The feds may have finally nabbed the seemingly invincible alderman Ed Burke — said the news 22 years ago. Early in 1997, Joseph Martinez, an attorney at Burke’s private law firm, was charged with receiving paychecks from the city for work he never did. Martinez claimed that the scheme had been arranged by Burke in order for Martinez to get health insurance, which the alderman’s firm did not provide. Today, in the wake of Burke’s recent extortion charges, Jonathan Eig’s 1997 story on the earlier plot, “The Ghosts and Mr. Burke,” feels like foreshadowing:
The mystery is how a man so smart, a man regarded as one of Chicago’s top political historians and one of city government’s sharpest financial minds, might have left himself this badly exposed. Some say he was so powerful for so long he came to feel untouchable. Others contend he failed to adapt to changes in modern ethics, not noticing that all around him patronage was dying. Still others say his entire life had been so thoroughly shaped by succor and suckle, the twin engines of patronage, that entanglement became inevitable.
Martinez was sentenced to five months each of prison time and house arrest. He also paid more than $100,000 in fines and restitution. Burke was never indicted in the federal ghost payrolling probe, which targeted a number of employees on the payroll of the Committee on Finance, of which Burke was chairman (a position he retained until he resigned this January). The probe resulted in 35 convictions, including four aldermen, the Cook County treasurer, and a state senator.
Read the full story below.
The Ghosts and Mr. Burke
He’s one of the city’s most captivating personalities — bright, witty, and powerful, wielding charm and influence from the backrooms of City Hall to the salons of the Gold Coast. For years Alderman Ed Burke has kept the Machine alive and well in the 14th Ward without getting into trouble. But now that his name has surfaced in a payroll scandal, even his admirers are asking how a man so smart could end up in such a mess.
Edward M. Burke is walking down the middle of Western Avenue, through a neighborhood of husky brick homes, overstuffed Irish bars, and thousands upon thousands of people who would never dream of voting for anyone else. It is St. Patrick’s Day, and all the traffic lights on the parade route are green as Burke makes his way through the Southwest Side, smiling and waving and making expert eye contact with the crowd, looking down only occasionally to check that his shiny brown tasseled loafers are not about to step in anything left by a horse.
Burke is 53 years old and has served as a Chicago alderman for more than half his life. He carries himself with the gravity of someone who would not happily tolerate a silly plastic hat, even on a holiday. On this chilly day, as always, he is impeccably dressed, in a tan suit, tan fur-lined overcoat, brown fedora, and bright green necktie. He is medium-sized and trim and has a perfectly barbered head of snow-white hair. His gait is slightly stiff, somewhere between a march and a hurried stride. Along Western Avenue, Burke is followed by 14th Ward loyalists who fan out behind him like the proud plumes in a peacock’s tail. They are cops, firefighters, building inspectors, and water department foremen, most in green, most in debt to Burke for one thing or another. One long-time city employee marching in the parade admits that the alderman got him two city jobs (he performed them successively, he notes, not simultaneously). Others chuckle, somewhat embarrassed: Even if they did have help in getting their jobs, they say they would never loaf because to do so might bring dishonor to their sponsor. ‘To the men and women in the parade, patronage is not a disgrace but a warm and trusty relic, like a sturdy old toaster, that connects them to a simpler time when people believed that politicians were honorable (though not necessarily honest). “People say politics is an evil thing,” says Jim Venckus, who marches with an American flag in his right hand and continues to serve as a Burke precinct captain 25 years after he moved out of the ward. “It’s not. It’s friends. It’s family.” Venckus, by the way, is an assistant to the commissioner in the city Department of Human Services and says Burke helped him get the job.
