Sunday, March 15, 2009

Paul Powell: living on a shoestring

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Paul Powell was once quoted as saying, "There's only one thing worse than a defeated politician, and that's a broke one." The saying became especially pertinent after a surprising discovery following Powell's death.

Born in 1902 in Vienna, Illinois, Powell spent 30 years in the state legislature, including three terms as speaker of the house of representatives between 1959 and 1963. He was a delegate to the Democratic National Conventions between 1944 and 1964 and chaired the Johnson County Democratic Party in 1950. In 1965, he was elected Secretary of State.

In 1966, Powell was investigated for corruption regarding stock purchase in a harness-racing corporation. Having bought shares in the corporation for ten cents apiece, Powell was able to help the group get favorable racing dates and the shares increased to $17.50 each. He was cleared of any wrongdoing, and joked that the grand jurors had come away more interested in how to invest in racetrack stock. However, his chief investigator was later indicted for theft of state funds.

In 1970, while at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, Powell suffered a heart attack and died. His death was not made public until a day later, evidently so personal aides could remove certain personal papers from his office. John W. Lewis, another former state house speaker, was appointed as his replacement. John S. Rendleman, chancellor of Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville and executor of Powell's estate, went to the St. Nicholas Hotel in Springfield where Powell had been renting a suite to recover his personal effects.

The state had never paid Powell more than $30,000 a year. But when Rendleman searched the suite, he found some $800,000 in cash packed into shoeboxes, briefcases, and strongboxes in the room. The cache was not disclosed to the public until three months later, after a search of banks and other holdings to determine how much money had been hidden. That process would go on for years, and finally determine in 1978 that his estate was worth $4.6 million, including $1 million in racetrack stock. For some reason, Powell had also stashed away 49 cases of whiskey, 14 transistor radios, and two cases of creamed corn in storage space he'd been renting.

Exactly how Powell amassed such a fortune is something of a mystery, though much of the money probably came from residents who wrote driver's license renewal checks directly to Powell instead of to the Secretary of State's Office. Four years after Powell's death, a grand jury indicted a contractor, Chicago lawyer, and Arkansas businessman for directing $80,000 in kickbacks to Powell while he was in office. The state filed a lawsuit against Powell's estate and settled out of court for $1.6 million to go toward the state's historical library, state museum, and the restoration of the Governor's mansion.

Twice widowed and with no children, Powell left $1.5 million to the Johnson County Historical Society Museum, which had previously worked on an annual endowment of $200 to display two rooms of antique farming equipment. Powell's home now houses a museum, as well as the Johnson County Genealogical and Historical Society.

The shoebox fortune spurred plenty of mockery. Senator Adlai Stevenson III of Illinois said after Powell's death, "His shoeboxes will be hard to fill." A novelty firm marketed a Paul Powell savings bank: shoebox-shaped, painted "money green," and offering "banking any hour of the day or night, and is easily hidden in a closet." The Third Unitarian Church of Chicago held something of a mixed bag remembrance of Powell two years after his death. While Reverend Donald Wheat recognized Powell for twice being voted the state's outstanding legislator and honored by veterans' groups, he also read the nursery rhyme "The Crooked Man" and the parable of the rich fool. When the church took its collection at the memorial, it was done with shoeboxes.

Powell's case is routinely noted during major accusations of political corruption in Illinois, particularly the cases of back-to-back Governors George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich. Mike Lawrence, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at the University of Southern Illinois at Carbondale, said during the Ryan matter in 2005 that residents were generally nonplussed by the 1970 scandal due to the perception that Powell had contributed positively to the state. "People were surprised about the amount of money," said Lawrence. "But there was sort of a sense if he gave us our share, what's wrong with him getting his share?"

Sources: The Political Graveyard, "Ex-Illinois House Speaker is Appointed to State Post" in the New York Times on Oct. 18 1970, "Paul Powell's Nest Egg" in Time on Jan. 18 1971, "Is Nothing Sacred?" in the Bryan Times on Jan. 23 1971, "U.S." in Time on Feb. 15 1971, "Remembering Paul" in Time on Oct. 23 1972, "Illinois to Share in Estate of Millionaire Official" in the New York Times on Aug. 19 1973, "OIS Payoffs Charged to 3 Men" in the New York Times on Feb. 1 1974, "Ryan case just latest in a long line of Illinois corruption scandals" on on Aug. 22 2005, "Deja vu: Growing up with Chicago pols in the 'Land of 10,000 Snakes" in MinnPost on Dec. 10 2008, "A Brief History of Illinois Corruption" in Time on Dec. 11 2008, Directory of Historical Organizations in the United States by the American Association for State and Local History, P.S.: The Autobiography of Paul Simon by Paul Simon, Illinois Politics & Government: The Expanding Metropolitan Frontier by Samuel K. Grove and James D. Nowlan

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