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Former Ald. Ed Burke and his wife Anne Burke enter a waiting car outside the Dirksen Federal Courthouse after he was sentenced to two years in prison Monday.

Former Ald. Ed Burke and his wife Anne Burke enter a waiting car outside the Dirksen Federal Courthouse after he was sentenced to two years in prison Monday.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

A smiling Ed Burke greets 2-year sentence on corruption charges as judge rejects prosecution request for much tougher term

U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall seemed affected by the hundreds of letters written by Burke’s supporters. “I have never in all my career seen the letters that I have received for Mr. Burke.”

When the judge left the courtroom and the fate of the longest-serving City Council member in Chicago history began to sink in, hugs and handshakes surrounded what a prosecutor had hours earlier called the corrupt “face of city government.”

Edward M. Burke was smiling.

U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall delivered a two-year prison sentence to the man who represented Chicago’s 14th Ward for 54 years and long ruled the Finance Committee only to be convicted in a historic trial of racketeering, bribery and attempted extortion. She told him to surrender Sept. 23 and ordered him to pay an unusually large fine of $2 million.

Still, the 80-year-old Burke had faced far worse in a courthouse where judges have spent years decrying corruption and have tried to send a message to officials who betray the public trust. Prosecutors originally sought a 10-year sentence, and guidelines called for up to eight years.

So when it neared time for Burke to learn his sentence, the mood in the courtroom turned somber. Burke’s wife, retired Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne Burke, looked down and held a hand over her face as her husband spoke briefly to the judge.

“The blame for this is mine and mine alone,” Burke said, reading from a written statement with his hands upon the podium. “I regret the pain and the sorrow that I have caused my family and my dear friends.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Streicker called Burke “the face of city government” and said he nevertheless “chose to engage in criminal activity over and over again.” She told the judge that “public officials in this city and this state need to understand that if they engage in corruption, they will pay dearly.”

Kendall later turned that tough talk around on Streicker and her colleagues, though. She asked about former Ald. Danny Solis, the notorious government mole who secretly recorded Burke and others after the FBI confronted him with evidence of his own wrongdoing. He struck a deal with the feds that means he will likely never be convicted of a crime, nor sent to prison.

“If the prosecutor’s office is so concerned about public corruption, it does seem a little unwarranted to say that Mr. Solis will get absolutely no time at all for his criminal activity,” Kendall said.

The comment prompted one of Burke’s supporters to turn her head sharply in the direction of one of the lead prosecutors in the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Amarjeet Bhachu. And it echoed past criticism of the deal the feds struck with Solis, who has been lauded by Bhachu as one of Chicago’s “most significant cooperators in the last several decades.”

The judge also spoke at length about the hundreds of letters of support that had been written on Burke’s behalf, detailing acts of charity, goodwill and altruism.

“These are very personal acts that are not anything to do with authority or public office,” Kendall said.

Former Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) arrives at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse ahead of his sentencing hearing on Monday.

Former Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) arrives at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse ahead of his sentencing hearing on Monday.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Burke could now spend a little more than a year and a half in prison, until he’s 82. As for the fine, prosecutors told the judge this month that Burke is worth “millions upon millions upon millions of dollars.” His main political fund had about $167,693 on hand as of the end of March.

He smiled after the hearing as he hugged his wife and the attorneys who tried to convince Kendall to give Burke no prison time at all. He later left the courthouse walking arm-in-arm with Anne Burke, showing little emotion as he made his way to a black SUV.

Burke did not comment. Acting U.S. Attorney Morris Pasqual released a statement.

“Corruption in the Chicago City Council tears at the fabric of a vital body of local government,” Pasqual said. “When an alderman fails to discharge his duties with honesty and integrity, he betrays not only the citizens of Chicago, but his fellow public officials who do their jobs the right way.”

It all brings to a close a five-year prosecution triggered by a decade-old investigation that rocked Chicago politics and changed the course of the city’s history.

Former Mayor Lori Lightfoot was propelled into office amid fallout from Burke’s prosecution by highlighting the ties that several of her opponents had to Burke. In a statement, she said Burke “should be grateful that his sentence wasn’t longer — it certainly could have been justifiably so.”

Mayor Brandon Johnson, the man who successfully challenged Lightfoot for the office last year, refused to comment on Burke’s sentence.

Burke represented the Southwest Side 14th Ward for 54 years — the longest reign in Chicago history. He wielded immense power through his chairmanship of the Finance Committee and also served as the chief of judicial slatemaking for the Cook County Democratic Party. Burke retired from his Council seat in 2023.

