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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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Fawell with Governor George Ryan in August 2001, after Ryan signed a bill authorizing the expansion of McCormick Place.

 

The Barbecue of the Documents represents a particularly lunatic expression of the corruption that flourished under George Ryan while he was the secretary of  state from 1991 to 1999, and governor after that. A six-year federal investigation has already resulted in 62 convictions or guilty pleas, and today, Ryan himself faces criminal charges for, among other things, allegedly taking graft and steering deals to friends.
Ryan insists that he is innocent; his trial is scheduled for March 2005. Throughout much of the time the crimes are alleged to have taken place, the man at Ryan’s side was Scott Fawell, the gifted, arrogant, highflying political operator.

Last year, prosecutors successfully argued that Fawell was “at the wheel” of a sprawling operation that illegally used a network of state employees on Ryan’s campaigns and that rewarded friends and big-time political fundraisers with sweetheart deals on state contracts and leases. Then, in February 2004, Fawell, 46, already serving a six-and-a-half-year sentence in a federal prison camp in Yankton, South Dakota, was indicted again in connection with an alleged bid-rigging scheme that he and Andrea Prokos, 35—who became his lover—are said to have pulled off even after they knew that federal investigators had them in their sights. (Neither Fawell nor Prokos would comment.)

The story of Scott Fawell’s rise and fall offers a particularly disheartening glimpse inside the political culture of Illinois. His Republican credentials are impeccable (even if his family has a startling proclivity for mixing scandal or controversy with public service), and early on he displayed a talent for political strategy that matched his fierce desire to win. “He was really one of the brightest political guys I’ve ever met,” says Paul Green, the director of the School of Policy Studies at Roosevelt University. “You don’t survive and win by playing it easy.” Mentored by former U.S. senator Charles Percy and George Ryan, Fawell rose swiftly through assorted state posts (in his last position, as the chief executive officer of McPier, he earned $195,000 annually), although his real job seems to have been scheming—running campaigns, making deals, skimming boodle on the side. By the late nineties, prosecutors have said, he was being paid off with trips to Costa Rica and trysts with prostitutes. In hindsight, it is remarkable how long he lasted and how brazen he became.

At Fawell’s trial, his lawyer, Edward Genson, argued that Fawell was simply a fall guy—singled out to take the rap for a style of politics that had flourished for years in the state. Some observers think there is some truth to that characterization. “Scott Fawell is the one who is paying the price, but his trial unveiled for all the public the ugly reality of how a culture of corruption has manifested itself in the state,” says Jay Stewart, the executive director of the Better Government Association.

But if Fawell was a representative, he was also a quintessence—no one else in recent memory has been so central to such wide-ranging corruption. “He was unbelievable. It was just everything with this guy,” says Jim Burns, the former federal prosecutor who is now the inspector general in the secretary of state’s office. “You wonder how it could have gone on for so long. It just became a way of life.”

The story of Scott Fawell’s career offers a dismaying case study in the way that politics, government, and opportunism intertwine in this state. “The political system in Illinois for as long as anyone can remember has been one of pretty easy virtue, a wink-and-a-nod standard of ethics,” says Kent Redfield, the associate director of the Institute for Legislative Studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “In that kind of climate, Scott Fawell and the people who play the game the best are going to succeed.”

Unless, or until, they overreach. “They were terribly arrogant about what they did,” Redfield says. “Arrogance and hubris brought them down.”

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Scott Fawell’s dynastic family is as much a part of DuPage County as shopping malls and subdivisions. The College of DuPage, for example, is located on Fawell Boulevard. The west branch of the DuPage River features the Fawell Dam. Kids play soccer at a park named for a Fawell. There is even a Fawell Institute, at Naperville’s North Central College, which claims nearly the entire Fawell clan as alumni.

Several of the dedications honor Scott’s uncle, Harris Fawell, who served seven terms as a U.S. congressman before retiring in 1998. The boulevard was named after Scott’s mother, Beverly, who served 19 years as a state legislator. The family’s patriarch was Scott’s grandfather Walter Fawell, who served for six years as an alderman and four years as the mayor of West Chicago, a small community (population: 23,469) between Wheaton and St. Charles known for its gang problems and radioactive residue from a now-shuttered Kerr-McGee chemical plant site. West Chicago is the family’s home turf—a Fawell designed the city flag—and the place where Scott grew up.

In one measure of the family’s early notoriety, Walter founded a Fox Valley baseball league in the 1940s and fielded a team that included himself and his four kids, all boys. Given their penchant for brawling after the games, the boys became known as the Fighting Fawells. The name would later attach itself to the family’s political pursuits, as the Fawell boys branched out to establish a hold throughout DuPage, one of the most heavily Republican counties in the nation.

The best-known son is Harris, the former congressman. His twin, Thomas, was once the head of the DuPage Airport Authority. Another brother, Michael, was at one time the DuPage County public guardian. And the fourth brother, Bruce, who is Scott’s father, was the chief judge of the DuPage County Circuit Court. Bruce’s first wife was Beverly, the longtime state legislator. Bruce’s second wife, Terry, is a partner in the law firm of Fawell & Fawell. The other partner is Jeffrey Fawell, Scott’s brother. Jeffrey is also the chairman of the influential Wheaton-based Milton Township Republican Organization, where Scott got his first political job. Jeffrey’s wife, Blanche, is a DuPage County judge. One of Scott’s cousins, Bob Heap, is on the DuPage County board. Scott Fawell’s first wife, Michele Zuchnik, recalls vacationing with the Fawell clan every winter in Jamaica. “It was like living with the Kennedys, except in DuPage County,” Zuchnik says.

The Fawells may be DuPage royalty, but they are hardly pristine. Harris Fawell’s 14 years in Congress were free of scandal, but some other family members have not been so lucky. Bruce, Scott’s father, left the bench after he and two other judges were accused of improperly performing marriages outside the courthouse and pocketing the fees. Michael was disbarred in 1986 after stealing $17,000 from elderly clients whose estates he was administering; he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six months in a work-release program at the DuPage County Jail. (He later pleaded guilty to two counts of mail fraud in another case.) As the controversial chairman of the DuPage Airport Authority Board, Thomas Fawell Sr. once explained the secret approval of a $65-million bond sale to fund an expansion by saying, “We just wanted to get it done without all the flak.” A League of Women Voters report chastised the board for going on a spending spree with taxpayers’ dollars. Thomas was fired in 1996 after a separate stint as the airport’s manager. Beverly sparked controversy when she resigned her state senate seat in 2000 to take a public relations job with the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority—a job that boosted her salary by about $25,000, to $85,000 a year, and entitled her to two state pensions.

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