The Fawell Affair

He was George Ryan’s chief aide——a gifted, arrogant operator who spent his life in politics. And, prosecutors say, Scott Fawell stood at the center of a vast network of corruption. His story mixes tragedy, farce, and soap opera (a scorned husband helped bring him down)——and adds up to a dismaying case study of the political culture of Illinois

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By March 2001, according to the McPier indictment, Fawell knew he had become the focus of federal investigators. Nonetheless, prosecutors have charged, he continued to scheme. They say that Fawell arranged to steer the main construction contract for the McCormick Place expansion to a client of his old friend Al Ronan, a former state legislator turned superlobbyist. Over the years, Ronan had supplied Fawell with free meals, rounds of golf, and other “vacation benefits,” Andrea Prokos told investigators. He also later held a fundraiser at Tavern on Rush for a Scott Fawell legal defense fund.

The way the deal worked was simple—Andrea shared the confidential bid information with one of Ronan’s underlings, Julie Starsiak. She then passed the information along to the client, Jacobs Facilities. Jacobs originally had the second-lowest bid, $18.8 million. The lowest bid was $12.9 million. Based on the confidential information, Jacobs lowered its bid to $11.5 million in the second round of the process and won the contract. (Fawell, Prokos, Starsiak, and two Jacobs employees were later charged with bid rigging. All but Fawell pleaded guilty. Ronan’s company, Ronan Potts, was also charged, but Ronan individually was not.)

Fawell did take some precautions. With the taxpayers’ money, he leased a “concealed detection device”—a security gadget disguised as a clock—for $400 a month for seven months, according to the indictment against him. The device can supposedly determine whether anyone present is wearing a wire. Fawell also had his office, his office phone, and a conference room swept for bugs—again, at taxpayers’ expense. And he had a McPier employee take Fawell’s McPier car to a “remote location” to be swept outside of public view, according to court records. In all, prosecutors allege, Fawell spent $16,500 of public money on his sweeps, claiming they were necessary to protect the McPier workplace from “industry competition.”

From a distance, it appears that Fawell almost took glee in continuing to plot in the face of a federal investigation. “The game is what attracts some people, trying to be the smartest, cleverest person,” says Redfield. “That’s the kind of hubris that gets you in trouble. You become so centered around feeding your ego in terms of your ability to manipulate and to orchestrate stuff that you lose sight.”

Meanwhile, with Ryan’s term winding down and no hope of re-election, Fawell tried to make a deal for himself. In the spring of 2001, he tried to get the legislature to give him a ten-year term at McPier. When that failed, Fawell negotiated with the McPier board for a guaranteed $300,000 golden parachute if he lost his job. That deal also fell apart once it was exposed by the press.

* * *

While Fawell was making deals at McPier, Andrea Prokos’s marriage was falling apart. In December 2000 she filed for an order of protection from Dean Prokos, claiming in a police report that he had threatened to kill her if she left him. A week later, Andrea filed for divorce. Around the same time, according to Ernie Katris’s testimony, Dean asked Katris to look at the Zip disk he had been holding since the barbecue fiasco. But try as he might, Katris could not get the disk to open on his computer.

Some time in the spring of 2001, according to Katris, Dean took the Zip disk to Springfield to show it to a man described in court records as a “computer guru”; he got the disk open. (Both Dean and Katris were given immunity in exchange for their cooperation with authorities; neither was charged with a crime. Neither would comment for this article.) Shortly after, Dean turned the disk over to federal authorities. Andrea was later charged with perjury in part for lying to a grand jury about the Barbecue of the Documents. But, more important, the material on the disk turned out to be a “road map” of the Ryan-Fawell scandals, prosecutors said, including memos and records about state employees’ working for campaigns, internal investigations quashed, and a 555-page favors list kept by Fawell that was like an index to clout in the state—and a stark example of the way Fawell played the game.

Fawell and Prokos were reportedly on vacation together in Hawaii in April 2002 on the day he was indicted for his activities in the secretary of state’s office. (Joan filed for divorce five days later.) The federal government accused Fawell of a “pervasive pattern of fraud and corruption” over his seven years as the chief of staff in the secretary of state’s office and an officer of George Ryan’s campaign fund. “Public funds were stolen and plundered for political benefit,” U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said at a press conference announcing the charges. Fawell’s aide Richard Juliano was also charged, as was Ryan’s campaign operation. (This was only the third time in history that a campaign committee had faced federal charges of criminal misconduct.)

Fawell’s lawyer, Ed Genson, previewed the defense immediately. “My client is being penalized for something that happens in Illinois politics every day,” Genson said. “The poor guy is being indicted for helping his mom. How many prosecutors have helped their moms?”

* * *

The trial in January 2003 turned into a political soap opera. Fawell, who by now was reportedly living with Andrea and her two children, arrived at the courthouse each day with his trademark grin. During breaks, he joked with reporters. The trial rolled on for eight weeks in all, exposing just how deep the rot around Ryan and Fawell went.