Over the course of his career, Ed Burke has honed the art of Chicago politics nearly to perfection. At the same time, he has made himself one of the city’s most captivating but enigmatic public figures. He is a self-proclaimed friend of the working person, yet he and his wife, Judge Anne Burke, are among the most popular couples on Chicago’s elite social scene. He is an enemy of many black Chicagoans because of his antagonism toward the late Mayor Harold Washington, yet he and Anne have recently taken in an African-American foster child born addicted to cocaine. Some say he has worked for years to redraw the lines of his ward to stay ahead of the encroaching tides of black and Hispanic residents, yet minorities in his ward continue to vote for him with nearly religious devotion. He is considered the brightest and most eloquent of Chicago’s aldermen (the tallest midget in the circus, as columnist Mike Royko quipped), yet he now finds himself accused of a form of political corruption so seemingly stupid even some of his enemies have a hard time believing it.
In one of the most intriguing political scandals to hit Chicago in years, Burke’s name has surfaced in connection with a ghost-payrolling investigation at City Hall. One of the attorneys in Burke’s law firm, according to the federal investigators, received a steady paycheck and health benefits from Burke’s City Council committee and two other committees even though he did not work for the city. Allegations have also surfaced that Burke’s city secretary worked full-time out of the alderman’s private law office. After those charges hit, reporters began sniffing out a number of questionable business arrangements involving Burke and his law firm. Burke, who refused several requests for an interview, has told reporters he has done nothing improper, and as this magazine went to press he had been charged with no crime.
To be fair, there is nothing new about a Chicago alderman’s using his elected office to improve his private business. Aldermen are paid $75,000 to perform what some consider to be a full-time job representing their wards, but dozens of council members have nevertheless continued their active careers as lawyers, real-estate brokers, and insurance salesmen. In the old days, a business leader who wanted to curry favor with a city official would offer him cash. Today, that business leader is more likely to buy an insurance policy or hire an alderman’s law firm to handle a case. “The real money is in the bond deals, the contracts,” says a top city official, who refers to today’s sanitized system as “pinstripe patronage.” “From the mayor’s office on down you’re getting a message that it’s OK to take care of friends.”
In truth, it is hard to imagine a scandal that could shake Burke’s support on the Southwest Side, in no small part because the 14th Ward still operates according to an antiquated set of political rules that say taking care of friends is precisely the role government should play. Even today, the 14th is the sort of place where a ward operative offers a gushing tour of what he calls “the cleanest, safest alleys in Chicago, thanks to Mr. Burke.” For better or worse, the ward is one of the last working cogs in Chicago’s creaking political Machine, and Burke is one of the last lords of that Machine.
But in some ways, Burke has also left the 14th Ward far behind — snacking on canapés with Gold Coast socialites, sipping cocktails with the heads of Fortune 500 companies, and sharing legal work with Jenner & Block, one of the city’s prestige law firms. “He’s had an astonishing rise,” says one socialite. “You really don’t see that many people who are that well liked and that powerful.” Among this highbrow crowd, people not steeped in the favor world of ward politics, there is particular wonder at the accusations facing Burke. The mystery is how a man so smart, a man regarded as one of Chicago’s top political historians and one of city government’s sharpest financial minds, might have let himself get this badly exposed. Some say he was so powerful for so long he came to feel untouchable. Others contend he failed to adapt to changes in modern ethics, not noticing that all around him patronage was dying. Still others say his entire life had been so thoroughly shaped by succor and suckle the twin engines of patronage, that entanglement became inevitable.
“A lot of people are surprised,” says Chicago Sun-Times columnist Irv Kupcinet. “There’s something befuddling about it.”
The 14th Ward still operates according to antiquated rules that say the government’s role is to take care of friends.
