CHICAGO: Outgoing Illinois governor George Ryan's dramatic twin announcements that he would pardon four death-row inmates and commute the death sentences of 164 others to life in prison transformed him from an embattled local politician into a national media figure on the issue of capital punishment.Ryan had been surrounded by local controversy for most of his four-year term. Indeed, his decision not to seek reelection last year was attributed to an ongoing scandal that has seen several of his aides indicted. The scandal involves a scheme, alleged to have gone on during the years Ryan served as Illinois Secretary of State, in which drivers licenses were sold in return for political contributions to Ryan's campaign fund. As his term neared its close in early January, local media speculated about whether Ryan too would be indicted. But the coverage turned to his death-penalty decisions last week. "Cynics can say there's a nexus between the two (the pardons and the scandal), but I don't think so," said Gene Reineke, Hill & Knowlton COO, and a former press secretary for another former Illinois governor. Reineke, who has known Ryan for more than 20 years, says that because of his decisions, Ryan "is probably the most visible person on the death penalty issue right now." Guy Chipparoni, president of Chicago public affairs shop Res Publica, said: "I think he took a damn-the-torpedoes approach, and he did it out of conviction. Politicians' courage often comes out when they're leaving office." Chipparoni, who recently hired former Ryan press secretary Dennis Culloton as an EVP for his firm, didn't speculate on whether Ryan's national stature on the death-penalty issue will diminish should he be indicted. "There's a storm brewing here with some of the other issues swirling around him," he said. For now, though, "his opinion will be sought," Chipparoni said.