When it came time for closing arguments, Genson accused the government’s witnesses of rolling over on Fawell to save themselves, calling them the “Let’s Make a Deal Gang.” But his message that witnesses made up stories implicating Fawell to save themselves did not square with the more central theme of his defense, which was that Fawell should not be selectively prosecuted for behavior that is ritualistic in Illinois. “The argument the prosecutors make attacks the system, and Scott is the person they’re blaming it on,” Genson said. “The political system is no longer politically correct, and he’s the fall guy.”

The jury forewoman, Lynda Filipello, would later say, “[Fawell] had one focus in life: ‘I got to get my guy to win.’”

After the trial, Fawell told reporters, “I know what happened. I can live with myself very easily.”

Six weeks later, when he appeared before Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer for sentencing, he appeared to be suffering an attack of remorse. “Unfortunately, this experience I have suffered through has left a black mark on my family’s name,” Fawell said, reading a prepared statement as he broke down in tears. “More importantly, I would like to express my regret for the actions I took that were the subject of this case. I am a very competitive person with a single-minded focus on my goals. Although I didn’t realize some things I did or that I allowed to be done were violations of the law, I guess I should have.”

Too overwhelmed to go on, Fawell let Genson finish the statement. “‘I was so single-minded in my purpose I sometimes did not think clearly,’” Genson read. “‘Certainly, a number of things I did were violations of the law. Clearly, I committed acts that were wrong. Believe me, your Honor, my acts were the result of blindness, thoughtlessness, and were never meant as acts of malice.’”

The prosecution asked for 11 years. The defense asked for four years and nine months. Pallmeyer sentenced Fawell to six and a half years. While Pallmeyer said that prosecutors did not prove that Fawell should have known about rampant corruption in the licensing facilities, she also rejected the notion that he did not realize that many of his actions in other regards were illegal. A key piece of evidence on that score, she said, was the memo found on the Zip disk about getting rid of internal investigators.

* * *

Fawell’s cockiness seemed to have returned when he spoke to reporters again outside the courtroom after he was sentenced. “If I would have sat there and said, ‘I’m going to go in and tell stories about George Ryan,’ would I have gone through this? No. I think there’s absolutely no doubt,” Fawell said. “But you know what? I have to live with myself somewhere along the line, too. I’m not sitting on any bomb of George Ryan’s. I am not going to go in there and make up stories about him just to save myself. Unfortunately, that’s the game they like you to play. That’s the game people played with me. They told stories that were untrue.”

Fawell alluded to having regrets, but added, “It’s a pretty rough-and-tumble business—always has been, always will be. I wish I could go back and change some of the things I did. But do I consider myself a criminal? Absolutely not. I made some bad decisions and I have to live with those consequences now.”

So does Andrea Prokos. In May 2003, she was indicted on eight counts of perjury for lying to a grand jury even though she had been granted immunity. Over the summer, as Fawell awaited sentencing and then prepared for prison, he and Andrea reportedly stayed together; they were even spotted on the Kiss Cam at a White Sox game.

In November, he reported to prison, a minimum-security facility in Yankton, South Dakota. The federal prison camp, as it is called, was once a college campus. The camp is surrounded by a chest-high wrought-iron fence. What was once the student union is now the visiting room. Fawell regularly receives visits from his mother, Beverly, who reports, “He’s doing OK.” She says he lives in a dorm room with five other men. The 700 prisoners are mostly white-collar criminals—doctors, lawyers, and other nonviolent offenders. Fawell works a 12-hour shift as a cook every third day. “He really wasn’t much of a cook at home,” Beverly says, “but I guess they’re teaching him.”

Like most prisoners, Fawell also has a regular workout regimen—a couple of hours at a time, a couple of times a day. He also reads five daily newspapers and subscribes to several magazines. “He’s trying to pass the time,” Beverly says.

Fawell can still appeal his conviction, but it is possible that he won’t. Beverly says that money is tight and that she offered to take a second mortgage on her home to finance an appeal, but Scott was vehemently opposed to that idea. He still has to defend himself on the McPier bid-rigging charges as well.

So far, it appears that Fawell has resisted any entreaties to make a better deal for himself and cooperate in the case against Ryan, who is expected to go to trial next year. “For whatever reason,” says Rod McCulloch, a veteran Republican consultant, “Scott Fawell would run through a brick wall for George Ryan.”

About a month after Fawell reported to prison, Andrea agreed to plead guilty to perjury and cooperate with authorities in exchange for leniency. Sentencing is scheduled for late May. Her cooperation led in part to the newer McPier charges against Fawell. But Beverly says it would not be wise to assume there had been a falling out between Andrea and Scott.

On the contrary, she says. They’re engaged.

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