The mystery of Ed Burke begins with a man named Joseph A. Martinez, a lawyer who rose to prominence under the patronage of one of the most powerful and corrupt men in the city’s history. Alderman Thomas Keane of the 318 Ward. Keane, who operated lucrative real-estate and insurance businesses, Was like Burke, the chairman of the Finance Committee and the mayor’s floor leader. In 1976, he went to prison because he had used his political influence to obtain more than 1,800 parcels of bargain land, which he resold at huge profits to government agencies. But even from his minimum-security prison cell in Kentucky, Keane still managed to run his ward (with his wife filling in as alderman) and help his young pupil. Martinez served as a Keane precinct captain in the 1970s. When he graduated from the De Paul College of Law in 1979, he went work for the Cook County Board (Tax) Appeals, then for Ed Burke’s li firm. But the real coup came in 1980 when Mayor Jane Byrne, trying to please both Keane and a growing Hispanic population in the 31st Ward, appointed Martinez to fill Keane’s old council seat. “Call me Jose,” the red-haired Puerto Rican native told reporters back then. But Latino activists complained that Martinez ad no history of community involvement outside his deeds of patronage. In 1983, Martinez opted not to run for another term, instead accepting a job with the city’s cable commission. Two years later, according to city records, Martinez left the city's cable commission and wound up on the payroll of Burke’s Finance Committee, where he earned about $1,000 a month. He lost the job in 1987 after Burke was ousted as chairman of that committee by Mayor Washington, but one day later he settled into a new position with the Land Acquisition Committee. He stayed there less than a year before jumping to the Traffic Committee, where he remained for four more years. During all those years, according to state records, Martinez worked for Klafter & Burke, which specializes in arguing for deductions in real-estate tax assessments.
The sweaty smell of a scandal first wafted toward Ed Burke’s office in April of 1995. That’s when Martinez, 51, mailed the city a check for $45,000 along with a two-page letter of apology saying he had accepted money he hadn’t earned. In October of that year, he sent another check for $25,000 in restitution, and in October of 1996, he sent one more for $21,000. He eventually pleaded guilty to one count of ghost payrolling and agreed to cooperate in the four-year-old investigation. All together, Martinez admitted that he collected $53,145 in pay and $37,352 in health insurance coverage — all for doing nothing.
How did he become a ghost in the first place? Martinez, according to his attorney, had been working for Ed Burke’s law firm, which, like a lot of other small firms, did not provide its employees with health insurance and other benefits. Burke offered Martinez the city jobs to enhance his compensation package, the attorney says. “He initially got into this in good faith,” says Richard Garmer, the attorney for Martinez. “He thought he was going to have to do some stuff. But he wanted his health insurance and other benefits, and this is the way Burke wanted to do it. It was like being put on retainer to handle anything that came his way. After a year or more when you’re getting money and you haven’t done anything, you know it’s a sham — you were never intended to do any work.”
Martinez, who continued working for Klafter & Burke through 1996, did not return phone calls. He awaits sentencing. Garmer, a mysterious man who had no office and no working phone for several weeks this winter, says he has instructed his client to shun the media. “He’s not Mother Teresa,” Garmer says of Martinez. “It’s not like I’ve got a client who’s feeding the poor.”
Over the course of the U.S. attorney’s investigation, this was not the first time an allegation had brushed close to Burke. In 1994, Marie D’Amico, the daughter of former alderman Anthony Laurino, pleaded guilty to ghost payrolling in the sheriff’s office, in the county clerk’s office, and on Burke’s Finance Committee. For Burke, she did one week of work but received $21,750 over two years. At one point, she tried to conceal the ghost job by saying she worked 30 to 35 hours a week driving around checking up on other city workers, but it turned out she didn’t know how to drive. “I don’t supervise the personnel,” Burke said at the time of D’Amico’s indictment. “Do you expect I should know where everybody is, all 75 or 80 people or whoever’s there?”
But even the alderman’s supporters find it hard to imagine he would not have noticed that Martinez, one of only five or six attorneys at his firm, was also on his payroll at the Finance Committee. Burke can probably contend that he assumed Martinez had been working for his paychecks, but that will not necessarily put him in the clear. In the past, the men and women who helped place ghosts in their jobs have been charged with defrauding taxpayers and violating ethics codes, among other things. Officials at the U.S. attorney’s office would not comment on whether Burke might face indictment.
