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Ed Burke

Alderman Ed Burke at Chicago’s City Hall in July of 2018.

Bill Healy/WBEZ

How much jail time should Ed Burke get? Depends on which City Council member you ask.

In interviews with WBEZ, several decried the length of sentence the 80-year-old could face, while a handful of others said he deserves significant time in prison.

In their court filing asking a judge to sentence ex-Ald. Edward Burke to a decade in prison for corruption, federal prosecutors argued that even though he’s no longer in office, Burke has a network of allies wishing him well from Chicago City Hall.

A sampling of alderpersons reacting to that sentencing recommendation Wednesday shows federal prosecutors might be right.

“I’m loyal to the death to people … Ed’s my friend,” Ald. Nick Sposato, 38th Ward, told WBEZ.

If Sposato had it his way, Burke would be sentenced to just one year in prison. That plus the “embarrassment” from his conviction would be enough accountability for the former alderman’s wide-ranging corruption, Sposato said.

A jury found Burke guilty on 13 counts of bribery, racketeering and attempted extortion that included using his public office of 54 years to intimidate developers into hiring his private law firm.

Sposato was the only sitting council member to write a letter of support to the federal judge handling Burke’s case.

“I thought a couple others would have some balls to support a guy that helped them forever,” he said to WBEZ.

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Ald. Nick Sposato, 38th Ward, at a Chicago City Council committee hearing at City Hall in the Loop, Thursday, May 30, 2024.

Peyton Reich/Sun-Times

But in interviews this week, several other council members expressed concern for the 80-year-old former alderman ahead of his sentencing on June 24, where his defense team will argue for no prison time.

Ald. Raymond Lopez, 15th Ward, was one of several alderpersons who called the 10-year prison recommendation by prosecutors a “death sentence.”

“The odds of him coming out in 10 years alive are slim to none,” Lopez said. “I definitely think that sending someone of his age to jail to die is a little extreme in my book.”

In their filing, prosecutors said they considered Burke’s age when recommending a length on the “low end” end of federal sentencing guidelines. They argued, too, that Burke “used his age to his advantage to help him carry out his crimes.”

Ald. David Moore, 17th Ward, appeared to cast doubt on the merits of the conviction altogether.

Moore said the prosecution’s claim that Burke has a network of allies doing his bidding are “some of the craziest assumptions I’ve ever heard in my life” and that prosecutors failed to prove Burke ever “strong-armed” developers in his community.

“I don’t think Burke ever said ‘If you don’t do this, I won’t do that’ — that’s strong-arming,” Moore said. “When people come to my community I say ‘give back to my community.’ I don’t say ‘give back to my community or I won’t do this.’”

“If they take that as, ‘Hey, he’s not going to do our zoning, if we don’t give back to his community,’ — no, because that’s never stated … people make their own assumptions.”

Ald. Emma Mitts, 37th Ward, a council veteran of two decades, said she would recommend “no time” if it was up to her because she “hates the situation that occurred” and would like to see “grace and mercy in a court system where someone has done wrong.”

“I wish the best for the situation that he’s in,” she said.

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Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) chats with another alderperson during a Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall in the Loop, Wednesday, April 17, 2024.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Other council veterans, such as Ald. Jason Ervin, 28th Ward, and Walter Burnett, 27th Ward, the council’s longest serving alderman now that Burke is gone, declined to comment.

A large handful of others in the City Council said Burke deserves significant prison time.

Fifth-term Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd Ward, said the fact that Burke is 80 years old shouldn’t change the length of his sentence.

“One could make that argument for anyone who’s broken a law and is being sentenced to prison. Time away from family is painful, but it’s also a punishment,” Reilly said. “And so regardless of your age, if you commit a crime, you’re found guilty, you need to serve the sentence that’s imposed. And when you decide to violate these laws, you’re making that choice.”

Several progressive alderpersons, many of whom have decried longstanding corruption in City Hall, declined to comment on the amount of time in prison Burke should serve for his own wrongdoing.

“I’m not in the business of sending people to jail,” said Ald. William Hall, 6th Ward. “I think the system is the system.”

In their filing, prosecutors argued “there are those who lurk in the bowels of City government and walk in its corridors of power who are still strong allies of Burke — despite his 13 counts of conviction.”

While numerous alderpersons scoffed, laughed or winced at that depiction, Democratic Socialist Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th Ward, said it’s an accurate one.

He agrees with prosecutors that even those convicted of a crime can continue to wreak havoc. He pointed to the former alderman of his ward, Danny Solis, who Sigcho-Lopez argues still wields influence over area politics.

Solis has not been convicted of a crime, though he has been charged with bribery. He was confronted by the feds with his own wrongdoing and agreed to wear a wire around Burke and other powerful Illinois politicians.

“I think that it is important that we set a precedent to make sure that people who have betrayed the public, and worse, when they continue to use whatever influence they have to undermine government … [are] stopped,” he said.

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Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd Ward, speaks at a Chicago City Council committee hearing at City Hall in the Loop, Thursday, May 30, 2024.

Peyton Reich/Sun-Times

Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd Ward, who replaced Burke as chair of the Finance Committee when he stepped down in 2019, said he reads the prosecutor’s depiction of City Hall as an indication the feds are “continuing to do their work here and focusing on elected officials.”

Waguespack said he doesn’t believe conditions are as ripe for corruption now as they have been in the past, arguing that “there’s a lot more eyes on aldermen who do a lot of development.”

But it’s clear elected officials in Chicago are still somewhat hesitant to police their own behavior. On the same day numerous members spoke to WBEZ about the conviction, an ethics proposal that aims to put teeth behind a rule banning lobbyist donations to mayors was delayed.

When asked about the delay and Burke’s sentencing recommendations, Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson wouldn’t say whether he opposes the ethics proposal, but said he wants to push for broader ethics reforms.

“Let’s lead the way for the city, for the entire country, of how we eliminate these proclivities — the lurking in the bowels of City Hall — that could cause corruption,” he said.

Mariah Woelfel covers city government and politics for WBEZ. The Sun-Times’ federal courts reporter Jon Seidel contributed.

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