News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The nostalgic odor of corruption

“I can smell the meat a-cookin’,” Illinois Secretary of State Paul Powell liked to say when he was working one of his political deals. When he died in 1970 , authorities found $800,000 in cash squirreled away in a shoe box in his closet. I don’t think they ever figured out exactly where the money came from, but as a journalist who worked with a corruption-fighting organization on a Paul Powell enterprise, I have a pretty good idea.

In its lip-smacking euphoria over the contemplated unspeakable acts of Rod Blagojevich, the media and its blogging parasites are recalling Illinois’ rich, as in lots of money, history of corruption. What it is ignoring are the efforts in that state to fight corruption. Before Lincoln ascended to prominence, the state maintained some of the busiest branch lines of the Underground Railroad. Its citizens fought the predations of a group of associates called the Banditti of the Prairies, which utilized the Mormon city-state of Nauvoo to peddle its stolen gains. A citizens group was formed to resist and overthrow the mob rule of the Capone era and later.

One of the corruption-fighters was a mentor of mine, George Thiem of the Chicago Daily News. An unassuming man of small physical stature, George won two Pulitzers for his investigative reporting. The first came when he and an associate from the St.Louis Post Dispatch uncovered the fact that Gov.Dwight Green was maintaining 37 newspaper editors on his payroll to write laudatory editorials about him. George won another Pulitzer when his patient, methodical searching flushed out $2.5 million from a kick-back scheme run by the Illinois state auditor. The Daily News was an early casualty of the shifting market for journalism, and ceased publication in 1978.

The Better Government Association works with members of the media to expose and correct problems it finds in Illinois. My newspaper received a call one hot July day asking if we would care to participate in an investigation of something that Paul Powell’s department seemed to be involved in.

I worked in Moline, Illinois, on the banks of the Mississippi River. At that time, two bridges crossed the Quad-Cities area between Iowa and Illinois. The Secretary of State’s office, which is in charge of regulating motor vehicles and their drivers, has its own police department to enforce the regulations. The Better Government Association had found out that Powell’s police had set up a check point in Rock Island at the foot of the bridge that came over from Davenport. They were stopping trucks that were not licensed to operate in Illinois. They would not let the trucks proceed into Illinois, but made them fill out applications on the spot and pay for the license needed for interstate commerce trucks to travel through Illinois. This practice seemed to circumvent more routine procedures for obtaining and issuing licenses, and the BGA was suspicious of it.

I spent a long hot day at the foot of the bridge with a BGA representative monitoring the business being conducted. A number of trucks did not have the required license and the drivers were filling out application forms and writing checks or paying in cash for permits that would allow them to proceed through Illinois. The transportation police were amiable and even let us sit in their air-conditioned cars, and, although the circumstance was unusual, we found nothing that was illegal.

However, we knew that the money being collected would have to be traced through to its deposit in a state account. That is where the investigation faltered. This kind of tracking of paper work was something George Thiem was an expert at doing. But by this time he had retired, had served a term in the state legislature, and was involved with a farm he owned in a neighboring county to where I lived. No journalists were available to go to Springfield and trace down the money being collected from truckers for their permits. We thought that money was not finding its way into appropriate state accounts, but we could take time off from our duties to do the necessary checking and no one else was available.

I think that at least part of the $800,000 in Paul Powell’s shoe box came from the collection for the trucking permits. In the 1990s, when George Ryan, who is a former Illinois governor now serving prison time, was secretary of state in Illinois, his office was selling driver’s licenses to truckers, rather than making them take the necessary tests to qualify.

Another man who did much to clean up and keep business clean in Illinois was the late Senator Paul Simon. He recognized the unusual talents demonstrated by Barack Obama in the state legislature and urged him to run for the U.S. Senate. Paul Simon also was a journalist who used his profession and his newspapers to make things right in Illinois.

George Thiem and Paul Simon represent the other tradition in Illinois.

Folks in South Dakota might have a tendency to feel superior, but at least Illinois has people and organizations who worked to get at the facts and hold people accountable for what they did. A few years back, South Dakota officials were putting funds from arrangements they had with bank card officials into secret accounts and would not tell the state treasurer where the money was or how much it was. When some legislators and other government officials probed into the matter, the governor got the legislature to pass a law (the infamous "gag law") that made it a crime for any state official to make public any investigations involving the state and its private dealings with corporations.

Just as we never found for sure what Paul Powell was doing with the money he was collecting, South Dakotans never found out what was in the secret banks accounts, where it came from, or what it was being used for.


Steve & Denise said...

Thank you for remembering Paul Simon. He was a good man who always fought the corruption endemic in Chicago machine politics. I hadn't heard of George Thiem before reading your article, but it sounds like he was a fine man as well. You are undoubtedly fortunate to have known him.

Steve Hight

Steve & Denise said...

Dear Mr. Newquist:

I discovered your blog today while searching for information about the late Paul Simon. In response to an e-mail she sent me about the corruption in Illinois' politics (we are originally Illinoisans), I wanted to remind her that Abraham Lincoln was not the only honest politician from the state. After reading your post of December 13th, "The nostalgic odor of corruption," I happily continued reading, eventually reading all of your posts for the months of December and November, as well as dipping here and there into posts on the earlier version of your blog, especially those about Abraham Lincoln.

I was very pleased with what I read.

Although we may be a generation removed in age, I sense that we have much in common. Like you, I am a writer, an Army veteran, a supporter of all our veterans, a promoter of Barack Obama, a history buff, and a free market liberal (or whatever you might want to label me politically since I don't clearly fit in either major party). I am appalled by the insular, anti-intellectual, self-congratulatory, selfish, and fear-based reasoning that pervades so much of what passes for current American thought, especially when it comes from politicians and media outlets that have the public's ear. You are correct that blogging is limited in what it can offer, and it can never replace newspapers as our true fourth estate -- God forbid it ever does! -- but blogs like yours are important. I know from experience that you must at times feel like you are tilting at windmills when you write, but your blog's counter shows that you are being read. Your voice is being heard.

My wife, Denise, and I write for our very small town's very small weekly newspaper, the Fruita Times. I recently took over the editorial page. At times we ask each other why we bother. Circulation is tiny; we rarely get letters; and many in the community resent the paper because it's too liberal and didn't publish editorials about Obama's secret Muslim faith. But once in a while we get an e-mail, or a letter, or even a phone call, as we did last night, that reminds us that we do make a difference, albeit a tiny one, and, freshly inspired, we return to the keyboard.

South Dakota benefits from your thoughtful writing. I wish we had your talents gracing the opinion pages of our paper as well.


Steve Hight
Fruita, Colorado

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States