Former U.S. attorney Anton Valukas, Burke’s lawyer, also declined to comment on the controversy. Valukas did suggest, however, that Martinez’s lawyer, Garmer, might lack credibility. For the first two months of 1997, according to state records, Garmer failed to register as an attorney in Illinois and therefore had no right to represent himself as a lawyer. He registered in March and blamed his delay on a death in the family. In 1988, the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed a determination by the Board of Law Examiners that he had not established “good moral character” to qualify for admission to the bar in that state. Garmer says he has suffered career setbacks because of an elevator accident, deaths in the family, and a history of vision problems, and he admits he has recently been living in a hotel and working out of a Kinko’s store. Garmer would not say how Martinez selected him for representation, except to note that he advertised in the Yellow Pages. But, he says, none of his own issues should compromise the truth of his client’s confession or the seriousness of the charges he raises against Burke. And he, for one, has no trouble explaining why a man as smart as Burke might make such a mistake.
“He has an intellect,” says Garmer, “But he’s not forthright. He thinks of himself as a god. He thinks there’s Ed Burke and then there’s everybody else.”
The Irish potato famine of the 1840s brought the first big wave of immigrants to the South Side’s Back of the Yards neighborhood, the sprawling, vile-smelling, vermin-infested area behind the world’s biggest cluster of slaughterhouses. The Irish, in part because they spoke better English than the other immigrant groups working in the stockyards, came to dominate political power in the area. In the early days of the ward’s history, politics and patronage were benevolent forces that helped make the American dream come true for thousands of immigrants, and it was often difficult to say where politics left off and patronage began. Local political organizations created an informal system of public aid that virtually guaranteed a job for anyone who worked hard to get out the vote and reelect the Democrats.
Joe Burke, who was born in 1912 and lived his whole life in the 14th Ward, had little formal education, but he was smart enough to figure out as a young man that certain unsalaried jobs such as precinct captain might pay quite well in their own way. In the 1940s and ’50s, the Machine was a powerful force in virtually every neighborhood in the city, and precinct captains were the small cogs that made the big wheels spin. Throughout the year, precinct captains would report on their constituents’ needs — a new garbage can, a bit of road repair, a fixed speeding ticket, a job on the city payroll for a recent high-school graduate — and see not only that those needs were met but that the alderman got the credit. The alderman gained loyalty of the constituents, and on Election Day he would prove his own fidelity to the mayor and other big wheels by ensuring that everyone in his ward voted. Sometimes, according to legend, aldermen and precinct captains rallied the electorate so effectively that vote totals exceeded the number of living registered voters.
Joe Burke, who had a homemaker wife and three boys, satisfied his bosses quite well, and they rewarded him with a string of government jobs: He began as a laborer in the water pipe division, then a spent ten years as a deputy sheriff, then became a personal bailiff to Judge Jim McDermott — a “pretty big slot for a young man,” his son Ed would later recall.
In 1953, Joe Burke became alderman, and his eldest son became something of an alderman in training. The senior Burke took Ed to political meetings, wakes, and weddings — events that blended business and pleasure for the gregarious, rough-around-the-edges alderman. His son not only learned the basics of political work but also met important players throughout the ward and the city. Wherever he went in the ward, strangers and slight acquaintances greeted him almost as if he were family, and Ed diligently memorized their names.
After Ed graduated from DePaul in 1965, he became a police officer, and his father saw to it that he was assigned to the state’s attorney’s office instead of a beat. While he worked full-time, Burke was also studying full-time at DePaul’s law school, where he finished his degree in three years. During the Vietnam War he sought a hardship deferment, claiming after his father’s death that he was the major source of support for his mother and two brothers. The draft board rejected his appeal, but Burke (through his father’s old connections, some say) won a spot in a nearby Army Reserve unit and once again stayed away from harm.
Even in his youth, Burke had more polish than his father. He used long, flowing sentences, dressed neatly, and socialized easily among sophisticates. He was a very serious, ambitious young man who attended Mass every day, his friends would say. Yes, he dated, and he played basketball with the rest of the young men in the neighborhood, but those activities always seemed to have been shoehorned into his schedule. “Throughout his life, he’s always been a workaholic,” says his youngest brother, Joe, a Chicago cop in the organized crime division. “Politics with my father was his idea of fun.”
