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Transcript: As his sentencing nears, hundreds of people ask for leniency for ex-Ald. Ed Burke

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Ed Burke

File: Ald. Ed Burke, 14th Ward, enters the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse in Chicago on Thursday, Jan. 3 to face charges of attempted extortion.

Manuel Martinez

If prosecutors have it their way — ex-Chicago alderman Ed Burke would spend 10 years in federal prison.

That would amount to one of the harshest public corruption sentences handed down in the city’s federal court in the last decade.

Burke’s defense team is asking the judge for no prison time for their client.

WBEZ's Mariah Woelfel sat down with Melba Lara to discuss what’s to come for the longest-serving alderman in Chicago history.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the "play" button to listen to the entire interview.

MELBA LARA: So last year, Burke was convicted of 13 counts of corruption for strong-arming developers into hiring his private law firm. What was the most compelling argument that prosecutors made for a 10-year prison sentence?

MARIAH WOELFEL: Yeah, they really did not pull any punches in this request. They wrote Burke has shown no remorse for his crimes, despite being steeped in corruption. They wrote he abused and exploited his office to solicit and receive bribes, and they also argued that Burke needs to go to prison to prevent the 80-year-old from committing more crimes.

They said that Burke has allies that still 'work in the bowels of city government and walk in its corridors of power.' And they wrote, 'It would be naive to think that there is anything stopping Burke, the consummate political insider with his coterie of misguided friends and well wishers, from engaging in the same type of conduct in conjunction with public officials in the future.'

ML: Talk to us about the defense. Burke's attorneys filed their own sentencing request and countered with quite the opposite recommendations — zero prison time. How do they justify that?

MW: That's right. They're asking for a judge to give him no prison time at all, and in their filing last night, they said that would be a powerful and just expression of mercy for an 80-year-old man in the twilight of his life, who has, 'given so much of himself to so many and for so many years.'

ML: On that note, Mariah, roughly 200 people wrote to the judge on Burke's behalf urging leniency and I imagine one of the most poignant appeals had to be from Burke's wife, the retired Illinois State Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne Burke.

MW: Yeah, that's right. Anne Burke tells the judge an enchanting love story, writing, Ed Burke has been her best friend for 60 years. She tells us how he has supported her and even encouraged her to go to law school, saying, 'My husband would have never called himself a feminist, but that's what he was. He believed in me and constantly encouraged me to believe I could become and do more.'

Her letter really is a tearjerker. She writes she's devastated to think about not being with Ed Burke at the end of their lives, saying, 'I am unable to grasp the thought of us not being together when God calls us home.'

ML: And Mariah, can you tell us who else wrote to the judge? Kind of a who's who of the old school Chicago politics, right?

MW: Yeah, the letters definitely represent the life of a man who spent decades in power. You have former and current Chicago police officers and firefighters, former mayoral candidate and longtime political insider Paul Vallas, the prominent Reverend Michael Pfleger.

Even Chicago's former police superintendent Garry McCarthy wrote in, saying he was conflicted as a former law enforcement officer, and that it's hard to reconcile the case against Burke with the man he knows, but that there's no one else he'd write such a letter for.

And Burke still has several friends on the City Council, but only one current Chicago alderman wrote in, Nick Sposato, who's one of the council's most conservative members.

ML: And would you say that a 10-year sentence for Burke's crimes is actually plausible? And when are we going to find out?

MW: Sure, so Judge Virginia Kendall is not new to public corruption cases. The last one she took up in 2016 she did sentence a city hall insider implicated in a red light camera scheme to a decade in prison. Burke's sentencing is scheduled for June 24.

ML: Mariah, thanks for following this for us.

MW: Thank you.

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