Chicago aldermen give up control of $100M workers’ comp program

Chicago aldermen give up control of $100M workers’ comp program

A federal corruption charge against Chicago Ald. Ed Burke has led peers to hand control of the $100 million-a-year workers’ compensation program to the city finance department. Burke, who had overseen the program for decades, fought program oversight and staffed it with political allies.

Chicago aldermen are giving up power over the city’s $100 million-a-year workers’ compensation program as part of the fallout from Ald. Ed Burke’s corruption prosecution.

Burke resigned as chairman of the council’s finance committee Jan. 4, giving up decades of control over the workers’ compensation program, after he was charged by federal prosecutors with attempted extortion. Days later, Mayor Rahm Emanuel ordered a forensic audit of the program and said oversight of the program should move to the city’s Department of Finance.

Finance committee members met Jan. 22, the first time since Burke resigned, and voted to hand off control of the program to the Department of Finance. Burke was absent. The full City Council voted to pass the ordinance the following day.

On Jan. 22, Emanuel announced Grant Thornton would conduct the workers’ compensation program audit. The mayor had earlier said a preliminary report would be released within 60 days of selecting an auditing firm.

Burke had been in charge of the workers’ comp program for decades, and fought off any outside supervision or oversight, including by the city’s inspector general. A lawsuit filed in July 2018 claimed he used the program to increase his political clout, staffing it with workers such as dog walkers, waitresses and hairdressers who had no workers’ comp experience.

Federal prosecutors filed an attempted extortion charge 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 chain’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.

Federal investigators recorded more than a dozen conversations pursuing their case against Burke, according to a Jan. 23 report by the Chicago Sun-Times. Ald. Danny Solis for two years wore a wire for federal investigators to collect evidence against Burke. Solis, who is retiring from the 25th Ward, chaired the council’s zoning committee and was considered a trusted ally of both Burke and Emanuel. He did not attend the Jan. 23 council meeting.

Some aldermen denounced Solis’ involvement with the investigation as a “betrayal,” according to the Sun-Times. Approached in a City Hall elevator by reporters Burke said, “Number one, I’ve done nothing wrong. And no recording that Danny Solis can make would change that.”

Burke, Chicago’s longest-serving alderman, is 75 and has spent 50 years on the City Council. His wife, Anne 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.

Burke remains free on a $10,000 unsecured bond. He is seeking re-election to his 14th Ward seat against two challengers.

Want more? Get stories like this delivered straight to your inbox.

Thank you, we'll keep you informed!