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Ed Burke

Flanked by attorneys and supporters, former Ald. Edward Burke walks into the Dirksen Federal Courthouse, Monday, Nov. 6, 2023.

Ashlee Rezin

Ed Burke corruption trial off to slow start as once powerful politician faces those who may decide his fate

Nearly five years after the feds closed in on Chicago’s longest-serving and most powerful City Council member, former Ald. Edward M. Burke spent Monday at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse listening to people from all walks of life who could soon decide his fate.

Twenty people who could be chosen as jurors in Burke’s corruption trial discussed their work, their family and friends, and how they get their news as they fielded questions from U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall and several lawyers.

Some of the potential jurors were asked whether they’d even heard of Burke. Some had. Some hadn’t.

Only six of the 20 live in Chicago. Another man, who lived in Streeterville for seven years before moving to the suburbs a year ago, insisted he didn’t hear any news while living in the city about Burke, whose prosecution upended local politics in 2019.

A Chicago Public Schools teacher summed up all she knew about Burke with one quick response: “Just that he is an alderman and obviously now on trial.”

Overall, jury selection in Burke’s trial seemed to get off to a slow start Monday, threatening to delay opening statements in the highly anticipated case. No jurors were seated.

Burke spent most of the day at the head of a defense table otherwise filled with lawyers and a jury consultant. He wore a gray suit and tie with an American flag pin on his lapel. From time to time he could be seen reviewing paperwork, including questionnaires filled out by the potential jurors. But he mostly seemed to be taking it all in.

His wife, retired Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke, sat behind him in the front row of the courtroom gallery.

Before the questioning began, Burke defense attorney Joseph Duffy introduced his client to the potential jurors as “Mr. Edward Burke,” rather than using his former City Council title. Burke then told them, “Good morning.”

The moment seemed to be a nod toward a possible point of contention in Burke’s trial — the extent of his power. Burke represented the 14th Ward in the City Council for more than 50 years, coming to be known as one of the most powerful politicians in Chicago. He faces racketeering, bribery and extortion charges in one of the most significant prosecutions to hit the city’s federal courthouse in years.

Burke is accused of using his seat on the Council to steer business to his private law firm amid schemes that involved Chicago’s Old Post Office, a Burger King near 41st and Pulaski, and a Binny’s Beverage Depot on the Northwest Side. He is also accused of threatening to block an admission fee increase at the Field Museum because it didn’t respond when he recommended his goddaughter for an internship.

The potential jury pool so far includes a restaurant dishwasher, a radio disc jockey who fancies himself “one of the best,” a Northwestern University professor, a supervisor at Home Depot and a child welfare specialist at the state Department of Children and Family Services, among other professions.

During an early break in the proceedings, members of the jury pool got to meet Kendall’s two trained therapy dogs, Birdie and Junebug. The Bernese mountain dogs are expected to make appearances in the courtroom throughout the trial to help break the tension.

There were few exceptions to the many potential jurors who reported not knowing Burke at all.

After initially stating she would be able to serve on the jury, a retired Internal Revenue Service agent from suburban Hazel Crest signaled to the judge she no longer thinks she should after learning who the defendant is in the case.

“I’ve been following Mr. Burke for years,” the potential juror told Kendall.

A restaurant and bar auditor who lives in Uptown said he knew Burke was “a long-serving alderman from [the] late 60s, early 70s to I want to say 2018.” (Burke left his aldermanic seat earlier this year).

Of four Chicagoans who were questioned about local government, all of them knew either which ward they lived in or their current alderperson.

Jurors were asked about everything from where they get their news, to their outlook on the role of government, to what television shows they like to watch.

On that note, jurors recommended a long list of must-see T.V. A middle school teacher is watching the “Walking Dead,” an attorney recommends “The Mandalorian,” and a cashier at Home Goods is binge-watching “Gilmore Girls.” One of Burke’s attorneys bonded with a couple of the potential jurors over the show “Ted Lasso.”

“Roy Kent or Ted Lasso?” defense attorney Chris Gair asked one potential juror, pitting two main characters of the show with polar opposite personalities against one another. The juror responded, “Obviously, Roy Kent,” choosing the darker personality of the two.

Pleased with the response, Gair quipped back through a laugh: “I’m more of a Roy than a Ted.”

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