Feds Charge Powerful Chicago Ald. Ed Burke In Corruption Case

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. At his side was defense lawyer Charles Sklarsky, a former federal prosecutor who now works for the Jenner & Block firm. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
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. At his side was defense lawyer Charles Sklarsky, a former federal prosecutor who now works for the Jenner & Block firm. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Feds Charge Powerful Chicago Ald. Ed Burke In Corruption Case

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Updated at 8:08 p.m.

Federal prosecutors on Thursday filed a corruption case against Edward M. Burke, who has been Chicago’s most powerful alderman for decades, just weeks after FBI agents dramatically raided his offices at City Hall and on the city’s Southwest Side.

Less than two months before February’s city election, Burke faces a single count of attempted extortion, according to court records that were unsealed shortly after noon on Thursday.

He arrived at the courthouse lobby on Thursday afternoon dressed in a pinstripe suit, tan trench coat and a fedora.

At his side was defense lawyer Charles Sklarsky, a former federal prosecutor who now works for the Jenner & Block firm.

During a brief court hearing, prosecutors said Burke faces up to 20 years in prison if found guilty. Prosecutors also said Burke has 23 guns, which Federal Magistrate Judge Sheila Finnegan said must be turned over, along with his passport, within 48 hours. 

Burke, who said few words during the hearing, did not have to enter a plea at this time. He was allowed to return home, and told to be back in court at 2 p.m. Jan. 18.

Burke did not comment, but Sklarsky gave a brief statement after the hearing, according to the Chicago Tribune.

“The transaction described in the complaint does not make out an extortion or an attempt to extort,” Sklarsky told reporters. “We look forward to a prompt day in court to prove the innocence of Alderman Burke.”

As the longtime chairman of the Council’s Finance Committee, Burke built far greater clout than any alderman and a long list of private law clients who do business with City Hall. But his historic tenure now comes to the same place where so many of his colleagues have found themselves: in Chicago’s federal courthouse, with authorities alleging he abused his power to enrich himself.

And like so many other aldermen with far less clout, Burke apparently got caught on a wiretap saying something he would not dare utter in public, according to court records.

The government alleges Burke clearly crossed the blurred lines between his position of public trust and his private law firm, Klafter & Burke.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago accuses Burke of trying to force the owners of a fast-food outlet — who needed his permission to remodel the restaurant — to hire Burke’s firm to do tax work for their chain.

According to court records, Burke “used his position as alderman … in order to corruptly solicit unlawful personal financial advantage” in the form of fees that his private firm would have reaped.

And the bombshell case could impact far more than Burke’s own re-election hopes in February, because prosecutors also alleged that Burke pushed the restaurant to make a contribution to “another politician” who was not identified in court.

Sources say the recipient of the contribution was Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who is now running for mayor of Chicago and who has gotten financial backing for her campaigns from Burke in the past.

A recent series of federal raids hinted strongly at Thursday’s criminal case against Burke. On Nov. 29, the windows of Burke’s offices were covered in brown butcher paper as investigators spent hours executing search warrants. And the feds raided the Finance Committee offices, on the third floor of City Hall, again on Dec. 13, indicating the urgency of the probe.

After 50 years, a long list of friends — and enemies

The criminal case hits as Burke is seeking to extend his record tenure in the City Council, running for another term in the February election in the 14th Ward, which he has represented for half a century.

Burke, 75, has been an alderman since 1969, when he succeeded his father in the council during the tenure of Mayor Richard J. Daley.

In his time as alderman, Burke has watched as more than 30 fellow aldermen who served alongside him were convicted of corruption. And the charges against Burke come as yet another alderman, Willie Cochran (20th Ward), continues to fight a two-year-old federal corruption case.

But Burke is clearly the most powerful alderman the feds have targeted since Thomas Keane — another Finance Committee chairman — was convicted in 1974.

With his finely tailored pinstripe suits and emerald-green ties, Burke long has been the personification of the South Side Irish Democratic Machine that ruled City Hall for generations.

