Cornell University

February 15 2012

"Wonderful" Career

Ryan '77 shares anecdotes from anti-racketeering and public service work

Stephen RyanRight before he mysteriously disappeared, Jimmy Hoffa gave a series of lectures at the ILR School.

Stephen Ryan '77 followed Hoffa, former president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, everywhere during that visit.

"I remember him as interesting and charismatic."

Subsequently, Ryan has gained national attention investigating and trying to eliminate organized crime from business and unions.

He talked about his work and gave advice to students thinking about careers in public service at an ILR School lecture, "Getting Rid of the 'Godfather': Front Line Stories from Prosecuting Organized Crime in Unions and Business."

"My career is inverted," Ryan said at the Friday lecture. "I think I did the most important things as a kid, during the early part of my career."

From 1983-86, he served as deputy counsel of the President's Commission on Organized Crime. He led the commission's staff effort against labor-management racketeering and helped expose corruption in the Teamsters union and in other unions.

"We knew that most unions were clean, but the government didn't know why some were clean and others were not."

Ryan collaborated with ILR Professor Emeritus George Brooks to create what was credited as the first predictive model to provide insight on why "certain unions and industries were 'mobbed up.'" That model became a useful tool in the government's work.

He said that organized crime is on both sides – unions and business – but it was more common to hear about it on the labor side and overlooked, at times, on the business side.

Ryan's efforts to aggressively pursue business corruption put him out of favor with some, including influential members of the presidential administration.

"The message is, if you press too hard and make too many waves for the powers that be, there's a price to be paid."

He later moved on to what he calls a "wonderful career of public service," including a position as general counsel of the U.S Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs for Chairman John Glenn, then a U.S. Senator from Ohio. Ryan works today in private practice for McDermott Will & Emery LLP in Washington, D.C.

Ryan told students in the audience that public service can be very rewarding, even if it doesn’t pay as much as the private sector.

"I took a 50 percent pay cut to move from private practice into government work. I used everyone I knew to get that job as a federal prosecutor, and I'm very proud of the work I've done. I loved that job."

At the start of his presentation, Ryan acknowledged a guest in the audience, Cornell University Professor Emeritus Walter LaFeber. Ryan says LaFeber, a renowned history educator and scholar, is the professor he learned the most from while at Cornell.

"Generations from now, people will look back and think of him as one of the all-time 'rock stars' of the university."

What does Ryan think about unions now, more than three decades after he took classes at the ILR School and considering all the work he’s done prosecuting union crime?

"I'm a working-class kid from New York City, and my dad was vice president of a union. I have a deep belief in unions. The union movement made me what I am today."