Updated 5:15 p.m.
FBI agents armed with search warrants raided the offices of powerful Chicago Ald. Ed Burke (14th Ward) on Thursday morning.
The stunning raids — coming less than three months before the February City Council elections — hit Burke’s sprawling Finance Committee office on the third floor of City Hall and his ward office on the city’s Southwest Side.
Asked about the federal activity at Burke’s offices, FBI Special Agent Janine Wheeler confirmed the raids but would not detail the nature of the investigation, saying, “Our agents are executing search warrants at multiple locations today. We have no further comment.”
In an emailed statement released Thursday afternoon, Burke said, “There have previously been several other investigations such as this. In every instance we cooperated fully. And in every instance nothing has been found.” In the statement, Burke said he is “completely confident” that “nothing will be found amiss in this instance either.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago didn’t respond to a request for comment nor did the Office of the Inspector General for the City of Chicago, which has the authority to investigate aldermen.
Reporters gathered outside Burke’s City Hall office throughout the morning. The glass doors to the suite were covered with brown paper, blocking views of any activity inside. At Burke’s ward office, at 2650 W. 51st St., brown paper also covered the entrance and handwritten signs reading “office closed” were posted on the doors.
Ald. Burke’s ward office is also papered over. pic.twitter.com/F1XanM1lt9— Claudia Morell (@claudiamorell) November 29, 2018
The brown paper was up as early at 8:30 a.m., according to a woman working in the office of Ald. Danny Solis (25th Ward), which is next door to Burke’s office at City Hall.
At one point later in the morning, as a crush of reporters gathered outside Burke’s office, a man carrying a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee walked into the waiting area where reporters were gathered and joked that he “picked the wrong day to stop by.”
He was hoping to talk with a staffer in Burke’s office and knocked twice, but then left.
Burke has been in the City Council since 1969 and is the chair of the powerful Finance Committee. He’s also a prominent real estate lawyer and frequently recuses himself from council votes involving his clients. He has not been charged with any wrongdoing.
Dozens of aldermen have gone to prison for corruption over the past few decades since Burke began representing the 14th Ward, a gritty section of the Southwest Side.
But the federal raid at Burke’s office targeted a member of the City Council who has managed to amass more power than anybody in Chicago politics who’s not called “Hizzoner.”
In an era marked by aldermanic obedience to the mayor’s office, Burke was perhaps the one Council member whom mayors had to treat warily. When both Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel became mayor, they had histories of clashing with Burke – but both quickly decided to placate him and avoid confrontation.
Burke did not support Emanuel’s candidacy to replace Daley in 2011, with his 14th Ward Democratic foot soldiers helping former aide Gery Chico. Still, Burke and Emanuel eventually struck a deal that allowed Burke to keep one of the most visible perks of his clout — his bodyguard detail and driver.
And in the upcoming February election to replace Emanuel, Burke has again endorsed Chico, who welcomed the support last month.
On Thursday, though, a spokeswoman for Chico said the candidate would not say anything about the federal raid.
“We can’t comment on something that we don’t know anything about,” said Chico spokeswoman Kelley Quinn. “However, we, like everyone else, are watching the situation closely.”
It’s been decades since Burke sought higher office himself, and he’s instead focused on parlaying his committee chairmanship to burnish his power and elevate his wife, Illinois State Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke.
On the occasion of his 40th anniversary as an alderman, Burke gave supporters a commemorative coin that bears his stern visage and a cryptic quote: “You’ll never remember the words of your enemies, but you’ll never forget the silence of your friends.”
Burke’s influence was so great that city snow plows often went far out of their normal routes to plow the side street he lives on, hitting his block repeatedly before removing a snowflake from main streets after a blizzard a few years ago.
His ward is now populated almost entirely by working-class Mexican immigrants and their families. He and his wife maintain a fortress-like, three-story home that looms over the bungalows and ranches of his constituents.The property is surrounded by wrought-iron fencing.
He has made his fortune far from downtown, mostly through handling property tax appeals for downtown high rises and other major real -estate interests. Every year, Burke discloses that his private law firm, Klafter & Burke, has dozens of clients that do business with the city.
Three political funds controlled by Ed Burke had more than $12 million in the bank as of the end of September, state campaign-finance disclosure records show. And he received tens of thousands of dollars more in campaign cash in recent weeks, including contributions reported as recently as Wednesday.
1/ Ed Burke is known for raising a lot of money - but spending little. Friends joke he still has his first-communion money. So his 3 political funds now have a total of > $12M. Let’s break it down …— Dan Mihalopoulos (@dmihalopoulos) November 29, 2018
Despite that prolific fundraising, Burke has been so parsimonious when it comes to helping allies financially that friends joke he still is saving his first communion money.
But the upcoming election could represent the first time in recent memory that Burke has faced any significant challenge that would require him to tap those multimillion-dollar political funds for his own sake.
One of his four challengers, Jose Torrez, called Burke the “Bernie Madoff of politics.”
“Even if it turns out to (be) nothing, the search warrant is proof that they were looking for something,” Torrez said of the raids on Burke’s offices. “He’s always talked about ‘I have nothing to hide. I have nothing up my sleeves.’ But yet they’re there. And the fact that they’re there means they’re suspicious and they don’t trust him.”
The first sign that Burke’s power base could be challenged came earlier this year, when his brother , state Rep. Daniel Burke, lost his seat to a young Hispanic challenger in the March Democratic primary.
Critics used Burke’s longtime legal representation of the Trump Tower to bash Daniel Burke. Soon after that election, the alderman ceased representing President Donald Trump’s downtown high-rise.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referenced former Mayor Richard J. Daley.