The arrest of a powerful Chicago alderman who has been in office for 50 years and the corruption tax

Blogger in downtown Chicago

By John Ruberry

Chicago isn’t so much a city as it is a racket.

The federal criminal complaint issued Thursday against Alderman Edward Burke, who has been a member of the Chicago City Council for 50 years–he replaced his father who died in office–has overshadowed the Chicago mayoral race. That election, along with that of the fifty City Council seats, takes place late next month. As their are 15 candidates for mayor, it is unlikely one person will achieve a majority, so the top two vote-getters will face off in April. Incumbent Rahm Emanuel, after two terms as mayor, chose not to run for a third.

For much of his decades in office, Burke, 75, has been chairman of the City Council Finance Committee, he resigned that post Friday morning. Burke remains a candidate for reelection for his aldermanic seat and he is still the Democratic committeeman of his ward, a post he’s held since 1968. The Finance Committee chairman is second most powerful politician in Chicago government.

Burke is the lead partner at the law firm Klafter and Burke, which specializes in property tax appeals. The committee’s powers are vast and they of course include tax levies.

Hmmm.

The heart of the criminal complaint is how Burke allegedly threatened to block the remodeling of a Burger King restaurant in his ward unless the owners, who operate dozens of other fast food restaurants, hired his law firm. That’s called extortion.

Burke is denying any wrongdoing.

The client list of Burke’s firm includes many individuals and firms who conduct business with the city. Burke even represented Chicago’s Trump Tower. Because of his conflicting public and private interests, the authors of a study for the Chicago NPR affiliate and the Better Government Association dubbed him the King of Recusals.

What reasonable person can believe that the alleged Burger King incident is an isolated one?

According to the complaint Burke’s office allegedly strong-armed the BK owners to contribute $10,000 to the campaign fund of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle–of Cook County soda tax fame–who is now the chair of the Cook County Regular Democratic Organization and a candidate for mayor. Preckwinkle late last year donated those funds to a not-for-profit. Burke’s son was hired in 2014 by the Preckwinkle administration to a nearly $100,000-a-year job. Understandably, Preckwinkle is now distancing himself from Ed Burke. And she’s not alone.

Allegations of ghost payrolling on Burke’s staff goes back many years.

The unnecessary costs of graft–such as the reputed incidents listed above–as well as sweetheart deals for vendors who contribute to the right pols, nepotism, and the effects of outright bribery, is expensive for Chicago taxpayers. It’s called the corruption tax.

For months that Burger King, after a ward employee promised to “play hardball” against it, could only operate a drive-through window because the dining area renovations were allegedly blocked for lack of the right permits because the owners refused to hire Burke’s law firm.

Not all Chicago wards are misrun as Burke’s is, but he is not alone in his modus misoperandi.

While rampant small time graft, such as the type the Chicago Sun-Times exposed in 1977 in its Mirage undercover operation that was recalled here at Da Tech Guy, is less common now, big time graft hasn’t gone away–it may have even gotten worse since then.

The corruption costs for Chicago and Chicagoans are immense. The lack of a dining area at that Burger King of course, according to the criminal complaint, had a “major effect on sales and cash flow.” It’s not too difficult to imagine this scenario being played a thousand times over in Chicago every year for more than 100 years. Also, I imagine thousands of businesses staying away from Chicago altogether to avoid criminality. That means fewer jobs for Chicagoans and of course, less tax revenue.

Since 1973 over thirty Chicago alderman have served time in federal prison.

Because of pension debt–gee, who has been the longtime Finance Committee chairman?–and outright malfeasance Chicago is essentially broke. But as they say, “Chicago isn’t broken, it’s fixed.” The same meme is used for Illinois, whose most powerful politician is Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, who is also the Democratic committeeman of a neighboring ward of Burke’s. Madigan is believed to have made a fortune in property tax appeal business at his real estate law firm.

A prodigious fundraiser–which of course is not surprising considering his enormous power–Burke has been a generous contributor to other Democratic campaign funds. Three other candidates for mayor have close ties to Burke. State comptroller Susana Mendoza has called Burke a mentor and was even married in Burke’s home; the ceremony was presided by Anne Burke, an associate justice on the Illinois Supreme Court. She’s the wife of Ed–some stuff you can’t make up. Mendoza donated over $12,000 in Burke contributions to the families of three slain Chicago police officers. William Daley has thrown his hat into the ring, Burke has contributed over $30,000 to Daley family campaign funds. As he did in 2011, Burke has endorsed a former employee of his Finance Committee, Gery Chico, in this year’s mayoral race.

Chicago has always been a corrupt city. Now it is the only major American city losing population, because it is broke, broken, and yes, fixed. It seems that the devil is finally collecting his debt after thousands of Chicago politicians and bureaucrats sold their souls.

Voters aren’t innocent either. Chicago has one Republican alderman and hasn’t had a GOP mayor since 1931. The Republican Party isn’t innocent either. While Chicago elections are non-partisan, the Illinois GOP is missing in action in the current election cycle. As it was last time.

And the time before that.

UPDATE January 7: Preckwinkle announced last night that she is returning over $100,000 from a fundraiser for her held at Burke’s home. She has yet to comment on the hiring of Burke’s son two years ago, who is no longer an employee of Cook County.

John Ruberry regularly blogs a few miles north of Chicago at Marathon Pundit.