(page 1 of 6)
This is a profile of Scott Fawell, former governor George Ryan’s longtime right-hand man, a tough, relentless schemer now serving time in a federal prison camp for running a corrupt political operation.
But perhaps the best way to begin a Fawell story—the best example of the tawdry intrigue that circulated in his wake at the highest levels of state government—is to start in a suburban backyard with an event at which Fawell was not even present, the Barbecue of the Documents.
It was a Sunday morning in the fall of 1999. Ernie Katris, then an independent pet supply salesman, arrived home in Mundelein from church with his family to find his brother-in-law Dean Prokos and Dean’s wife, Andrea, standing next to their BMW waiting for him. Andrea Prokos was Scott Fawell’s longtime aide—she had worked for him in the secretary of state’s office, on Ryan’s campaigns, and at the Metropolitan Exposition and Pier Authority (McPier), which oversees McCormick Place and Navy Pier. A few weeks earlier, Dean had come by with several boxes of documents and asked to leave them in the Katrises’ garage.
According to the testimony Ernie later gave in court, he understood that the documents included politically sensitive records of campaign contributions and employee hiring in the secretary of state’s office under Ryan. Now, as the two Prokos children sat in the car, Dean and Andrea nervously explained that the boxes had to be destroyed. Federal agents were closing in, and a story that morning in the Chicago Tribune about the expanding licenses-for-bribes probe had spooked the Prokoses. Just looking at the boxes—four, or maybe six of them—upset Andrea. Ernie later testified that Andrea thought it was “ridiculous” that the boxes were in “broad view,” even though they were stacked against the back wall of the Katrises’ garage. Andrea was afraid that someone would see the boxes. After explaining their plight, Dean and Andrea fetched a few more boxes from the BMW and moved them all to the Katrises’ basement. Then, according to one of many court records from which this account is drawn, “they huddled to discuss their options.”
Option one was a no-brainer for such an experienced political hand as Andrea. She asked Ernie if he had a shredder. In Illinois politics, that is not such a strange question. And even though Ernie was just a pet supply salesman, with a home office in his basement, he did indeed have a shredder. He had no use for it—he had never used it—but he had gotten it free from his brother, who had gotten it free from a man he knew who worked at Fellowes, the office supply company.
Fellowes makes top-of-the-line equipment. Take the Powershred 480-2HS High Security Shredder, said to provide “spy-proof destruction for large quantities of your most sensitive documents!” according to the company’s Web site. Many of Fellowes’s shredders meet NSA/DOD standards. That’s National Security Agency and Department of Defense. Fellowes knows shredders. Strip cut, confetti cut, avoid-jail-if-you-possibly-can cut.
Unfortunately, you get what you pay for. The shredder that Ernie retrieved darkened Andrea’s mood. A line shredder? Are you kidding? Andrea was a tough, efficient, organized professional; she was not going to botch the job. A line shredder was for amateurs. Andrea tried it out on a couple of documents, but a line shredder makes just a single vertical cut. Andrea worried that someone could too easily piece the documents back together again—documents of wrongdoing that she warned “could lead up to George Ryan,” Ernie testified. She asked Ernie if he had a crisscross shredder. Ernie did not.
Then we will have to burn the documents, Andrea decided.
It probably sounded like a simple proposition. Ernie had an old charcoal grill in his garage and a semisecluded corner in his backyard.
According to Ernie’s testimony, they got into formation, with Andrea sorting through the documents in the basement, prioritizing those most urgently in need of destruction, and handing them off to Ernie, the go-between. Dean was the grill master.
Ernie and Dean started with a stack of papers inside a manila folder. They had emptied the barbecue of its grillwork. They put the stack inside the barbecue, poured on the lighter fluid, and lit the stack.
It was not the best day for a barbecue. Ernie later testified that it was “a windy, cooler day.” Leaves were on the ground.
That night was Halloween, but the mood was far from festive in the backyard of the Katris home. The damn paper would not burn; the little that did burn turned to ash that was scooped up by the gusty winds and blown into the neighbors’ backyards, the detritus of one of the state’s most amazing political scandals wafting over the lawns of Long Meadows Estates. For 90 minutes Ernie, Dean, and Andrea tried their best to destroy evidence through the judicious use of a barbecue, but to little avail.
Now Andrea was really upset.
You will just have to dispose of the documents in your regular garbage, she told Ernie, according to court records. A little at a time over the next few months. Do it inconspicuously.
Ernie agreed, but there was one other matter. In a box at the foot of Ernie’s basement stairs, Andrea had come across a Zip drive with a disk in it. The Zip drive had been attached to a computer in the secretary of state’s office since 1991; later, Andrea had taken the drive with her to use at Ryan’s campaign headquarters, at her home, and at McPier. The disk contained memos written by Andrea and Fawell. Andrea asked Ernie to break it with a hammer.
Dean objected. He wanted to keep the disk. “This is our get-out-of-jail-free card,” he said, according to court records. Andrea was livid. Dean wanted the disk as a bargaining chip in case federal investigators came after them.
Andrea wouldn’t have any of it.
“I will not roll over on these people!” she said, according to Ernie’s testimony. She would remain loyal to her political patrons. They were her friends. The disk had to be destroyed.
Dean and Andrea argued for a few minutes before agreeing to give the disk to Ernie for a couple of weeks until they came to an agreement. Ernie slipped the disk into a file on the desk in his basement office and forgot about it. Dean and Andrea stayed for dinner, then left sometime between 5 and 5:30 p.m.
Over the next six to eight weeks, Ernie carried out his orders and put stacks of files into a black outdoor trash bag mixed with one or two bags of regular garbage and put the bags out for pickup every Thursday. Andrea occasionally checked in for progress reports. It may have been old-fashioned, but it beat the line shredder and the barbecue and got the job done.
Or so it seemed.
* * *