Southern Illinois home of Paul Powell, the ‘Shoebox Scandal’ politician, could soon be sold

Feb 17, 2024, 9:03 PM

FILE - A sign marks he Paul Powell Home and Museum, Oct. 8, 2020 photo in Vienna, Ill. For more tha...

FILE - A sign marks he Paul Powell Home and Museum, Oct. 8, 2020 photo in Vienna, Ill. For more than half a century, a Powell-established $250,000 trust sustained his legacy, for better or worse. But the account that maintained his birthplace as a museum will soon run dry. (AP Photo/John O'Connor, File)

(AP Photo/John O'Connor, File)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Paul Powell, the southern Illinois political powerhouse who died and left behind $800,000 in cash in the notorious “Shoebox Scandal,” used to say, “The only thing worse than a defeated politician is a broke one.”

For more than half a century, a Powell-established $250,000 trust sustained his legacy, for better or worse. But the account that maintained his birthplace as a museum will soon run dry. The fate of the home in Vienna, a town of 1,300 about 140 miles (230 kilometers) southeast of St. Louis, is uncertain, but it likely will be sold.

For decades it has been home, according to Powell’s wishes, to the Johnson County Genealogical and Historical Society, which has the home looking as it did during the political giant’s time in office, with memorabilia cluttering the walls.

The upkeep runs about $5,000 annually, while last year the society’s income was $4,300, said board member Gary Hacker, 85, whose parents were schoolmates of Powell and mowed his lawn as a teenager in the early 1950s.

“We’re probably going to be putting it on the market for sale,” Hacker said. “The historical society will relocate.”

Southern Illinois was Powell’s fiefdom for much of the mid-1900s. He brought jobs by expanding the state’s prison infrastructure to the region, pumped money and status into Southern Illinois University and promoted county fairs and pari-mutuel betting on horse racing, which served the dual purpose of enriching Powell, who held racetrack stock.

While in later years Powell spent more time in Springfield and Chicago, when he was at home, favor-seekers streamed to the house. Sunday afternoons were spent in the sunroom he added in the 1950s, where three televisions were tuned to separate networks carrying sports, Hacker said.

“He was pretty adept at watching football, smoking cigars and conducting political business on the telephone or with people who visited him there,” Hacker said.

Winning a House seat in 1934, the Democrat was elected speaker in 1949, 1959 and 1961 — once despite Republicans claiming a one-seat majority. His quid pro quo deals with the boss of Chicago, Mayor Richard J. Daley, ensured projects for both regions and were often punctuated with another Powell aphorism: “I can smell the meat a-cookin’!”

Powell’s leverage only grew with his 1964 election as secretary of state.

“When Paul Powell was a man of influence, people knew where Johnson County was,” said John Rendleman III, a lawyer from Carbondale.

Rendleman’s father, a Powell friend and executor of his estate, uncovered one of the more outlandish political scandals in a state renowned for splashy corruption cases.

After Powell’s sudden death at 68 in October 1970, the elder Rendleman found $750,000 in cash, stuffed mostly in attache cases but also in at least one gift box from Marshall Field & Co., in his suite at Springfield’s St. Nicholas Hotel. Another $50,000 was stashed in his Capitol office about five blocks away.

A federal investigation concluded Powell skimmed much of it by awarding contracts to friends with kickback conditions. His estate, settled in 1978, was worth $4.6 million, the equivalent of $21.8 million today. He had $1 million worth of stock in horse tracks where he determined the most favorable racing dates.

The IRS claimed $1.7 million, and the state of Illinois $230,000. News reports on other politicians with horse racing stock led to federal prison for former Gov. Otto Kerner, at the time a federal appeals judge. Future politicians were required by law to start completing annual statements of economic interest.

The number of curiosity-seekers once drawn to the Powell home by the bizarre legend has dwindled, Hacker said. Few remember Powell even in Vienna.

“Memories last about a generation,” Rendelman said.

About $80,000 remains in the trust, Hacker said. Subtracting legal fees and the home’s value, appraised at about $60,000, will empty the account. A court date for closing the trust has not yet been scheduled.

Telephone and email messages seeking comment were left for the trustee at First Mid Bank & Trust in Mattoon.

It’s not beyond possibility that the house will remain open, Hacker said. One potential buyer has suggested making the three-bedroom home of about 1,700 square feet (160 square meters) into a bed-and-breakfast.

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Southern Illinois home of Paul Powell, the ‘Shoebox Scandal’ politician, could soon be sold