While he presided over the Finance Committee, Burke frequently had to recuse himself from voting on hundreds of pieces of legislation that benefited the dozens of corporate clients of his law firm.

An investigation published last month by WBEZ and the Better Government Association found that Burke recused himself from voting on City Council measures 464 times in the last eight years. That’s four times as many “abstentions” for Burke as for the the rest of the aldermen combined.

The federal charges unsealed Thursday make clear that prosecutors do not believe Burke’s thriving private law practice grew as large as it has become just by coincidence.

In putting forward their case against Burke, prosecutors described a rather straightforward shakedown. And they say that much of the criminal scheme was captured in secret wiretaps of the alderman’s personal cell phone.

At the center of the alleged extortion plot was a fast-food restaurant in Burke’s ward that needed permits in 2017 from the city for its expansion plans.

Based on city records, it appears that the only permit issued that fits the narrative in the federal court complaint was for a Burger King restaurant in the 4000 block of South Pulaski Road. It’s the Burger King outlet near the spot where 17-year-old Laquan McDonald was fatally shot by a police officer in 2014.

Burger King officials did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.

According to court records, Burke quickly made clear to executives of the fast-food chain that he wanted them to hire his private firm to appeal the property taxes for hundreds of the chain’s locations across the state.

Prosecutors say Burke made the pitch for his private business at a lunch meeting with three executives at the Beverly Country Club, on Chicago’s Southwest Side.

An unnamed executive told authorities that Burke was “soliciting legal business in exchange for his help with permits for the restaurant,” court records show.

The city issued a building permit for the restaurant on June 20, 2017 — just six days after that meeting at the Beverly Country Club. And a week later, on June 27, 2017, the feds say they listened in on a phone call between Burke and another executive.

During that call, authorities say, Burke told a company executive that, “I made you half a million bucks.” The alderman then allegedly proceeded to ask again if his firm would be providing “real estate tax representation” to the company.

But when the company did not hire Burke’s firm, he allegedly instructed an unnamed aide in his ward office to play “hard ball” with the executives — and hold up a driveway permit that the restaurant needed.

Executives came back to Chicago for yet another meeting with Burke in December 2017, according to court records. Immediately after he “received assurances” that the company would hire his firm, Burke allegedly dropped his opposition to the permit and it was issued.

After that, prosecutors say, Burke leaned on one of the executives to make a campaign contribution to an unidentified politician. The executive told the feds that he or she “felt obliged” to make the contribution, so that Burke would not further obstruct the restaurant project.

Around that time, Burke was supporting Preckwinkle’s campaign for a third term as county board president.

In court records, authorities said the restaurant executives provided documents confirming that the campaign Burke favored indeed got the contribution, which was never reported to state election officials.

But in a statement Thursday, Preckwinkle said, “It has come to my attention that at that time an individual attempted to contribute through my website. This contribution was not accepted. My campaign has never been contacted by the authorities, and I am confident that my staff followed proper protocol.”

Despite saying she had not accepted the contribution, Preckwinkle filed an amended campaign-finance report with the state later Thursday, to reflect a “rejected contribution” from Shoukat Dhanani. He’s a Texas businessman who is one of the largest fast-food franchisees in the country.

According to the new filing from Preckwinkle’s campaign for county board president, she got $10,000 from Dhanani on Jan. 12, 2018 and gave it back 10 days later.

Preckwinkle also called on Burke to resign from the Council.

Mayors Daley, Emanuel warily made deals with Burke

For many decades, the Burke firm’s work has focused mostly on winning property tax appeals for its clients from Cook County authorities who determine the valuations of downtown high rises and other real estate.

His most prominent client in recent years was Trump Tower Chicago, for which Burke reportedly won millions of dollars in tax breaks. Earlier this year, Burke stopped representing the building amid criticism for doing the bidding of a president who is deeply unpopular in Chicago, especially among Latinos who are often the target of his anti-immigrant rhetoric.

