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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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Scott Raymond Fawell learned the business of politics not only from his family but also from the precinct captains and strategists who worked on the campaigns of his uncle and his father. “He was into it from an early age,” says Beverly Fawell. At Scott’s trial, his lawyer, Ed Genson, described how passionate his client was—and unwittingly how prone he was from the start to push the limits. “As a young man, Scott passed out literature for his father door-to-door,” Genson said in court. “As Scott got older, he hung political signs. Scott, with his cousins and [his] baseball team, found a fence digger and put Fawell signs at every intersection in [West Chicago]. When the police found out, they made him go back and take them down.”

Throughout his childhood, Scott helped out with the mundane but essential nuts-and-bolts organizing work that campaigns are made of—fetching doughnuts for campaign workers, driving voters to the polls, strategically deploying lawn signs, planning parade logistics, and arranging folding chairs at rallies.

Scott’s other passion growing up was sports. His father maintained a baseball diamond in the family’s backyard during the summer. In the winter, Scott and his brothers persuaded a farmer nearby to let them play hockey on his pond. He followed those pursuits in high school and college; in the yearbook photo for the West Chicago High School freshman baseball team, Scott can be seen flashing his trademark grin.

Although he was getting a valuable education in politics, he was less satisfied in the classroom. “He was way ahead of everybody else,” recalls Zuchnik, who first met Scott when they were 14. “He’d get a two-week assignment and stay up all night and finish it and then be bored for two weeks.” Instead of attending his senior year in high school, he enrolled at the College of DuPage. Fawell’s hockey coach there, Herb Salberg, remembers an introverted longhair who “had a rough high-school life.” In fact, Salberg, who now lives in Florida and gives motivational speeches, used Fawell for years as an example of a troubled person who made a success of himself. After two years at the College of DuPage, Fawell briefly joined a brother and a sister at Southern Illinois University before returning home to North Central College, where he studied political science. All the while he remained active in local politics, registering young voters, working phone banks, and tracking turnout at polling places.

In 1980, after 30 years of marriage, Bruce and Beverly divorced. Scott took it hard—“He idolized them both,” Zuchnik says. The same year, Beverly ran for the General Assembly. Scott, who was in his last quarter at North Central, spent 40 to 50 hours a week handing out literature door-to-door and hosting coffees. In the midst of the campaign, Scott and Zuchnik—then Michele Musial—got married. Beverly won the election, and afterward the Milton County Township Republicans placed Scott in a job in the township assessor’s office. His ascent through the Republican establishment began.

Over the next few years, he helped out with his mother’s campaigns and worked on the 1984 Senate re-election campaign of Charles Percy. By this time, Fawell’s hard-driving style was apparent. Beverly remembers when Scott promised that he was going to put Percy in ten Fourth of July parades. “I said, ‘You can’t put anybody in ten parades,’” she recalls. “‘You may get him to four, but you’re going to have six communities that are going to be ticked because of the fact they were promised a United States senator and he’s not going to be showing.’ And Scott said, ‘Yeah, he’ll show. I hired a helicopter.’ And I said, ‘Where are you going to land the thing?’ Well, in Wheaton he landed at Wheaton College; in Blue Island he landed at a park.

“I said, ‘OK, now you have him in the town. How do you get him in the parade?’ He said he had set up a relay team with two other guys, and they timed how long it would take to get from one town to another. And he came back about six o’clock that night, grinning from ear to ear. And soaking wet—he had walked in all these parades. And I said, ‘You did it, didn’t you?’ And he said, ‘I got him in all ten, Mom.’”

In no time Fawell moved from his original job as Percy’s driver to a role as the candidate’s confidant and aide. “Percy became sort of his mentor,” Beverly says. “He literally almost lived in Percy’s pocket. He stayed with him quite often in the evening.”

“He was so gracious and thoughtful, and did a wonderful job with me,” says Percy, now retired in Washington, D.C. “I thought he had a chance to go higher in public service.”

Scott was devastated by Percy’s loss to Paul Simon, Beverly says. “[Percy] called me up and said, ‘I’m really worried about Scott. I think he’s going to jump off a roof or something. He can’t get over the fact I lost. He’s taking it worse than I am.’”

Scott later recalled to Crain’s Chicago Business that the Percy defeat had made him “determined not to ever again go through the misery of a losing election night.”

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After the Percy loss, Scott Fawell moved through a series of patronage jobs in state government. When Jim Thompson was governor, Fawell worked as an administrative assistant in the Department of Employment Security. In Genson’s telling at trial, designed to show how the use of state workers in campaigns was a tradition, Fawell’s real job was to get people to political events and to sell fundraising tickets for Thompson. (In an e-mail, Thompson says, “[I]f state workers worked on political campaigns, they did so on their own time.”) Fawell then moved off the state payroll to work full-time on Thompson’s 1986 re-election campaign as a field director for the campaign manager, Gregory Baise, now the president of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association. After Thompson’s re-election, Fawell—who was 30 at the time—went to work as the deputy director of George H. W. Bush’s 1988 Presidential campaign in Illinois, which was led by Sam Skinner, who later served as Bush’s chief of staff and transportation secretary. Genson contended in court that Skinner and Fawell had Thompson’s workers at their disposal for Bush campaign work. (“Not to my knowledge,” says Skinner. While some state workers may have volunteered to work on the campaign, Skinner says, they would have done so on their own time.) After the 1988 elections, Fawell was named a special assistant to then lieutenant governor George Ryan.

In Ryan, Fawell found a match. The classic tough-talking, cigar-chomping machine politician, Ryan came from the rough precincts of Kankakee and had spent a decade in the trenches as a state legislator, rising to the position of speaker of the House and minority leader before winning statewide office. He then waited patiently through two terms as lieutenant governor and two terms as secretary of state before fulfilling his ambition to run for governor. Fawell was the young gun, a brash workaholic who would not be outfought or outsmarted. Fawell once told Crain’s Chicago Business: “We’re both political animals.” Ryan told the late Chicago Sun-Times political columnist Steve Neal: “Scott lives and breathes politics.”

Ryan embraced Fawell in a way that no other politician had; a relationship blossomed that has been likened to that of a father to a son. Ryan asked Fawell to run his first campaign for secretary of state in 1990. The contest was instructive for Fawell. For six months Ryan blasted his Democratic opponent, Jerry Cosentino, the state treasurer, for alleged financial improprieties. Yet the polls did not move until the homestretch, when media reports revealed that in exchange for depositing state funds in the Cosmopolitan National Bank, Cosentino had received a $1.9-million personal loan. Ryan won with 53 percent of the vote. Fawell said at the time that he had learned what it takes to outrage voters: “It has to be serious corruption that turns the stomach. All the little stuff with perks and gifts, [voters] don’t see that as the most dishonest thing in the world.”

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