Jim Dey | Define 'I've done nothing wrong,' Alderman Burke

Jim Dey | Define 'I've done nothing wrong,' Alderman Burke

If a giant tree in Chicago falls, are the reverberations felt in the rest of Illinois?

They are if the tree is named Ed Burke, the powerful Chicago alderman charged last week in an extortion scheme.

Described by The Chicago Tribune as "one of the biggest fish ever reeled in by the U.S. Attorney's office," Burke is one of the heaviest of Democratic political heavyweights. He's someone who exercises the kind of authority in Chicago and Cook County government that Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan exerts in the state Legislature.

Few downstaters may have heard of him. But Burke, through his power to make judges, also has a statewide reach.

In fact, one of the judges he made is his wife — Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke. She was among the justices who in 2017 blocked voters from deciding whether to abandon the long-standing practice of allowing state legislators to draw their own House and Senate district lines and turn the process over to a bipartisan citizens' commission.

Now in his mid-70s, Burke has intermittently been on the feds' hit list. But every time the feds have come close, he has slipped the noose. Burke plans to do so again.

"I believe that I'm not guilty of anything. ... I've done nothing wrong," Burke told reporters. Of course, the accuracy of Burke's declaration depends on how one defines the phrase "I've done nothing wrong."

By the standards of Chicago and Illinois politics, he's obviously correct. Assuming Burke actually did what the feds allege, he was just doing what comes naturally to the political class here.

By legal standards, however, Burke clearly was demanding an unlawful quid pro quo in his attempted shakedown of the owners of a Chicago fast-food franchise that was planning a renovation of a Burger King in Burke's ward.

Unfortunately for Burke, what is called "The Chicago Way" doesn't trump federal law, at least not yet.

That's why any fair reading of the 38-page criminal complaint filed by federal authorities in the case is devastating to Burke's cause. It lays out the whole story, chapter and verse, much of it in Burke's own words courtesy of a federal wiretap of his cellphone.

Readers, of course, probably are asking themselves a crucial question.

Assuming the allegations are true, why would a man of his age, wealth and high political status waste his time shaking down a business for what, in the overall context of Burke's life, amounts to tip money?

He did it for the reason that Springfield multi-millionaire businessman William Cellini — Illinois' onetime king of clout — joined in an extortion scheme devised by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Blagojevich henchmen and ended up in prison.

But the question is wrongly phrased — it's not "why," it's "why not."

This is what money-hungry, clout-wielders in Chicago and Illinois do.

Again, why not? The political infrastructure has been put in place to facilitate these illegal transactions. If the FBI doesn't happen to be listening in — as it was in both the Cellini and Burke cases — no one will be the wiser.

For example, Chicago aldermen wield tremen-dous influence over construction and/or development projects carried out in their wards. So enterprising aldermen can make things difficult for citizens who need municipal permits to get work done.

In Burke's case, the owners of the Burger King in question already had the required building permit. But that didn't stop a Burke representative from ordering a halt to the construction.

The architect overseeing the renovation was baffled by the order, writing to representatives of the city's Department of Buildings to complain:

"This does not seem right that Burke can shut this project down, considering we have a our permit. Please advise as soon as you can. Thank you."

But the city employee, seeing the involvement of a powerful alderman, made it a point not to help, his tepid reply to the architect a masterpiece of evasion that let him know he was on his own.

"I see no (Department of Buildings) issues current in our system. Please contact the owner and alderman," the city employee responded.

The complaint alleges that Burke demanded legal business from the corporation operating the Burger Kings. He also asked the owners to make a political contribution to Democratic mayoral candidate Toni Preckwinkle.

In response, the owners donated $10,000 to Preckwinkle's campaign "because they felt they had to make the donation in order to assure that there would be no further problems with Burke."

What's striking about these alleged events is that the business owners Burke was trying to extort never complained to law enforcement. Indeed, the FBI stumbled on the alleged crime because it already was wiretapping Burke's phone when it heard him discussing the Burger King matter.

Why were they already listening? What will be the ramifications of what they heard? Inquiring minds are desperate to find out.

It seems clear, however, that the Texas company that operates the Burger Kings was prepared to deal with Burke on its own, forking over $10,000 in campaign contributions but trying to resist Burke's demand for legal business.

In the end, the Burger King in question was closed for months while the interior renovation was blocked. It did business only through its drive-up windows, a hindrance that led to a "40 to 50 percent decline in sales," according to the FBI complaint.

In Chicago and Illinois parlance, that's called a "corruption tax." In other words, it's just a cost of doing business that businesses often pay and powerful pols routinely conduct here.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-3531-5369.