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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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George Ryan would later say that a culture of corruption existed in the secretary of state’s office before he got there and would probably exist after he left. After all, the most famous secretary of state in recent Illinois history is Paul Powell, a downstate Democrat who was found dead in his hotel room with $800,000 cash in a closet. The secretary of state’s office has long been regarded as a perks and patronage mill that in many ways is a political organization unto itself—a launching pad for higher office. With 3,600 employees scattered through 21 departments and 137 driver’s license facilities statewide, the office is “a machine for giving out favors,” says Cindi Canary, the director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

George Ryan, with Fawell in tow as his chief aide, obviously recognized the potential of the office. “They took some methods and just ratcheted them up to the highest level,” says Jay Stewart of the Better Government Association. “And they did some stuff probably that no one had dared before, and they did it in a really cavalier way.”

Ryan wanted to follow the path of his predecessor, Jim Edgar, who had made the leap from secretary of state to governor. He chose Fawell to help make it happen. Ryan not only made Fawell an assistant secretary of state, and later his chief of staff, but also essentially turned over control of his permanent campaign fund to Fawell. Eventually, the commingling of those roles would be at the heart of the case against Fawell. While it is not entirely uncommon, it is illegal for state employees to work on campaigns on state time. Fawell aggressively blurred that separation; prosecutors successfully argued that the intertwined nature of the secretary of state’s office and Ryan’s campaign operation constituted the creation of a criminal enterprise.

“You had people like Scott Fawell looking at where they were and saying, ‘We’re sitting on resources,’” explains Canary. “And instead of saying, ‘It’s the secretary of state’s and it belongs to the people of Illinois,’ they said, ‘We’re sitting on resources that we can use for this campaign.’ At its core, this whole scandal was about the unbridled quest for campaign funds.”

Fawell divided and subdivided the state into zones and regions, and in virtually every instance he assigned a secretary of state employee to act as a zone or regional campaign manager, according to the testimony of his one-time protégé, Richard Juliano. State workers were then assigned to hand out campaign literature, work phone banks, march in parades, and attend campaign events—and not just for Ryan but for oth er candidates Fawell favored. (Witnesses testified that in 1994, Fawell ordered state workers to help his mother’s re-election effort.)

The way the office was run was not a secret. Allegations that workers were selling driver’s licenses in order to buy fundraising tickets for Ryan surfaced throughout Ryan’s first term, as did allegations that inspectors from the secretary of state’s office were pressuring the driving schools, body shops, and car dealerships they regulated to buy fundraising tickets for Ryan. Later, an old friend that Fawell had put in charge of the office’s Chicago area properties would testify that, with Fawell’s knowledge, he had solicited contributions from the landlords and contractors he dealt with. He wasn’t refused once. “Fundraising policies were really at the heart of the so-called culture of corruption,” says Jim Burns. “The heavy shaking down of employees, the pressure to sell [fundraising] tickets, even with the guys up the food chain.”

Fawell reveled in his role, and his arrogance alienated some party officials. Juliano testified that Fawell once said, “Nobody can move a contract in this place, nobody can get hired in this place, without me knowing about it.”

In contrast, Ryan preferred the big-picture dealmaking carried out over breakfast, lunch, and dinner. “Ryan is notoriously a hands-off person not interested in details,” says the University of Illinois’ Kent Redfield. “That then creates a need and an opportunity for someone like Fawell. You have to have somebody with a huge amount of discretion who is going to make things run on a day-to-day basis.” Fawell apparently saw himself that way. “George has a lot of faith in me, a lot of trust,” Fawell once told Crain’s Chicago Business. “He’s always let me run day-to-day things as I see fit.”

By all accounts, Fawell flaunted his power. An internal affairs investigator for the secretary of state’s office named Mark Lipe once told the Springfield Journal-Register, “Scott used to summon various directors [of the secretary of state’s office] to his office in Chicago and make them sit out in the hallway in front of his office all day long and then come out and say he didn’t have time to see them.”

And Fawell had no hesitation about keeping score and using his power as leverage. “If he helped you, by the time you got the help you wanted, you’d be pissed off at him at the things he put you through—the arm-twisting, the messing with you,” says one Republican insider.

“Scott Fawell didn’t understand what kindness meant,” says yet another Republican official. “Everything was a deal to him.”

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Fawell’s first marriage ended amicably in 1985. “We probably had no business getting married,” says Zuchnik. “We were kids.” In 1988, Fawell married Joan Mitnick—who then began her own journey on the state payroll. She spent eight years in the Department of Commerce and Community Affairs, then landed a $55,000 job in the treasurer’s office under Judy Baar Topinka. In 1999, Lori Montana, the director of the Illinois Lottery, created a new assistant director’s position and gave the $80,000-a-year post to Mitnick. Later, with Ryan on his way out the door and Mitnick about to lose her job in the changeover to a Democratic administration, she landed a four-year appointment to the Illinois Department of Financial Institutions at a salary of $83,904—the second highest in the office.

Five years after Fawell married Joan, another woman entered his life. Andrea Prokos is the daughter of Tom Coutretsis, a Long Grove restaurateur and a longtime loyal Republican. One measure of Coutretsis’s status is that he was named to the infrastructure committee of Ryan’s gubernatorial transition team. Another measure of Coutretsis’s clout: Both his daughters, Andrea and Tina, as well as Andrea’s husband, Dean, got jobs in the secretary of state’s office.

In 1992, Andrea Prokos, fresh out of Loyola University with a political science degree, went to work in the secretary of state’s office. In short order, as Scott Fawell’s executive assistant, she started helping with Ryan’s re-election campaign and quickly developed her own power base as Fawell’s proxy. “Ms. Prokos essentially became the defendant’s mouthpiece,” prosecutor Zachary Fardon said at Fawell’s trial. “He often used her to deliver his political mandates . . . to low level Secretary of State employees. Secretary of State employees top to bottom knew that when she told them to do something it was coming from the chief of staff, so they did it.”

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