While he was still an undergraduate, Burke attended a party at the Knights of Columbus hall at 55th and Halsted Streets. He was supposed to be introduced to a young woman: Anne McGlone, an employee of the Chicago Park District, who taught physical education for people with disabilities. She would go on in the next few years to help find the nation’s first Special Olympics, but at the time of the party, all that mattered was that she had no interest in meeting young Ed Burke.
“I didn’t like being set up, so I talked to Dan Moriarty [one of Ed’s friends] the whole evening, and I actually ended up giving him my phone number,” Anne recalls. “The next morning Ed called me. These guys share, I guess.”
Anne and Ed were married in May 1968, just weeks after Alderman Joe Burke, who had been a heavy smoker, died of cancer. At the wake, Ed who was 24, watched as men clustered around the funeral parlor, plotting how to divide the old man’s political empire. The scene so enraged the son, he would later say, that he decided to challenge the schemers. Calling in some of the favors owed his father and forging allegiances of his own, Burke was chosen by 14th Ward precinct captains to become the city’s youngest Democratic ward committeeman. With the authority to slate candidates and back them with the support of the Democratic Party, ward committeemen wielded more power than most aldermen. A year after Burke became committeeman, he chose himself to run for alderman and completed his climb to the 14th Ward throne.
“He probably would not have gone into politics if not for my father’s death,” says Joe Burke. “He probably would have been a [full-time] lawyer.” But on second thought, Joe says Ed did love politics, even as a child. And the tug of public service was felt so strongly in the hope that the third Burke brother, Dan, also went into politics. Today he is both an Illinois state representative (for which he earns $54,200 a year, plus $82 a day for every day spent in Springfield during the five-month legislative session) and deputy clerk’s office (for which he earned $66,865 last year). Dan declined to be interviewed.
“I remember [politics] being a lot of fun,” says Joe. “It was a different time, you might say. Everybody in the ward organization was like a family member. That was my father’s life. Members of his organization were his closest friends. He went to a lot of parties, a lot of affairs. I remember sitting in the living room and somebody would knock on the door, and it would be a precinct captain along with one of his people who couldn’t put food on the table and needed help. A few years ago the same thing happened to a man with several children, and it was Ed who helped.”
Watching the Chicago City Council in action today is a bit like watching professional wrestling: Despite the yelling and screaming, the action has been scripted and the outcome is rarely in doubt — the real business takes place behind the scenes. But even in this arena, the battle is far more sedate than it once was. Today, Burke wields enormous influence as the chairman of the Finance Committee, which controls most of the city’s important legislation. With the exception of Mayor Richard M. Daley, no one knows better how to manipulate the political system, simultaneously calling in favors and racking up new ones, and remembering where all the bones are buried. “The mayor is the 800-pound gorilla here,” says one City Hall insider, “but second to the mayor is Ed Burke.” Though Burke and Daley have endured a strained relationship ever since Daley triumphed in their 1980 race for state’s attorney, they cooperate these days more often than not.
The chairman of the Finance Committee, according to tradition, serves as floor leader of the City Council. But Burke, in his three-piece suits and his Rolex, with his round glasses and white hair, seems to have elevated himself to a level of even greater reverence. He knows precisely when to grab an alderman’s arm and whisper in his ear, when to rise from his seat and make a face-reddening exhortation. If a tribute is needed to honor a wounded cop, the microphone inevitably passes to Burke. When an explanation of a parliamentary rule of order is required, all eyes turn to Burke. When a complicated bond deal needs explaining, the job falls to Burke. He is perceived among his peers as both charming and arrogant, friendly and intimidating.
An example: When the council voted recently to extend health benefits to the partners of gay city workers, the results had been predetermined by Mayor Daley’s strong, publicly announced support. The vast majority of aldermen would obey the mayor, but the rowdy audience in the council chambers was under no such obligation. After a long, emotional debate, Burke, in a compelling performance, brought the discussion to a close. He began by telling his fellow aldermen he intended to be the last speaker. Then, in three swift strokes, he undercut each of the strongest arguments made in opposition to the measure. “I don’t think this is an endorsement of a lifestyle, he concluded. “It’s a question of justice, fairness, compassion, and understanding.”
