Updated 5/3/19, 11:29 a.m.
City of Chicago ethics officials have fined embattled Ald. Edward Burke for pushing for a taxpayer subsidy for a client of his private law firm, following an investigation from WBEZ and the Better Government Association.
The city’s ethics board fined the 14th Ward alderman $2,000 this week for breaking a rule against exerting “improper influence” in January 2018, when he helped win a $5.5 million subsidy for Presence Health’s new Loop headquarters.
In December — days before federal prosecutors charged Burke with attempted extortion in an unrelated matter — WBEZ and the BGA detailed how Burke had aided Presence as he presided over a contentious City Council committee hearing on the subsidy.
It was only at the end of the long committee debate that Burke disclosed he had done legal work for Presence affiliates and helped one of its hospitals with a 262-bed expansion.
The BGA and WBEZ also have reported that the veteran alderman’s firm, Klafter & Burke, filed property tax appeals in 2016 and 2017 on behalf of a Presence Health property.
Shortly after the WBEZ/BGA investigation was published, the city ethics board began looking into the matter involving Burke and Presence.
“Definitely that story was a catalyst for the board starting its work,” said Rich Superfine, a lawyer for the ethics board.
On Wednesday, the board announced on its website that Burke had violated a provision of the city’s ethics code and been fined because of his actions in the Presence case.
“We strongly disagree with the findings and the action taken by the board and we are reviewing our options,” said Burke’s lawyer, Charles Sklarsky.
At the close of a council committee hearing on Jan. 12, 2018, Burke told colleagues he would abstain from voting on the Presence subsidy because of his ties to the Catholic-owned hospital system.
Even without Burke voting, the measure was approved anyway by the Finance Committee — which was led at that time by Burke — and forwarded to the full council by a 13-7 vote. Days later, Burke once again moved to have the Presence issue voted on by all the aldermen before recusing himself at the last minute. The measure was approved by the full City Council by a 31-18 vote.
But in its ruling against Burke, the ethics board noted that the alderman had “presided over that portion of the [Finance Committee] meeting at which the Presence matter was discussed, introduced witnesses and answered procedural questions from his colleagues” before disclosing any conflict and abstaining.
The $2,000 fine was the maximum penalty that the ethics board could assess for Burke’s violation, according to Superfine.
Officials cleared Burke of ethics violations, however, in another case detailed by WBEZ and the BGA. In that situation, Burke guided a multibillion-dollar O’Hare International Airport improvement bond deal through the City Council. Three banks that are private law clients of Burke stood to benefit from the bond deal. But Burke didn’t vote himself.
A spokeswoman for Presence Health did not respond to a request for comment.
Burke has denied wrongdoing in the federal case filed on Jan. 3, and he was re-elected as alderman in February. He has represented his Southwest Side ward at City Hall for 50 years, a record-long tenure for a Chicago alderman.
The WBEZ/BGA story published in December delved into the blurred lines between Burke’s official actions and his lucrative private law practice.
The blending of his public duties and private profits is also at issue in the federal case against him. Prosecutors allege that Burke held up a driveway permit for a fast-food restaurant in his ward to try to force the owner of the Burger King outlet to hire Klafter & Burke to appeal the taxes for many of the businessman’s properties.
But the feds have asked for more time to issue an indictment that is expected to add more charges to the case against Burke, 75.
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter at WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter at @dmihalopoulos. David Kidwell is a reporter at the Better Government Association. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidKidwell1.