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March 5, 2009

Felon tells own tale of political corruption

The recent impeachment and ouster of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is only one in a long series of political corruption cases that have dogged that state’s reputation. A key player from an earlier case against Blagojevich’s predecessor offered his story as “a cautionary tale” to all those who are tempted by corruption.

Richard Juliano, former deputy chief of staff to former Gov. George Ryan and himself a felon, spoke at Pitt’s law school Feb. 19.

Juliano, who pleaded guilty to mail fraud in 2002 as part of the larger investigation, later testified at the trials of Ryan and Ryan’s chief of staff, Scott Fawell, who was his friend and colleague for a decade.

Both Ryan and Fawell were convicted of multiple felonies and each was sentenced to six and a half years in prison.

For his role in aiding the prosecutions, Juliano received a sentence of four years’ probation, including three months of home detention, 350 hours of community service and a $10,000 fine, a somewhat lighter sentence than the 24-30 months in prison that federal guidelines dictated. He also was disbarred, but soon will be eligible to apply for re-instatement.

Juliano first met Fawell as an undergraduate during Ryan’s campaign for Illinois secretary of state.

“I do not come from a political family, but I was always interested in politics myself, and I started to get involved in political campaigns in Chicago while I was still in college,” said Juliano, who earned his undergraduate and law degrees at the University of Chicago. “I was 20 years old when I met Scott Fawell. He started working for George Ryan who then was running for Illinois secretary of state, a very powerful office. They handle all the driver’s licenses, vehicle registration, traffic safety. In 1990, I was helping in that campaign.”

He learned quickly that Illinois politics was competitive in the extreme and that sometimes meant turning a blind eye to wrongdoing. “In the political culture in Illinois it is common to use your incumbent office to political advantage,” Juliano said. “There’s nothing inherently wrong in that. There are right ways to do that. But for some, not all, they do it for competitive political reasons. In the Ryan organization, across eight-10 years, there was pressure from the higher-ups, particularly Scott Fawell, to use those resources for political advantage.”

Specifically, Juliano became aware of a number of government staff who were working on Ryan’s campaigns while drawing a tax-payer-funded salary for government work.

Fawell also forced some employees of the Illinois secretary of state’s office to sell raffle tickets to raise money for Ryan’s gubernatorial campaign by tying pay raises to how many tickets employees sold. For their part, the employees found it easier to issue commercial driver’s licenses (CDLs) to unqualified applicants for $500-$l,500 apiece in bribes and then to use that money to purchase the tickets themselves. At least $170,000 from illegal CDLs wound up in the former governor’s campaign coffers.

“It started out kind of small, but over the years it got more and more egregious and the culture was: These are the rules of political engagement in Illinois; the other side is doing it too, and we have to do it to be competitive,” Juliano said.

He stayed connected with the Ryan organization, working part time while attending law school. “Nothing wrong with that. But as I was starting my third year I encountered corruption personally,” Juliano said.

“Scott and I sat down and discussed my role. I said, ‘I can work for you part time, why don’t you just pay me from campaign funds?’

“He said, ‘No, I can’t afford that. I’ll get you another part-time employee contract in my office and that will take care of it.’ He didn’t specifically say, ‘I don’t care whether you don’t do governmental work,’ but it certainly was implicit in what he was saying, that the important thing is: Do the politics.”

Fawell also has the kind of personality that inhibited arguing with him, Juliano said.

He acknowledged misgivings about this arrangement, but said that, to his folly, he ignored them. “There are a couple reasons I used. These are not meant to excuse what I did, but to put it into context,” Juliano said. “Part of it was my rationalization: I told myself ‘Maybe I’ll try to do some governmental work to justify the money I’ll be getting,’ which was really a fantasy given all my [law school] responsibilities. Part of it was this is politics as usual.”

It’s also human nature to compartmentalize different areas of one’s life, he added. “Sometimes that’s a good thing. If you have a bad day at work, you don’t want to come home and take it out on your family. Sometimes it’s not good, when you can’t relate your studies to your professional life. I knew it was wrong, but it’s Illinois politics, everybody does it, maybe it’s wrong, but who cares? I felt I was committed to our candidate,” Juliano said.

Following Ryan’s election as governor in 1998, Juliano worked in his office for a couple of years. “I’m proud of the work I did there, but I became weary of ‘ethical boxes’ and I went to Washington, D.C., in 2001 and took a job with the Department of Transportation.”

In the interim, dating back to 1998, the FBI had been investigating corruption in the Illinois secretary of state office under Ryan’s watch.

“The investigation started to branch out in a lot of different directions. Scott Fawell, I learned through the rumor mill, was a target of the investigation, and so, having worked for him, I expected to be interviewed and I was advised informally that I would be.”

The FBI issued a subpoena and Juliano retained counsel. “I was told that Scott was being investigated and did I want to help them or not?” he said.

“I started to look at the past a little differently, because in my mind, and I think in the minds of most of the people I worked with, what it had all been about was politics, campaigning, elections. Now it came down to scrutinizing the situation. So I made the decision pretty expeditiously to cooperate. Not to ‘save myself.’ I didn’t think I’d face any criminal liability myself, and at the beginning there was some talk of immunity from prosecution. I thought: I’ve seen Washington and learned that politics didn’t have to be like it was in Illinois. I had a new perspective on this. I’m just going to tell what I know truthfully, and other people would have to deal with that,” Juliano said.

During the investigation, Patrick Fitzgerald (now famous for his role in the Valerie Plame “outing” as a CIA agent case) was named new U.S. district attorney, and all talk of immunity for Juliano stopped.

“The process went on for several months and I continued to cooperate. Ultimately, I was charged with mail fraud, which is a felony. I pled guilty, but it was more than four years before I faced sentencing. Part of my plea agreement was that the government would allow the judge to depart from the sentencing guidelines, and that the government would make the judge aware of the level of my cooperation.”

As it happened, Juliano faced that same judge, U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer, who had presided over the Ryan and Fawell cases, so she was familiar with his testimony.

Juliano was the lead witness in the Fawell trial. “I was on the witness stand for six days. I was responsible for laying out the case. It was emotionally challenging because there he was right in front of me.”

Juliano’s own sentencing day was nerve-wracking. “The assistant D.A. started out saying, ‘We should make an example of him.’ You never want to hear this when you’re being sentenced. But in my case, he added ‘… for telling the truth.’ He argued that there are other ongoing investigations of corruption and other people will be pressured not to testify, and that something good should come out of this,” Juliano said.

Upon reflection some seven years after his guilty plea, Juliano shared three lessons he learned from the ordeal.

“If you are told by a colleague or a superior that ‘We need to do something,’ whatever it is, ‘because everybody does it,’ and you have misgivings, that should be a red flag. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong, but think about it a little bit before agreeing,” he said.

“Second, assume whatever you do will be scrutinized some day, whether by the media, bar examiners, law enforcement, clients. When you do things because it’s politics as usual, again maybe it’s not wrong, but it may look wrong and you need to be prepared to defend your actions.”

Finally, Juliano recommended, when faced with ethical dilemmas in employment, simply change jobs. “Don’t get emotionally tied down. In the big picture you’re going to pay a price for it. Ultimately, you have to have the self-confidence to remove yourself from that situation. Most of us will have other options,” he said.

Since leaving federal government service in 2002, Juliano has worked as a national trade association executive based in Washington, D.C.

“This was a horrifying experience, and you really learn who your friends are,” he said. “I was fortunate to have good support, and a CEO in Washington was willing to take a chance on me. So, this has a happy ending. I have a great family and I’m enjoying a second career.”

—Peter Hart

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