Editor’s note: This story appeared in the Aug. 19, 1949, in the Winona Republican-Herald, a predecessor of the Winona Daily News.
The state public examiner today linked four Winona county commissioners and one former county commissioner with “bribery transactions.”
One of these public officials alone admits having received $7,500 in bribes, according to State Public Examiner Richard A. Golling. He declares in a special report —subtitled “Bribery and Corruption” — that his four-month-long investigation has “unfolded a story of collusion and the foibles of grasping, venal men.”
He involves these five men “in transactions with equipment salesmen wherein they received or agreed to receive money from them.”
The former, third district commissioner, Frank Preston, 77, town of Mt. Vernon. His successor, August H.J. Gensmer, Jr., 47, Bethany, who assumed office only last January. F.J. Roberton, 71, Lewiston, — now chairman of the board and commissioner from the fourth district. W.K. Beach, 64, Dakota, fifth district commissioner. Carl J. Goetzman, 70, West Burns Valley, second district commissioner. All are farmers except Gensmer, who operates a general store.
The only commissioner from the five-man board not mentioned In the 36-page recital of bribes for votes is the commissioner who lives in the city of Winona — First District Commissioner Teofil J. Pellowski.
In the sharply worded report, Golling says of his evidence: “(It) laid bare the existence of rampant graft and appalling corruption. It unfolded a story of collusion and the foibles of grasping, venal men whose propensities for graft were apparently exceeded only by their own insatiability.”
Many of the “corrupt” transactions, says Golling, were hatched in “notorious room” 14 at the Williams Hotel here, but one was born in a Lewiston tavern and still others at commissioners’ farms or store.
Golling, in his report, also mentions seven salesmen and officials of four equipment firms, nearly all of them from the Twin Cities. It appears that the report is based almost entirely on statements by these equipment firm officials and salesmen, some of which are substantiated by the commissioners themselves. There are indications, too, that the investigations were started by the analysis of income tax returns by individuals and firms.
No charge is made in the report that Gensmer has accepted money during his seven months in office, but the report charges that he was involved in two proposed transactions, one of which was allegedly stopped when an equipment firm heard about the progress of Golling’s four-month-long investigation of the Winona county transactions. The proposed payment of $800 (for three commissioners) in this transaction was stopped in June of this year.
According to the report, Goetzman, Preston and Beach all have admitted accepting bribes. Goetzman is involved only once, in the amount of $100.
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Golling reports on 14 separate transactions, and the three-way combination of Preston, Beach and Roberton or of Beach, Roberton and Gensmer appears in all but three of those. Of the four accused of having actually accepted money — Beach, Roberton, Preston and Goetzman — only Roberton denies, the report says, although both salesmen and his fellow commissioners have involved him in statements made to Golling.
The public examiner reports that the former commissioner, Preston, on the board for 12 years, estimated he accepted about $7,500 in bribes and that Commissioner Beach estimated he has received between §3,000 and $5,000 from 1933, when he joined the board, to date.
However, of the 14 transactions or proposed transactions covered by the report, the oldest occurred in connection with the purchase of a snowplow attachment in June 1945. In that transaction, a representative of the Ken S. Gold Company, Minneapolis, paid Preston $1,000, which the former commissioner says he divided equally with Roberton and Beach, according to the report.
“Preston admitted,” says the report, “there were other bribes but he could not remember the names of the people who gave him money or the amounts.”
Examiner Golling told The Republican-Herald. “This is the most significant report so far of corruption, from the standpoint of the number of commissioners, salesmen and company officials involved, and from the standpoint of the ingenuity in the way in which it was accomplished.”
In the majority of the cases, the bribes were agreed to before the bid opening, permitting the assured winner to adjust its bid, the report indicates.
Some of the highlights of Golling’s report:
- Winona County may have its own five-percenters. Golling reports that prior to a bid opening for, a tractor in May 1947, Preston, Beach and Roberton conferred with Mark B. Pavey, Rochester, a sales representative of the William H, Ziegler Company, Inc., and agreed that “the bribe figure should be about five percent of the bid price.” Ziegler’s bid was $609 higher than the low bidder, but got the contract anyhow. The salesmen paid $480 — $160 each although the five percent amount was $477.50.
- In July, 1947, the county got an offer of between $500 and $600 for a used grader. Commissioner Roberton came up with a “covetous counter-proposal.” He suggested that McMullen reduce his offer to $400 and pay to the three commissioners the difference between that figure and the amount of his offer.”
- A $400 bid was submitted and $159 was paid off during the progress of a card game at the Williams Hotel.
- In February 1948, Pavey – who had paid $480 for the three votes in May 1947 – after a joint conference with three commissioners, “decided to negotiate with each of the three commissioners separately.” Through separate clandestine agreements he got Preston’s vote ‘for $35, Beach’s for $25 and Roberton’s for $15.
- In August 1948, before a bid opening for the purchase of two trucks, Beach, Roberton and Preston agreed to purchase two used trucks, after the bid opening, from the George T. Ryan Company and also agreed to rent those two trucks in the meantime. At the bid opening they bought the Ryan trucks, approved a $700 rental bill and later accepted (through Preston) a $700 bribe, for a three-way split.
- On the first day that Gensmer was seated as a county commissioner — Jan. 4,-1949 — he told a salesman “he wanted to be paid” for his vote on a truck.
Editor’s note: The former commissioners, William Beach, Fred Roberton and Frank J. Preston. and the equipment salesman, Eugene E. Flesch of Indianapolis, Ind., each drew fines of $2,000 and prison terms of one year after entering guilty pleas in district court.
In each case, Judge Vernon Gates of Rochester ordered that, in consideration of the defendants’ age, the prison sentences be suspended on the condition that the fines be paid.
Gensmer suffered a heart attack after his indictment for bribery, but was subsequently convicted.
Charges against Goetzman were referred to St. Paul authorities since his alleged offenses took place there.