The end of Ed Burke’s long political career began five years ago today, when federal agents descended on City Hall, covered the windows of his offices with butcher paper and began digging for evidence.
That dramatic moment on Nov. 29, 2018, turned out to be the first public sign of a long-running corruption investigation that went on to topple not just Burke but former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, placing both under separate indictments.
It arguably changed the course of Chicago history in another way, too: Former Mayor Lori Lightfoot recently acknowledged that the raid, and the prosecution of Burke that followed, helped her win the mayor’s office in 2019.
“I rode that wave ‘til it crashed on the beach,” Lightfoot said in an interview. “And I have no doubt that that made a difference in the public’s perception of me as a fresh face, a new alternative, who was willing to do something very differently, because I wasn’t somebody that somebody sent.”
The five-year anniversary of the raid on Burke’s offices arrives in the midst of his resulting racketeering trial, which was delayed for years by the COVID-19 pandemic and a mountain of pretrial motions.
Burke was charged, and then indicted, in the weeks and months that followed the 2018 raid. Not only that, but Chicago learned that Burke had been betrayed by another longtime City Council member, Danny Solis, whose own alleged corruption had been uncovered by the feds.
Solis (25th) secretly recorded Burke (14th) for the FBI, as well as Madigan and others. Then Solis went underground after the Chicago Sun-Times revealed his cooperation with the feds in January 2019. Burke went on to win reelection in February 2019 in spite of the initial charges, and he served a final full term that ended just last May.
But in the hours after the butcher paper went up in November 2018, politicians and journalists could only speculate about what had prompted the move. James L. Merriner, who wrote the book “Grafters and Goo Goos: Corruption and Reform in Chicago,” said he was initially puzzled by it and wondered if it had been the work of an overzealous prosecutor.
“Burke had survived for so long,” said Merriner, a former Chicago Sun-Times editor and reporter. “He seemed to be untouchable. Well, of course, nobody’s untouchable.”
About 15 agents arrived at City Hall about 7:30 a.m. that day. They spent about seven hours inside Burke’s office, leaving around 2:20 p.m. through a back staircase. Some of the agents had also gone across the street to the underground parking garage at the Daley Center in search of Burke’s car.
Reporters lingered outside Burke’s office, hoping for answers. In one photo taken that day, Fran Spielman of the Chicago Sun-Times could be seen juggling a notebook and cell phone while Craig Wall of ABC7 tried to get a peek behind the butcher paper.
Framed by both reporters was the door of another office labeled “Alderman Daniel S. Solis.”
Then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was in Washington, D.C., at the time, said he knew only what was being reported in the news and that it was too early to speculate about Burke’s role on the Council.
“You are asking hypotheticals, and I am not going to do that with the FBI walking around his office,” Emanuel said then.
The feds also showed up at Burke’s ward office and papered over the windows there. They left through a back door at about 1:40 p.m. with one cardboard file box, a computer and two computer monitors.
Later that night, reporters greeted Burke outside his Southwest Side home. Though they peppered him with questions, he mostly answered them with the same canned statement:
“I’ve been in the City Council for almost 50 years, and as you know, I’ve been involved in previous investigations,” Burke said. “I’ve always cooperated. Nothing has ever come of any of those investigations. I’ll fully cooperate in this one, and I’m confident that again there will be nothing found to be amiss.”
But now he’s on trial at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse on charges of racketeering, bribery and conspiracy to commit extortion.
The 2018 raid went down amid the heated mayoral campaign to replace Emanuel, who had announced he would not run for another term. Lightfoot was among those who’d begun seeking the office before Emanuel bowed out. After he did so, several other big names entered the race, reducing Lightfoot to a supposed “also ran.”
Then the feds made their move. Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor, recently said she had been shocked to learn that the FBI had gone into City Hall that day. She called it a “very rare event.”
She also said she heard from a reporter who complained that the “big names” in the mayor’s race were either dodging calls or refusing to answer questions about Burke. Lightfoot said she was “happy to talk.” And she did just that, making the City Council dean a major campaign issue.
Five years later, she said “there’s no question whatsoever” it helped her win the mayor’s office.
Once there, Lightfoot wound up sparring with Burke. But she recently said Burke “deserves a fair trial.”
“I think the public deserves to see exactly the government’s evidence, which I think 90% of are his own words in tape recordings,” Lightfoot said. “So I’ll be very interested to see how it unfolds.”