STATEMENT OF ICPR DIRECTOR CYNTHIA CANARY:
Today, former Governor George Ryan was sentenced to 6.5 years in prison. The length of time George Ryan spends behind bars matters only to George Ryan and his family. To the rest of us, he will forever be enshrined in the Illinois Government Hall of Shame for betraying the trust of the people of Illinois.
Illinois’ politics didn't have a good reputation before Ryan’s trial, which brought us months of testimony about sweetheart contracts, trips to Jamaica and Las Vegas, cover-ups, deceit, tax evasion and on and on. The Ryan trial put it all at center stage for us to see once again. What is it about Illinois that breeds politicians like Ryan and scores of others who have gone to jail for using the power of public office to enrich themselves and their campaign contributors?
Unfortunately, George Ryan's use of government for personal gain is not a freak occurrence in Illinois. It is precisely why everyday citizens have so little trust in their government and believe big campaign contributors have an unfair advantage.
Instead of debating how many years George Ryan should serve, our elected leaders ought to be debating what needs to be done to restore the public's trust in government. Their answers should include restrictions on how much can be contributed to candidates and a ban on direct contributions by corporations and labor unions. Decisions about state employment and contracts should be based on merit and not decided by contributions and politics. We need reasonable restrictions on how campaigns are financed and a strong regulatory system that will enforce those laws. And we need more disclosure about lobbying practices, as well as increased sunshine on all levels of government.
Voters and candidates can - and will - disagree on important issues, like funding education, selling the tollway and the licensing of new casinos. But all of us want a government that is fair, a government where those issues are debated and decided by honest people. Voters don't think the system is fair now.
As long as candidates can get unlimited campaign cash from special interests, we won't have fairness, and voters know that.
It has been too easy for a government office to become an arm of a campaign. . . where all decisions are made with an eye toward the next election and who provides the money to buy the TV ads and mass mailings. If we're going to sever that connection, we need limits on how campaign funds are collected. Only then will we have a chance at achieving fairness in government -- a place where real people are heard, where all issues get a fair hearing and decisions are made by honest men and women who are not influenced by campaign cash.
The U.S. Attorney and the Federal courts have made it abundantly clear that elected officials have a duty to uphold the public trust and those who don’t will be tried and convicted. Voters in this state have been let down far too many times. It’s long past time for politicians who have talked the talk about changing business as usual, to actually start walking the walk. Illinois citizens deserve fair and honest government. And they have the right to demand it.
At the end of his prison sentence, I hope George Ryan returns to a changed Illinois, one that welcomes honesty in government and merits the trust of Illinoisans.