One of the many advantages of being a powerful politician in the city of Chicago is that opportunities for graft can present themselves in mysterious and wonderful ways.
For years, federal authorities have sought to pin something on Alderman Ed Burke, who has served on the city council since 1969 and is married to a sitting judge on the Illinois Supreme Court. No one in the city doubted the Burke was using his position to enrich himself. The only question was whether the FBI would be able to find enough on him to put him away.
Apparently, they finally have.
Burke has been charged with attempted extortion in a simple “pay for play” scheme where he shook down an owner of several fast food franchises in the city for campaign contributions by promising to grease the skids for a remodeling job on a store in his ward.
But the campaign cash wasn’t for Burke. It was for current Cook County Board President and candidate for mayor Toni Preckwinkle.
This is how Chicago politics works — doing favors for one powerful politician so he will eventually do favors for you.
As a consummate insider with his hands on many of the city’s levers of power, Burke is arguably one of the biggest fish ever reeled in by the U.S. attorney’s office, which has famously indicted a succession of Illinois governors, aldermen and other politicians in a seemingly never-ending parade of graft.
While the allegations have a familiar ring, the details in the 37-page complaint hint that it could be the tip of the iceberg. 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.
The evidence also includes emails and other documents, according to the complaint, which was filed Wednesday and unsealed Thursday.
After turning himself in at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse Thursday afternoon, the silver-haired Burke appeared in a packed 17th floor courtroom dressed in a charcoal pinstriped suit, pink tie and his trademark pocket square. Before the hearing began, he sat with his attorneys and reviewed the charges with a deep frown on his face.
When the case was called, Burke walked to the lectern, buttoning his suit coat and standing with his hands at his sides, clasping and unclasping his fingers. After Assistant U.S. Attorney Amarjeet Bhachu detailed the charges, U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheila Finnegan asked Burke if he understood them.
“Yes, your honor,” Burke answered firmly.
Burke was released on a $10,000 unsecured bond, meaning he would only have to pay that amount if he failed to appear in court as required.
How many times have Chicagoans seen these perp walks by the powerful? While the “machine” may be a ghost of what it was when Burke was just a young alderman on the make, its remnants still exercise enough influence to elect a mayor or a county board president.
That’s a change from the machine’s heyday when a Chicago mayor had Illinois’ electoral votes in his pocket for any Democratic candidate for president and controlled a dozen U.S. congressmen.
Burke’s fall does not herald the end of the machine. But it’s another sign that the demographic changes in the city in the last four decades have castrated the once powerful political organization that made Chicago almost unique among big cities.