Powerful Chicago alderman indicted for attempted extortion
For many who don't live in Chicago, the indictment of Alderman Ed Burke may be a minor example of public corruption in a corrupt city.
But there is nothing minor about Ed Burke. He has served as an alderman since 1969, when Richard J. Daley not only ruled the city of Chicago and Cook County with an iron fist, but was a Democratic Party kingmaker, controlling more than a dozen congressmen and having a huge say in national politics.
Over the decades, Burke amassed unparalleled influence – and got hugely rich in the process. Everyone in the city knew he was dirty. The only question was, would the feds ever gather enough evidence to put him away? Burke has watched over the decades as dozens of his city council colleagues were marched off to prison. Now, it seems, it's his turn.
In late November, the FBI raided his City Hall office, as well as the offices of his law firm. Agents returned to search his law offices again in December. What they found led to the incredible scene in a Chicago courtroom as the prosecutor read out charges and Burke stood stoically listening. Those charges included the attempted extortion of a business-owner that has ensnared not only Burke, but one of the major candidates running for mayor of Chicago.
A federal criminal complaint unsealed Thursday charged Burke with attempted extortion for allegedly using his position as alderman to try to steer business to his private law firm from a company seeking to renovate a fast-food restaurant in his ward. The charge carries a maximum of 20 years in prison on conviction.
The complaint also alleged Burke asked one of the company's executives in December 2017 to attend an upcoming political fundraiser for "another politician." Sources identified the politician as Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who is running for Chicago mayor.
The case filed in U.S. District Court comes five weeks after the FBI carried out a stunning raid on Burke's City Hall office, working for hours behind windows covered with brown butcher paper before leaving down a back staircase with computers and files.
The unveiling of the highly anticipated charges touched off a wild scene Thursday at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse, where Burke turned himself in to federal prosecutors before appearing before a magistrate judge in a packed courtroom on the building's 17th.
For 50 years, Burke has avoided the hangman's noose by never soiling his hands with the details. He has had a firm grasp on the levers of power, allowing him to use his influence in barely legal "pay to play" schemes that no one could ever accuse him of directly using his office for personal aggrandizement. He has used his power to nudge a lot of business toward his personal law practice, making him very wealthy and very powerful.
Prosecutors are hinting that these charges are just the tip of the iceberg:
While the allegations have a familiar ring, the details in the 37-page complaint hint that it could be the tip of the iceberg for Burke. According to the complaint, the FBI had won a judge's approval to wiretap Burke's cellphone and was already recording his calls before the alleged shakedown at the center of the charge began to unfold in May 2017. It's unknown what other evidence federal prosecutors presented in the application for the wiretap because that filing remains under seal.
Some of the recordings from those wiretaps makes Burke sound like a mob boss directing a shakedown operation:
In several recordings, Burke allegedly could be heard strategizing with his staffers on how to play "hard ball" with the executives once he realized they had moved forward with construction without hiring his law firm as promised.
"I took 'em to lunch," Burke allegedly told one assistant, identified as Ward Employee 1, in a phone call in October 2017. "I was playing nice with 'em – never got back."
"All right, I'll play as hard ball as I can," the staffer replied, according to the complaint.
Burke's mastery of machine politics made him what he is. He was meticulous in amassing favors from his friends – favors he repaid by greasing the skids of the city's bureaucracy. Ultimately, this was his downfall.
Burke could go to prison for the rest of his life, but everyone in the city is wondering: will he be able to beat the rap and walk away? Not, apparently, this time.