Dozens of supporters hail convicted ex-Ald. Ed Burke as devoted public servant ahead of his sentencing

Dozens of supporters hail convicted ex-Ald. Ed Burke as devoted public servant ahead of his sentencing

A flood of letters made public this week reinforced what nearly everyone in Chicago already knows: Ed Burke was an extremely powerful man.

But in contrast to the sweeping corruption for which the ex-alderman was convicted last year, the supporters who wrote in hopes of a lenient sentence said, over and over, that Burke used his clout for good.

Among the dozens of letter-writers: high-profile names in local legal circles and law enforcement, Burke’s family members, a former defensive end for the Bears, and several local Catholic clergymen. A now-retired firefighter wrote that Burke pulled strings to make sure his severely disabled son would not be denied insurance coverage. The former principal of a Southwest Side elementary school said Burke helped the struggling school get two playgrounds, an electronic message board, and support for its pre-K program.

Burke, the longtime leader of the powerful City Council Finance Committee, is slated to be sentenced later this month after jurors found him guilty of scheming to use his considerable City Hall clout to try to win business for his private property tax law firm.

In their request for a 10-year prison sentence, prosecutors noted that Burke’s powerful well-wishers were “misguided,” and a lengthy prison term is necessary to stop him from “engaging in the same type of conduct in conjunction with public officials in the future.”

“It is apparent from the character letters received so far and the reaction to Burke’s prosecution that there are those who lurk in the bowels of City government and walk in its corridors of power who are still strong allies of Burke,” they wrote. “… “High-level public officials in this city and in this state like Burke need to receive a simple, undiluted, and unequivocal warning loud and clear: You will pay dearly—regardless of your age—if you choose the dark path of corruption that Burke decided to walk for many years.”

Burke’s attorneys, by contrast, have asked for an “alternative to incarceration” such as home confinement, noting his age and declining health.

Burke’s sentencing before U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall on June 24 will be closely watched in Illinois political circles. He’s the most powerful politician to face jail time here since former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert was given 15 months in 2016 for making hush money payments to cover up decades old sexual abuse of minors.

Dozens of letters were made public this week ahead of Burke’s sentencing, including one from former Bears player Richard Dent, a Hall of Famer who described Burke as a “great friend and adviser” who helped minority-owned businesses in the city.

Several letters came from the clergy; Burke is a devout Catholic. His lawyers might be hoping that letters from local church leadership carry weight with Kendall, who serves on the Board of Governors for the Catholic Lawyers Guild of Chicago.

“He has been, I maintain, as much a pastor as a politician,” wrote Father Clete Kiley, a special adviser to Cardinal Blase Cupich. “I hope people will take off the political lens which seems to impose itself on so much today, and certainly in our media accounts, and see this man for who is and all he has done for others across his lifetime.”

Many former Chicago police top brass – including former superintendents Garry McCarthy and Phil Cline – wrote to support the ex-alderman, who is himself a former cop. The ex-alderman helped make sure that officers injured in the line of duty got the benefits to which they were entitled, wrote Cline, noting that he “was always responsive to our inquiries, and recognized the sacrifices made by Chicago’s finest.”

Then-Chicago mayoral candidate Garry McCarthy campaigns at the Roden Branch of the Chicago Public Library on Feb. 24, 2019. The former police former superintendent wrote in support of Burke. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune)

Richard Simon, a well-connected former police officer with a controversial past, wrote that Burke would quietly pick up the check for officers who came into restaurants where Burke was dining. “Ed would talk to the officers like they were old friends and made them feel like the most important people in the room because to Ed, they were,” he wrote.

Another letter came from Officer Carlos Yanez Jr., who was critically injured in the same 2021 shooting that killed Officer Ella French. Burke reached out to his father and offered guidance in the aftermath of the shooting, Yanez wrote. “For that I am grateful, for my family this was such an uncertain and chaotic time.”

Letters also came from judges – including some who landed their spot on the bench with the help of the Burkes, by way of Burke’s role as the Democratic point man on endorsements for local judges or Anne Burke’s appointments while she served on the Supreme Court.

Christopher Lawler, who met the alderman when first appointed to the bench by his wife 11 years ago, asked Kendall to “consider his half-century of public service and his charitable works and good deeds and show him the mercy of the court which I believe he deserves.”

Daniel Pierce said he would “make no apologies” for asking for Burke’s assistance in appointments to the circuit and appellate court, and asked Kendall to consider Burke’s age as well as his “remarkable history and commitment to doing the right thing.”

Kerry Peck, a past president of the Chicago Bar Association, noted that Burke has been dealing with significant health problems, including a battle with prostate cancer and psychological issues since his indictment.

Peck said Burke’s life “has crumbled as a result of these proceedings” and asked Kendall to show mercy on a man who put his family, religion and community first. Peck said he “observed the Ed Burke not seen by newspaper reporters.”

Jurors convicted Burke of corruption schemes including efforts to woo the New York-based developers of the massive renovation of the Old Post Office, extorting the Texas owners of a Burger King who were seeking to renovate a restaurant in Burke’s 14th Ward, and intervening on behalf of Charles Cui, a developer in Portage Park who wanted help getting a pole sign approved for a new Binny’s Beverage Depot location.

Burke was also found guilty of attempted extortion for threatening to hold up a fee increase for the Field Museum because he was angry the museum had ignored an internship application from his goddaughter. The jury acquitted Burke on one count of conspiracy to commit extortion related to the Burger King project.

Also convicted was Cui, whose sentencing is set for next month.

Meanwhile, the jury acquitted Burke’s longtime 14th Ward aide, Peter Andrews, of all counts alleging he helped Burke pressure the Burger King owners into hiring Burke’s law firm by shutting down their restaurant renovation.

Several letters in support of Burke were also made public last month, including one from former mayoral candidate Paul Vallas, who wrote Burke’s “professional impact on Chicago is a great legacy.”

While Burke stood out among his aldermanic colleagues during his 54 years on the council, he now stands alongside dozens of them as another corrupt former alderman facing sentencing.

Burke is eligible to collect nearly $50,000 in pension this year — half of his $99,200 annual rate— because pensions aren’t cut off for City Hall officials convicted of corruption until they are sentenced.

Days after his late December conviction, Burke received his annual 3% pension bump right on schedule when the calendar turned to 2024.

But Burke is eligible for a refund of the money he personally paid into his pension over his 54 years on the City Council.

Burke stands to be refunded about $540,000 even if city pension officials rule him ineligible to receive more monthly pension payments.

His wife, the retired former Supreme Court justice who watched her husband’s trial from a front-row seat in the federal courtroom, receives an annual state pension of more than $226,000.

Burke became alderman following the death of his father, who long held the 14th Ward position, and rose to power in the era of Mayor Richard J. Daley, the patronage king who perfected the vaunted Democratic machine.

Burke earned infamy in the 1980s for trying to thwart virtually every major move of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first Black mayor, during the volatile “Council Wars.” Gathering immense power, he paved the way for his wife to become chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, ran the council’s Finance Committee like his own personal fiefdom and oversaw a law firm that constantly put him into ethically questionable positions.

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