You'd be hard pressed to find a tougher job, at the time, than media spokesman for George Ryan. The man whose former boss is now charged with corruption has never talked publicly about it. Until tonight.
Dennis Culloton was a radio reporter who worked airport public relations for the Mayor. He was brought in by George Ryan because the media was bearing down hard on the Governor's corruption case. He was a fireman who walked away unsinged from a charred administration.
"Would I have tolerated it? Hell no, I wouldn't have tolerated it," Ryan said.
"Did you believe him? Do you believe him?"
"I think that's truly how he felt," says Dennis Culloton.
"Not for a second would I have put up with it, if I knew it was going on," Ryan said.
"That's not scripted stuff," Culloton explains. "That's stuff that he just was, speaking from the gut there. From what I saw."
Throughout his term as governor, George Ryan was dogged by questions about his time as Secretary of State. Did he know drivers' licenses were sold for bribes?
"I wish I had known there was something going on there!" Ryan said.
"He hasn't done anything wrong," Culloton explained at the time.
Dennis Culloton's job was spin control: doing battle with reporters.
"He has never accepted a dime from anybody," Culloton once said of Ryan.
"During the battle, do you think the general ever lied to you?"
"You think about it, but I don't know. I try not to think about it too much. You don't go into the chief executive's office and say 'What did you know and when did you know it?' "
"He wasn't looking for me to wag my finger at him in approval or disapproval. If these things turn out to be things for which he's convicted, I'll be disappointed."
Looking back from his new office at a River North public relations firm --
"I don't think there's very many people in the world that have a picture of themselves with Fidel Castro and President Bush on the same wall!"
-- Culloton remains uneasy, yet proud he survived it.
"I think I came out of it okay," he says. " I was looking for that test. Wanted to see if I could do the job with some integrity."
A tough job, with public perception of the Governor's integrity in short supply. Federal prosecutors ultimately labeled Ryan's campaign fund a "criminal enterprise"
"Was he personally depressed at the way things fizzled?"
"Yeah, I think so."
"It got to the point where I would show up at the door and he would say, 'Now what bad news do you have for me?' "
Some of the worst news came from the Willis family. The parents who lost six children, in an accident caused by a trucker who bought his license with a bribe.
"It would be refreshing to see somebody come up and say yes, and admit to it and step down," Rev. Duane Willis said.
"The parents essentially blamed George Ryan for that," I remind Culloton.
"They fought for what they believed in after going through a horrific experience. They've earned that. They've earned that right," he says.
"I'm the father of six kids, got 13 grandkids. I can't think of a worse tragedy. But did I have anything to do with that? No!" Ryan once told reporters.
"I do remember that poignant moment," Culloton says. "When he said, this isn't going to affect me, it's going to affect my grandkids. His grandkids would run into problems at school with other kids or in some cases other adults just saying inappropriate things. That really gnawed at him."
"However you write it is how they're gonna believe it," Ryan chided reporters.
"It's not personal. It's business. It's the job," Culloton says.
"Is that what you told George?" I ask.
"I tried to. I tried to. It was probably the one thing that he was never really going to learn: how to work effectively with the press. Generally, if he a bad performance with the press corps, he knew it."
"What would he say?"
" 'I blew that one!' "
But Ryan shined in his final appearances at the microphone.
"I'm commuting the sentence of all death row inmates," he said.
"And a lot of people don't believe this, but the final, final decision wasn't made until literally about 15, 20 minutes before the absolute deadline for filing," Culloton says.
"So he didn't do it for political reasons?"
"For all of his bluster and grumpiness on camera, the guy had a lot of heart. And the thought of his being the final filter before someone lives or dies was a lot for him to deal with."
Culloton said one of the hardest parts of his job was something he ultimately failed to do: convince Ryan not to take the bait during news conferences. When a reporter would throw a question out, there's an art to staying cool and not being forced into a debate. He says Ryan never got that.
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