There was a time not so many years ago, when Burke played a far different role in the City Council. Under Harold Washington, who served as the city’s first black mayor from 1983 until his death in 1987, Burke was a fiery rebel, a vicious rival who rarely skipped an opportunity to make Washington’s political life more hellish. Justice? Fairness? Compassion? Understanding? They were not on the agenda. Burke and his fellow alderman Edward Vrdolyak led the council’s white majority and used their 29 votes to stymie the mayor whenever possible. Washington’s supporters concluded that Vrdolyak was driven in the feud by his hunger for political power but that Burke was driven by racism. They sensed that Burke thought Washington was beneath him, perhaps because the mayor was often late and showed little interest in managing the small details of government.
“Vrdolyak dealt in power; Burke dealt in race, and sometimes in a mean-spirited way,” says Richard Barnett, a Washington supporter who continues to fight Burke over the issue of minority representation on the council. “And the black community perceived the difference between the two.” To this day, Barnett says, Burke knows he can never run for office outside his ward because black voters will defeat him if given the chance.
Anne Burke says her husband is often misunderstood. He is not a racist. He is not aloof. But she says the alderman is a private person, in spite of his very public life, and he doesn’t care anymore if people misunderstand. Judge Burke describes her husband as a deeply sensitive man who not only encouraged her to go back to school after their children were born but often stayed home and took care of the family while she studied. It was her husband, she says, who first suggested they try to take in a foster child when they learned about a baby who had undergone open-heart surgery and needed a home. She says Ed delights in knowing that many of the people in their neighborhood would never have met an African-American child if the Burkes hadn’t been raising a second foster child in their home for the past year.
Burke is an avid golfer and a student of history who reads four or five books a week, his wife says. His favorite subjects are Winston Churchill, General Custer, and the city of Chicago, though not necessarily in that order. Last year, he co-wrote Inside the Wigwam, a history of Chicago’s national Presidential conventions.
The Burkes have four children of their own, all in their 20s. The eldest, a daughter, is an attorney and the youngest is a junior in college. The two sons in the middle both work for the Cook County Forest Preserve Police Department. The entire family gathers for dinner every Sunday night at the Burke house, according to the judge. Those dinners are still interrupted by phone calls and visits from constituents seeking the alderman’s help, but not as often as in Joe Burke’s day.
Burke’s house stands out among its 14th Ward neighbors in the same way Burke has long stood out among his fellow aldermen: like a manicured thumb on a hand of callused fingers. Most of the homes in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood are small working-class bungalows packed together so tight you could barely squeeze a lawnmower between them. A few years ago, when the average sales price in the neighborhood was $69,800, Burke’s home was valued at $275,000. The ivy-colored brick house is two stories tall and surrounded by lush landscaping. His ward office is just a few blocks away at 2650 West 51st Street.
The neighborhood has changed immensely since Burke’s childhood. Mexican Americans, with a generation or two of hard work behind them, have begun buying the small homes that Irish immigrants might have bought 50 years ago. Papadelias and taquerias have opened where roast-beef sandwich shops operated before.
Burke has always kept a careful eye on the changing demographics of his ward. When the 1980 census showed that blacks and Latinos had become a majority in the 14th Ward, the City Council redesigned the ward boundaries and deleted about 13,000 residents, 84 percent of whom were black or Latino. White voters in the district went from a 48-percent minority to a 56.6-percent majority.
By 1990, however, black and Hispanic voters had inched their way into the new 14th Ward. The census that year showed that the black population had grown to 22 percent, and Hispanics now made up 41 percent of the district’s population. Once again, the Chicago City Council remade its ward maps in a purported effort to create more districts that would likely elect black and Hispanic aldermen. Civil rights lawyers now argue, however, that Burke — using the power of his Finances committee — designed the map to limit black and Hispanic voting power across the city. The changes made Chicago’s City Council more diverse than ever, but still not diverse enough to match the new racial makeup of the city, according to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court by black aldermen and Latino activists.