In late December, a jury convicted him of 13 counts of racketeering, bribery and attempted extortion. The case against him involved schemes centering on the Field Museum, the Old Post Office straddling the Eisenhower Expressway, a Burger King in Burke’s ward and a Binny’s Beverage Depot on the Northwest Side.

Now Burke is the most significant Illinois politician to walk out of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse with a prison sentence in nearly a decade. Still, the two-year penalty seemed relatively light when compared to recent corruption cases.

BURKE-062524-12.jpg

Former Ald. Ed Burke and his wife, Anne Burke, return home after he was sentenced to two years in prison.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Tougher sentences have been handed down to former state Rep. Luis Arroyo, who is serving nearly five years in prison for taking bribes; businessman James T. Weiss, who is serving 5 ½ years for giving Arroyo those bribes; and Tim Mapes, the former chief of staff to ex-Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan who is now serving 2 ½ years for perjury.

Even lower-level figures such as former political operatives Roberto Caldero and Patrick Doherty, and former Bloomingdale Township Highway Commissioner Robert Czernek, were handed tougher prison sentences in recent years.

Kendall herself once handed a 10-year prison sentence to a former City Hall staffer after a public corruption trial in 2016.

Former Chicago Ald. Dick Simpson said Burke’s sentence still sends a message “that corruption has a heavy price to it.”

“You have to remember that Burke is now over 80 years old and not in the greatest of health,” said Simpson, who served with Burke in the 1970s and is a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “So this will be a trying experience for him and a warning to anybody else.”

Streicker tried to cast a shadow on the good deeds described in letters written in support of Burke. She said “these good acts do not outweigh his crimes” and wealthy people like Burke should not gain an advantage because they have the ability to give to charity.

“Charitable acts are certainly not a get out of jail free card,” Streicker said, adding that “being a good friend … does not grant a license” to commit crime.

Streicker also criticized Burke for seeking mercy from the court without showing “any remorse or responsibility.” She made her comment before Burke spoke to the judge.

“An essential precondition for mercy is admitting that you’ve done something wrong,” Streicker said. “What he’s asking for is no consequences.”

Prosecutors often use the threat of tough sentences to convince defendants to plead guilty rather than risk a trial. They also use them to pressure potential cooperators such as Solis to record their friends and colleagues, in an effort to gather evidence against more powerful actors.

Over the years, federal judges in Chicago have also tried to use them to send a message about corruption. But Burke attorney Charles Sklarsky joined other defense attorneys Monday when he argued the threat of conviction — rather than the severity of punishment — is the better deterrent.

“We hear it in every case,” Sklarsky said. “And yet, there are still more cases. So there’s got to be something that’s not right about that. It’s not working.”

Former Ald. Ed Burkę is surrounded by reporters outside Dirksen Federal Courthouse after his sentencing.

Former Ald. Ed Burkę is surrounded by reporters outside Dirksen Federal Courthouse after his sentencing.

Ashlee Rezin | Sun-Times

Kendall seemed to recognize that argument as she told the courtroom she was considering “fines that are much higher than normal.” She ordered Burke to pay $200,000 for his racketeering conviction and $150,000 for the remaining 12 counts, totaling $2 million.

More than anything, Kendall seemed to be affected by the hundreds of letters written by Burke’s supporters. They appeared to resonate deeply with the jurist, who said “I have never in all my career seen the letters that I have received for Mr. Burke.”

“I don’t know how many times I read in here that you were sitting with someone who was dying” or “paying for a funeral because he heard about it on the news,” Kendall said.

She highlighted stories of Burke sitting with a victim of a car crash he witnessed on Michigan Avenue, helping people navigate the red tape around insurance to keep health care coverage, or of a time Burke wrote a letter to the mother of a fallen Afghanistan soldier offering support and asking to name a school after him.

“So many of them were actions that were unsolicited, that were small, altruistic acts of kindness,” she said.

She gestured to the binder of letters before her and told the courtroom she had the “very difficult challenge” of reconciling the man described within them with the man recorded by Solis for the FBI in between 2016 and 2018.

“I don’t think that it is appropriate to say that the activity in 2016 to 2018 wipes out all of this,” Kendall said.

Contributing: Sophie Sherry, Tessa Weinberg/WBEZ

More coverage
Prosecutors were seeking 10 years in prison. Defense attorneys for the longtime City Council member, who turned 80 in December, are asking the judge not to send him to prison at all.

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