When Illinois Secretary of State Paul Powell's body was found Oct. 11, 1970, in a Rochester, Minn., hotel room, political heavyweights tripped all over one another offering bipartisan tributes to the powerful Downstate official.
The Tribune reported how Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, a fellow Democrat, predicted the 68-year-old Powell "will be recognized as a major figure in the history of the state." The chairman of the Illinois Republican Party noted: "His lengthy tenure in office was evidence of the warmth people felt for him." Powell was elected to the Illinois Legislature in the 1930s and rose to become speaker of the House before being elected secretary of state in 1965. He held that office until his death.
Lt. Gov. Paul Simon, a Democrat and the gold standard of an honest public servant, said: "Powell has been in the forefront of nearly every battle that has brought help to the helpless and given hope to the young and old." Former President Harry Truman was an honorary pallbearer for Powell, the Tribune reported, observing: "Besides being friends, the two Democrats were alike in their personalities — folksy, quick witted, and fast to anger, but much loved by those who knew them — regardless of politics."
Then the cheering turned into cries of outrage, just as they have 43 years later for Jesse Jackson Jr. But the Jackson scandal unfolded slowly — the congressman's disappearance from public view amid rumors the feds were investigating, culminating in last week's guilty pleas entered by Jackson and his wife, Sandi.
Powell, however, went from hero to bum quicker than you can say: "a shoe box filled with money."
Which was among other surprises found in the closet of a suite in Springfield's St. Nicholas Hotel where Powell lived. Discovered Oct. 13 even as Gov. Richard Ogilvie and Daley were eulogizing Powell in a memorial service in the rotunda of the state Capitol, that shoe box became an enduring symbol of the shady side of Illinois politics.
Remarkably, news of that stunning discovery wouldn't be revealed for more than two months, just the first of a number of suspicious moves following Powell's death.
When the find was announced on Dec. 30, it was described to the Tribune by the man who made the discovery, John Rendleman, chancellor of Southern Illinois University's campus in Edwardsville, only one of the saga's improbable cast of characters.
"I almost fainted when I got into the clothes closet in Powell's rooms at the St. Nick and found the money," said Rendleman, the executor of Powell's will. "It was in all denominations, but mostly in $100 bills. Also, there were some $1,000 bills."
According to the Trib's account: "Rendleman said that the money found in Powell's apartment was in a shoe box, two leather briefcases and three steel strongboxes which were hidden behind old whiskey cases and mixed among the old clothing of the closet."
The cash added up to $750,000. Another cache of $50,000 was found in Powell's state office. When his assets were deposited in banks and started drawing interest, Powell's estate had a cash value, two years later, of more than $3 million plus 61,290 shares of stock in seven Illinois racetracks.
Not bad for a guy whose annual salary never topped $30,000.
"Even in death Paul Powell retains the Midas touch," the Tribune editorialized.
Those dollar signs gave new meaning to the folksy aphorisms for which Powell was famed. Obviously, he wasn't thinking about lunch when celebrating an electoral victory of his party by saying: "I can smell the meat a-cookin'." The other turned out to be more literal than some realized: "There's only one thing worse than a defeated politician and that's a broke politician."
It was an embarrassing situation for other politicians, some of whom offered lame explanations for their late colleague's finances. The Tribune reported Democratic State Auditor Michael Howlett theorizing of Powell's riches: "He must have saved his money when he was young."
Powell's chauffeur was more realistic. Powell "received so many gifts that sometimes they took up the whole room," Emile Saccaro told a Trib reporter. "He never refused anything. Even a broken pen and pencil set. He was a lonely man with no true friends."
Nicholas Ciaccio, Powell's chief assistant, speculated that his boss enriched himself much as Jesse Jackson Jr. subsequently did. "I suspect that he got substantial campaign funds and that they were not all used up."
The line between legality and skulduggery was even fuzzier than it is now. Shortly before his death, Powell hosted a fundraiser euphemistically dubbed a "flower fund" benefit. Several thousand employees and friends of the secretary of state paid $25 each to salute "five years of progress" under Powell, the Tribune reported.
There also was much suspicious activity immediately after Powell died in the Rochester hotel room, where he had gone for medical tests at the Mayo Clinic. First Ciaccio claimed to have found the body, but it was revealed later that he wasn't even in Minnesota. It was Powell's personal secretary, Marge Hensey, with whom the widowed Powell was romantically linked, who was at the hotel. To make matters worse, Ciaccio took two suitcases of papers and other items from Powell's Springfield office hours after learning of his death.
As more Byzantine details dribbled out, public pressure mounted for a proper investigation. A federal grand jury was convened and a legislative committee held hearings. It was revealed that Powell had awarded state funds "without competitive biddings to friends and political allies." James White, Powell's purchasing agent, and building contractors working on state projects invoked the Fifth Amendment. Given immunity, White told the grand jury of having carried a message to one contractor: "The old man (Powell) wants more money."
White added: "I took him (Powell) $40,000 in cash from bribes only nine days before he died."
Contractors went to prison, either convicted or pleading guilty to giving Powell bribes. The state of Illinois sued his estate, and was awarded $222,999. The IRS got $1.7 million. Hensey received $15,000 and racetrack stock worth $600,000. Powell also left $200 to each of the state's 102 Democratic county organizations and an additional $10,000 to the state and Cook County organizations.
Fittingly, Powell asked that his gravestone read: "Here Lies A Lifelong Democrat."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times