Maria Valdez, a lawyer for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, argued in court that Burke had intervened to see that new political boundaries maximized the white population in the 14th Ward. He succeeded in making the district about 63 percent white, Valdez argued, cutting the Hispanic population to about 35 percent and virtually wiping out the black population. Juan Andrade, Jr., president of the U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute, is one of the people fighting for more wards with Latino majorities. At the same time, he admits that Burke has done a good job representing his Latino constituents. “He’s got a very effective ward organization,” Andrade says. “There’s a lot of depth in the precinct leadership, and they canvass very thoroughly. In terms of wards that have significant Latino populations, it ranks among the highest in registered voters, and that’s largely because of him. It’s also one of those wards where there’s been no emergence of an alternative.”
Burke has hired Hispanic men and women to work in his ward office, and he, has even taken Spanish lessons, though he remains less than fluent. “I kind of crack up because he’s using the wrong words,” says one Latino elected official, “but at least he’s trying.” Burke is so strong in the community that since 1971 no one has dared run against him. “You don’t hear a lot of grumbling in the community about his leadership,” says Andrade. “Certainly you do hear a lot of grumbling about his role in the redistricting process and the astronomical and obscene amount of money that’s being spent in litigation.”
With that, Andrade touches on another difficult issue confronting Burke. At last count, the City Council Finance Committee had authorized the expenditure of more than $7.5 million in legal fees to defend the current map, and Burke himself controlled the payments. With the 2000 census approaching, it will soon be time to draw yet another set of boundaries, and critics complain that incumbent aldermen have used their team of high-priced lawyers to stall change and preserve the status quo. The Chicago Tribune, editorializing that the aldermen had “foisted a bad deal on Chicago,” said the city should settle the suit and draw a new map.
That hasn’t happened. The legal bill passed on to the taxpayers keeps rising — and the firm Burke himself selected to handle the case is Jenner & Block, whose chairman, Jerold S. Solovy, is one of Burke’s close friends. (Jenner & Block is Chicago magazine’s principal local law firm.) Burke, who specializes in property tax assessments, was recently named co-counsel with Jenner & Block on two multimillion-dollar cases, offering the prospect of a lucrative fee for Burke’s firm. News reporters went on to make more connections between Jenner and Burke, showing that the firm had hired Burke’s elder daughter; that Solovy had served as treasurer for Anne Burke in her unopposed campaign for Illinois Appellate Court justice; and that Jenner & Block had given her campaign more than $14,400 in services and money. After those allegations surfaced, Burke resigned the co-counsel assignments. Besides his daughter, however, he has one remaining tie to Jenner & Block: He has hired Jenner’s Anton Valukas to represent him in the federal ghost pay rolling investigation.
Solovy says the allegations against Burke are “preposterous” and that Burke has every right to pursue an active practice. Solovy says Burke was hired as co-counsel not by Jenner & Block but by the client in the case, JMB Realty Corporation, whose president, Neil Bluhm, has known Burke for years. As for Burkes daughter, Jennifer, Solovy says she got her job because she was smart and worked hard. And, he says, he supports Burke’s wife because she’s an excellent judge who cares for the disabled and disadvantaged. “Isn’t that the type of person you would want on the bench?”
All of that may be true, says Alderman Joe Moore, one of the few council members willing to publicly criticize Burke, but even if Burke has broken no laws he has created the impression that city government can be bought. “It’s my observation that his law practice could be helped a lot by the fact that he’s finance chair,” says Moore. “I don’t think that necessarily means there’s any expressed quid pro quo, but I don’t think it hurts his ability to attract business to his law firm. Rightly or wrongly, people think they’re going to have better luck dealing with the city if they hire Klafter & Burke.”
On Chicago’s social circuit, where the Burkes also travel, some of the allegations facing Burke seem difficult to fathom. Over and over, top business leaders and social figures who have befriended the Burkes return to the same theme; How could such a smart man get himself mixed up in such a mess? These friends dismiss the allegation that Burke’s city secretary worked from his private law office. As long as she did city work for city dollars, who cares? They see nothing wrong with the suggestion that Anne Burke would not have advanced so quickly to the Illinois Appellate Court if not for her husband’s clout. They similarly give little weight to the conflict-of-interest issues, asserting that anyone with wide-ranging business, social, and political connections is bound to get his various strings tangled from time to time. ‘The real befuddlement, however, comes with the question of how Burke could have allowed a lawyer from his own firm to collect more than $90,000 in salary and benefits from three different council committees without working for them.
