Feds call Chicago Ald. Ed Burke ‘thoroughly corrupt’

Feds call Chicago Ald. Ed Burke ‘thoroughly corrupt’

Chicago’s longest-serving alderman, Ed Burke, tried to extort redevelopers of the old West Loop post office and others. They said there was no need to entrap Burke because his hand was regularly out.

Chicago Ald. Edward Burke repeatedly had his hand out, including as part of an extortion scheme involving the old West Loop post office redevelopment, federal prosecutors revealed in 227 pages of new documents filed April 21.

The documents were filed in response to Burke’s defense claiming he was the victim of rabid federal investigators, leading to the 14-count corruption case against him. Prosecutors responded to the claim by saying no one had to entice Burke to abuse his public office for his personal gain.

“Again and again, Burke shamelessly tied official action to his law firm’s receipt of business,” prosecutors wrote. “The government acted more than reasonably in investigating Burke’s conduct, an inquiry that… revealed Burke to be thoroughly corrupt and worthy of prosecution.”

The document outlines how federal authorities cooperated with former Ald. Daniel Solis and wiretapped City Hall phone conversations to gather evidence against Burke and co-defendants, 14th Ward political operative Peter J. Andrews and developer Charles Cui.

The documents also stated Burke made an anti-Semitic remark about the post office renovators: “Well, you know as well as I do, Jews are Jews and they’ll deal with Jews to the exclusion of everybody else unless . . . unless there’s a reason for them to use a Christian.” He declined comment about the quote, which prosecutors called “distasteful.”

Burke’s attorneys made a series of pre-trial motions challenging the legitimacy of the federal investigation. They argued Burke was being unfairly targeted by overzealous federal agents and argued federal prosecutors used Solis to bait Burke into committing illegal activities.

Prosecutors with the U.S Attorney’s Office denied having Solis engage with Burke in “scripted interactions,” saying in many cases it was Burke who had his hand out. The filing revealed at least 23 instances in which Burke talked with Solis about an illegal scheme to extort legal business related to the post office project.

The defense also revealed Solis had entered a deferred prosecution agreement in January 2019, admitting in the agreement to taking campaign cash from a real estate developer in exchange for official action at the Zoning Committee that he chaired.

Last year, the defendants’ lawyers also argued the thousands of conversations between Burke and his associates captured in the FBI wiretap should be disregarded.

Burke was originally charged in a criminal complaint in January 2019 after FBI agents raided his City Hall office in November 2018. He was then indicted in late May 2019 on an expanded 14-count corruption charge including attempted extortion, racketeering, federal program bribery, conspiracy to commit extortion and using interstate commerce to facilitate unlawful activity.

The 59-page indictment alleges a scheme by Burke to drive business developers to his law firm, Klafter & Burke, to appeal their property taxes. The indictment alleges Andrews and Burke attempted to shake down businessmen looking to renovate a Burger King restaurant in the 14th Ward.

The document also accuses Cui of employing Klafter & Burke to fast-track a sign permit and financing deal for a project in the Portage Park neighborhood.

Burke pleaded “not guilty” on all counts. He has served more than 50 years as an alderman, known for his pinstripe suits and cigars, but lost much of his power after the indictment and reforms pushed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot cost him control of city finances and its workers comp program, which he used for political patronage hires.

Illinois is the second-most corrupt state in the nation and that corruption comes with a heavy price tag for the state economy – more than $550 million in foregone economic activity per year.

Not only does this cost all Illinois taxpayers, but it shakes residents’ faith in state and local politicians. The ongoing federal corruption probes are a reminder that Illinois has a lot of work ahead to undo the political culture of corruption.

State lawmakers are considering reforms that could help change that culture by making the politics and oversight of state government more transparent and ethical. Ethics reform bills being considered in the General Assembly would ban lobbying by sitting lawmakers, block the Statehouse’s revolving door between lawmaking and lobbying, make financial disclosure statements more revealing, and empower the legislative inspector general to investigate and publish political misconduct without lawmaker approval.

Federal investigators can attack Illinois corruption one indictment at a time, or state leaders can attack its base by boosting transparency and ethical standards. Reforms may not stop every criminal instance after Illinois spent decades building its culture of corruption, but they would be making a very public rejection of business as usual.

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