not come from the General Assembly budget or the lieutenant governor's budget. They come from the state and as such, Ryan's entire service is at issue, not a segment of it.

The court appears to have found her arguments compelling.

"Here, the trust to which Ryan was unfaithful was that which he owed the People of the state of Illinois, who for 30 years placed their confidence in him and whose continuing confidence he repaid by transforming two of this state's highest constitutional offices into an ongoing and wholly self-serving criminal enterprise," Thomas said in the opinion. "Allowing Ryan to now collect any portion of his pension would not only run afoul of the plain language (of the pension laws), but also undermine the public policy underlying that statute, which is to ensure that the retirement of a corrupt public servant is never financed by the very constituency whose trust was betrayed."

Ryan isn't exiting the pension system empty-handed. He's already been refunded a lump sum of $235,508 - the amount he'd contributed from his paychecks over the decades.

His family was advised not to spend a penny of it while the appeals were pending because it would have to be repaid to the state if his pension was reinstated. Now it's theirs to spend.

Ryan remains incarcerated in an Indiana federal prison. His wife has requested clemency from President Obama, though there's been no action. The Ryans cited their failing health as reason for releasing the former governor early. Ryan has kidney disease and infected teeth while his wife is on oxygen for a lung disease.

"I don't know if or when he will act," Thompson said. "He's been in office over a year now and he's made no clemency decisions for anybody. I know he's got a lot on his plate. We'll see what happens."