“Ed Burke is a smart guy,” says Philip Corboy, one of the nation’s top personal injury attorneys and a friend of the Burkes’. “I just can’t imagine, as smart as I know he is, that he would do something that seems to be incongruous with his abilities. I just happen to think Ed’s too smart to have payrollitis. I’d be shocked.” Says Maureen Smith, a North Shore socialite who counts the Burkes among her close friends: “If there were any irregularities, I’m sure they were not irregularities in his mind. He’s too smart to do anything silly, and he always thinks about what he does. If he did anything, I’m sure he thought about it and decided.”
By many accounts, the alderman has been a very careful man. The Burkes, who have a home in Powers Lake, Wisconsin, in addition to their house in the 14th Ward, enjoy shopping at high-priced jewelry and antique auctions. But in order to avoid gossip about their wealth, according to some society figures, they have friends bid on their behalf. On the political front, one prosecutor recalls the time Burke’s name came up during an investigation of Oscar D’Angelo, a prominent Chicago attorney who had provided free rental cars to dozens of powerful city officials. Burke was the only person on a long list of power brokers who had insisted on paying full price for his cars. What’s more, he had an envelope full of receipts to prove it.
Anecdotal evidence such as this would seem to cast doubt on the suggestion offered by attorney Garmer that Burke had come to behave as a god who lived only according to his own rules. It also makes it more difficult to believe that greed alone, the desire to save himself a few thousand dollars a year in employee benefit expenses, would have motivated such a wealthy and powerful man. Neither theory can be ruled out entirely, but it seems much more likely that Burke’s trouble few from his long, multilayered history of political dispensation. Burke has lived his whole life with a careful eye on the deposits and withdrawals in his favor bank. When he dwelt among the working-class men and women of the 14th Ward, the favors were more or less confined there and involved mundane city services for loyal constituents. When he became chairman of the City Council Finance Committee and one of the top city power brokers, his dealmaking abilities expanded across City Hall and into much of the Chicago business community, and the value of his favors grew. Maybe Burke owed Martinez something from their brief time together on the City Council, or maybe Burke owed Tom Keane from back when favors were bought and sold much more casually. Or maybe Burke owed someone who owed Keane, who owed Martinez. These things can get complicated.
Says a society friend: “In some circles, Ed is seen as a nice guy who would just as soon hold the door open for you and give you an umbrella as he would give you a city contract. It’s the same to him.”
In that sense, maybe Burke’s ghost payroller really is a ghost of sorts — a haunting reminder that the age of political patronage, the age in which Burke was born and raised and made wealthy, is fast drawing to a close.
Chicago politics today is cleaner than ever, according to some of the people who study it. The Machine survives on life support where it survives at all. Since 1979, court rulings have made it far more difficult to hire and fire city employees based on clout, and many powerful aldermen no longer have loyal armies of workers to stir up the vote on Election Day. Even in the handful of wards where the old organization can still help a candidate, television ads can get into people’s homes far more effectively than precinct captains. There are thousands of people in the 14th Ward who don’t go to the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, who have never called on Ed Burke for a favor and probably never will. Burke may be as strong as ever, but with every passing year his old Machine, the Machine of his father, dies a little more.
“Ed-die! Ed-die!” the crowds along Western Avenue cheer, as if he were a triumphant sports hero. As Burke and his devotees march in the parade, there is the strange sense that all these men and women in green are trying to hang on to an echo, like partygoers who haven’t noticed that the band has packed its instruments. The crowd seems to yearn for the days when the neighborhood was really Irish and politicians were adored. When a ghost was nothing to be afraid of.
“We’re behind ya, Ed!” a teenager yells from the sidewalk. “You’re no crook!” Burke, still smiling and waving and making eye contact, marches on.