Here in Illinois we thought we might have a brief respite from corruption; Blagojevich's replacement, Pat Quinn is a a respected reformer. This week, in an election to fill the spot vacated by Obama's chief of staff Rahm Emanuel (a seat once held by Blagojevich and before that by the powerful House Ways and Means Committee chairman Dan Rostenkowski, who himself was imprisoned for corruption), reformer Mike Quigley, who has been fighting the good fight as a Cook County board commissioner, surprised everyone by beating much better funded opponents and taking the Democratic nomination for the seat. The Democratic nomination is virtually a guarantee of an electoral victory, particularly in light of the fact that his upcoming Republican opponent is batshit crazy.
But alas, Roland Burris is going to make sure that we don't get a corruption break. Burris, who was once a respected statewide politician, serving as State Comptroller and Secretary of State (our version of the head of Division of Motor Vehicles). Back in the day, this was no small feat-- it was not an easy thing for an African-American guy to get elected to a state-wide office in Illinois.
As everybody in the world now knows, our ex-governor was caught on tape trying to sell off the Senate seat vacated when Barack Obama became president. The common wisdom said that to accept that seat form Blagojevich would not be a good thing-- it was tainted. Best to wait until Hot Rod was out of office and accept it from the untarnished Quinn. And a number of people were apparently offered it-- and had the good sense to turn it down.
But not Roland Burris. He jumped at the chance to become Senator. But that was all right, because he didn't do anything bad, like, say, try to drum up some money for ol' Hot Rod.
Well, okay, maybe he talked to some people a little bit about it.
Okay, maybe a little more than that.
Okay, maybe a lot...
I'm not answering any more of your racist questions...
Mr. Burris forgot an important lesson in life somewhere along the line-- tell the truth right away. Then you only have to remember one story.
Maybe in the end, Burris and Blagojevich will end up in a cell together, protesting their innocence. Man, that would make a great movie! Oh, wait, I forgot-- the already did that one.
"That's right-- we bad! We bad!"
But I digress. What I wanted to write to you today was about Illinois' greatest corrupt politician ever, Paul Powell. Powell got involved in Illinois politics after World War II, serving as a state legislator. He was elected to the office of Secretary of State, which, as I mentioned, is in charge of automobile licenses (it was as Secretary of State that our former governor George Ryan got himself in trouble). Powell got off to a running start, and was investigated for corruption the very next year. He was not convicted, and continued in the office until his death in 1970 while being treated at the Mayo clinic.
When Powell died, people checking the Springfield, Illinois hotel room he lived in found shoeboxes full of cash-- $800,000 worth. There were also 49 cases of whiskey, 14 transistor radios and two cases of creamed corn.
When all was said and done, a guy who never made more than $30,000 a year was worth $4.6 million. This included a million dollars in racetrack stock.*
How did he do it? Well, it certainly helped-- and I swear I'm not making this up; I remember seeing my parents write checks for car licenses this way-- that when you wrote a check out for your new automobile plates every year, you wrote the check out to Paul Powell, Secretary of State. Yes, that's right, you wrote the check out personally to Paul Powell.
Powell became part of the long line of brazenly corrupt Illinois politicians, who included Bob Hickman, the former mayor of my college town, Charleston, Illinois, who, as head of the Illinois tollway commission, stole thousands and thousands of dollars a quarter at a time. Powell, Blagojevich, Hickman and the lot were hellbent on living up to Powell's motto:
"There's only one thing worse than a defeated politician, and that's a broke one."
*Racetrack stock was apparently a popular currency for bribery; Otto Kerner, who was governor around the same time, was eventually convicted of accepting racetrack stock as a bribe. He was caught because a racetrack owner listed the bribe on her federal income tax form as a "business expense."