Ald. Burke prosecution ends battle against auditing Chicago’s $100 million workers’ comp program

Ald. Burke prosecution ends battle against auditing Chicago’s $100 million workers’ comp program

Mayor Rahm Emanuel ordered an audit of the city’s $100 million-a-year workers’ compensation program following Ald. Ed Burke’s resignation as finance committee chair. Burke has long fought program oversight.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel ordered an outside audit of the city’s $100 million-a-year workers’ compensation program Jan. 6, just days after federal agents filed attempted extortion charges against the program’s boss.

Ald. Ed Burke, 14th Ward, on Jan. 4 resigned as chairman of the city’s Committee on Finance, which also carried control of Chicago’s workers’ comp program. Emanuel then said he would take the program’s control away from the City Council and place responsibility with the city’s finance department, according to the Chicago Tribune.

“After years in the Committee on Finance, we have a unique opportunity to hit the reset button on workers’ compensation. We should not and will not squander this opportunity,” Emanuel’s news release stated.

Burke had been in charge of the workers’ comp program for decades, and fought off any outside supervision, including by the city’s inspector general. That ended with the alderman’s resignation as finance committee chairman.

Emanuel said the city will work to get a preliminary report on the program within 60 days of selecting the outside auditor. The audit will cover program operations as well as identify waste and corruption, a statement from Emanuel’s office said.

A 2018 lawsuit claimed Burke used the program to build a political army, including hiring unqualified workers such as a dog walker, hairdresser and waitress to run the costly program. Burke also blocked outsiders from seeing how Chicago’s 50 aldermen spend their $1.3 million-a-year expense accounts.

Federal prosecutors filed attempted extortion charges against Burke Jan. 3, alleging that in 2017 he tried to use his position as alderman to pressure Burger King executives to hire his private law firm for the restaurant’s property tax work.

The charge details a cellphone conversation between Burke and a ward worker recorded by an FBI wiretap, in which the two discussed withholding a building permit to pressure the Burger King executives after they failed to contact Burke’s law firm for legal work.

Burke, Chicago’s longest-serving alderman, is 75 and has spent 50 years on the City Council. His wife, Ann Burke, is a justice on the Illinois Supreme Court. The influential power broker is known for wearing fedoras and pinstripe suits, swaying judicial appointments and raising more campaign cash for politicians than any other alderman.

The felony federal charge detailed a $10,000 political donation solicited for a politician, who the Chicago Tribune identified as mayoral candidate and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. Preckwinkle’s campaign stated she returned the donation, but the charge states the campaign only returned the portion that exceeded the state’s $5,600 individual donor limit.

Preckwinkle also said she will return $116,000 in campaign donations from a fundraiser held a year ago at Burke’s home. She is one of 15 people who formed campaign committees to become Emanuel’s replacement.

Burke is free on a $10,000 unsecured bond. He has refused comment to reporters, but released a video to supporters declaring that he is still seeking re-election for his 14th Ward seat.

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