“Put It In The Bag…Paul Powell, Secretary of State”
For decades, Illinois has been highly-rated…in the number of indictments and convictions of public officials. Theories abound. Too many units of government (most in the USA!) The twin powers of incumbency and remap. Too much boodle to be had and too few watchdogs. (And our boodlers are such colorful scamps!) Some note our founding days, as Chicago attracted land speculators, hustlers and hucksters. City on the Make. Ubi Est Mea. Then, as Jim Merriner put it, “The ‘Chicago Way’ became the ‘Illinois Way’.”
We honor our BUSTED Governors and local pols in Galleries #2 and #25, but here we feature statewide pols who done bad.
Paul Powell lighter courtesy of Ernie Fuhr.
A long-time Dem State Rep and House Speaker, the “Gray Fox of Vienna” was elected Secretary of State in 1964 and served until his death in '70. Whereupon - as we know - his suite at the St. Nick was found to contain $750,000 tucked in leather briefcases, steel strongboxes and the infamous shoebox (hidden behind cans of creamed corn). Another $50K stashed at his SOS office, plus 3 million bucks worth of racetrack stock. How? Kickbacks from state contractors, “flower fund” events (in which thousands of SOS employees kick in $25 for Paul’s “flowers”), personal use of campaign cash, etc.
Oh, Powell did some good things as SOS: first Bicycle Rules of the Road, drivers’ ed standards, reflected license plates. But he also invited drivers to make out a check to him personally for license renewals. Ha! He’s known for such folksy-isms as, “I can smell the meat a-cookin’,” “the only thing worse than a defeated pol is a broke pol,” and “if you can’t get a free dinner, take a free sandwich.” After Powell’s death, future State Auditor Mike Howlett observed, “He musta saved his money when he was young.”
(Howlett’s predecessor - Orville Hodge - set the gold standard for graft. Once a GOP “Golden Boy”, the 3-term Granite City State Rep was elected State Auditor in 1952, then bought a luxury home on Lake Springfield, Rolls Royce and 2 planes (whose maintenance tabs he charged to the State!) Phony State warrants, “emergency appropriations”, payroll-padding, book-cooking, bogus paper trails, forged checks. $6.15 million in 4 years! Hodge’s new lifestyle stood out. A Chicago Daily News probe blew it open. He pleaded guilty to 54 counts of bank fraud, forgery and embezzlement, was sentenced to 12-15 years and served six.)
Another GOP “Golden Boy” - Bill Scott - had a sterling resume. U.S. Navy, banker, assistant U.S. Attorney, State Treasurer at age 36. Proven vote-getter, charismatic, ambitious, rising star. He lost the ‘64 GOP gubernatorial primary to Chuck Percy, but went on to win four terms as Attorney General.
As AG, Scott was a crusader for the environment and consumers, took on securities swindles and price-fixing (unusual for a Republican even then), and sued GM for putting Chevy engines in pricier cars.
In 1980, Scott was found guilty of converting campaign cash to personal use and not reporting it to IRS. He was sentenced to a year, served seven months and died at age 59.
Jerry Cosentino was another colorful character. A trucker and veteran of South Suburban Cook County politics, Cosentino was elected to the old Metropolitan Sanitary District (now MWRD). He then beat incumbent Jim Donnewald and future Guv Pat Quinn in the ’86 Dem Primary for State Treasurer. The first Illinois Italian-American to win statewide office, he escaped the LaRouche debacle (visit Gallery #7), but lost a 1990 SOS bid to George Ryan.
Cosentino’s misdeeds occurred after he left office: check-kiting to keep his trucking company afloat, a $1.5 million scheme. In 1992, he pleaded guilty to bank fraud and was sentenced to 9 months home confinement.
Fun Cosentino memory: This author recalls a GOTV Rally for the 1990 Dem ticket, with keynoter Mario Cuomo (then musing a White House run.) Big crowd, big names: Simon, Hartigan, Netsch, Burris, Partee, Phelan. The New York Guv doesn’t seem to know these candidates, but gives a lively speech: “Look at your Treasurer candidate, Pat Quinn. The face of an altar boy! Your candidate for Secretary of State, Jerry Cosentino, sounds like an aria…” Whereupon Cuomo starts opera-singing “Co-sen-tino, Co-sen-tino…” Later, I find myself jammed in an elevator with Cuomo. He’s still singing “Co-sen-tino, Co-sen-tino…”
- Claude Walker. Bicentennial-by-Buttons: 200 Years of Trailblazers, Rascals and Felons