In the late 1960s, there was no such place as the Illinois Secretary of State’s office. There was Paul Powell’s office. His name alone appeared on the signs, and when motorists wrote out a check to register their cars, they didn’t write it to the state of Illinois. They wrote it to Paul Powell.
Powell was a good ol' boy legislator from Vienna (that’s pronounced Vi-enna) deep in Southern Illinois. In 1948, the Democrats took over the House, and Powell was in line to become speaker. At a post-election celebration, he delivered a line that still rings in Illinois political lore: “I can smell the meat a-cookin’!”
The meat, of course, was patronage jobs and the kickbacks that rewarded the legislators who delivered them. Powell was also famous for saying, “There’s only one thing worse than a defeated politician, and that’s a broke one.”
Powell served two years as speaker, then won the office again in 1959, defeating the Chicago Machine’s candidate with a coalition of Republicans and Downstate Democrats. That victory propelled him to the Secretary of State’s in 1964, where he really got rich.
Since all the checks written at the Secretary of State’s office were written out to Powell personally, it was only natural that he should keep some, wasn’t it? Powell’s government salary was $30,000, but in 1969, he listed an income of $200,000 on his tax returns. The 2,700 employees of the Secretary of State’s office were all required to buy tickets to Powell’s annual “Garden Party” -- the number depended on their salary.
During his years as Secretary of State, Powell was investigated for corruption, but never convicted. The truth didn’t come out until after his death. On Oct. 10, 1970, Powell died of a heart attack at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. His death was kept a secret for more than 24 hours, while aides removed incriminating papers from his office. Unfortunately, there was so much to incriminate Paul Powell that they couldn’t collect everything. After Powell’s funeral, his friend John Rendleman, chancellor of Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, opened the secretary of state’s Springfield hotel room, and found $800,000 cash, in shoe boxes, strongboxes and briefcases, all hidden in the closet. Most of the money was left to the tiny Johnson County Historical Society Museum.
Powell’s death inspired a song by Chicago folksinger Steve Goodman:
Paul Powell got laid to rest in a casket lined with gold,
But his ghost lives on in other thieves, or so I’ve been told.
And there’s crooks in every walk of life, and that I know is true.
But the biggest bums are some of the ones we give our power to.
For leaving us with the most colorful story of political corruption ever, Paul Powell is number 2 on Ward Room’s list.
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