With election challenges looming for the first time in many years, Burke even began criticizing Trump recently.

His many clients led Burke to often recuse himself from City Council votes. But even in some cases where Burke did not vote, WBEZ and the BGA found that the veteran alderman had exercised his clout to make sure his clients got what they wanted from City Hall.

At times, Burke has guided legislation through the council process, writing letters to city bureaucrats or even chairing meetings on the ordinances and motioning for his colleagues to vote them through — only to recuse himself at the last moment due to his conflicts of interest.

Ald. Ed Burke, 14th Ward, at a Chicago City Council meeting on June 27, 2018. The powerful Southwest Side alderman was charged Thursday in a federal corruption case. (Sebastian Hidalgo/WBEZ)

In the case of a multi-billion-dollar bond deal at O’Hare Airport a year ago, no less than three banks that are Burke clients stand to benefit from the transaction.

While his private law practice made his very wealthy, Burke is probably best known for his role in the turbulent “Council Wars” period in the 1980s, when he and fellow South Side Ald. Ed Vrdolyak spearheaded the mostly white block of aldermen that frequently thwarted Chicago’s first black mayor, Harold Washington. Due to his notoriety from that era, Chicago politicos have long believed that Burke could never get elected mayor.

But Burke has enjoyed his greatest power since then as a loyal and crucial Council ally of the last two mayors, Rahm Emanuel and Richard M. Daley.

When both Emanuel and Daley took office, they had been at odds with Burke. Still, both mayors decided to make deals with Burke, rather than confront him.

Under Emanuel, Burke has maintained his chairmanship of the Council’s most powerful committee and continues to enjoy the most visible and expensive perk of his clout: a police bodyguard detail that costs taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

In return, Emanuel appears to have gotten Burke’s loyalty. The alderman voted with Emanuel’s agenda on 100 percent of divided roll-call votes at the Council, according to a recent study by political scientists at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Even before charges, a tough political path for Burke

Burke had endorsed Gery Chico, his former aide and ex-president of Chicago’s school board, to succeed the retiring Emanuel in the upcoming Feb. 26 election.

The alderman himself faces four challengers. All of them are Latinos, reflecting the changing demographics of the Southwest Side’s working-class neighborhoods.

On Wednesday, Democratic U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia threw his backing to 28-year-old Burke challenger Tanya Patino, deriding the incumbent as “a walking conflict of interest for decades.”

As Mexican immigrants and their families have become the largest ethnic group in his ward, Burke has sought to adjust for the changing times, recruiting Latino precinct captains for his powerful ward organization and even speaking a bit of heavily accented Spanish. Talking to one constituent recently, he joked in Spanish that his command of the language was not that bad for “an older gentleman.”

Yet, the alderman’s once-absolute power had weakened in recent years. In the March primary election, his brother, Dan Burke, lost his seat in the Illinois House to a young Hispanic challenger.

Burke owns a fortress-like, three-story home that looms over his constituents’ bungalows and ranches in the Gage Park neighborhood, next to the elevated tracks of the CTA’s Orange Line. The home is surrounded by wrought-iron fencing.

His influence was so great that city crews strayed far from their normal routes during blizzards to plow the side street in front of the Burke home, even before more heavily trafficked roads got cleared.

And Burke’s clout extended far beyond the Southwest Side.

Burke also long has enjoyed the central role in the Democratic Party’s process for placing judges on the Cook County bench. And his wife, Anne Burke, has a spot on the Illinois Supreme Court.

He has more than $12 million in campaign accounts that he controls. That’s a sum that far exceeds the political cash of all of his 49 Council colleagues combined.

In the weeks since the initial FBI raids at Burke’s offices, it was unclear what exactly the feds suspected. 

Burke said he did not know what the agents were investigating. But he said he would cooperate fully and was confident that the probe would end as so many other investigations he has faced – with no charges against him.

Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter at @dmihalopoulos. WBEZ reporters Becky Vevea and Patrick Smith contributed to this story.