Simple extortion? Carried out on a cellphone? And it was Burger King? It would seem like it’s my Cook County political brethren’s turn to hang their head in shame. Machine bosses like Ed Burke don’t make these kinds of embarrassing mistakes!
C’mon! When the Feds butcher papered his Ward and City Hall office windows, I was willing to bet my bottom dollar they’d come up with something even juicier than Ed Vrdolyak playing loose and fast with all that tobacco settlement money.
But simple extortion – against Burger King – captured on a series of cellphone calls and emails? That’s even sloppier, and far more damning, than Blago’s infamous “it’s fuckin’ golden” reference. Either Chicago Alderman Burke is slipping, or his vast arrogance finally got the best of him.
And make no mistake, Ed Burke is the most arrogant man I’ve ever met, and I’ve met a lot of arrogant men.
Back when I still harbored hopes of breaking it big as columnist, former NPR host, Chris Robling, invited me down to the City Club for lunch to discuss my prospects. It was as we were leaving that a tall white-haired man wearing an impeccable charcoal gray pinstripe suit with a bright blue pocket square walked through the front door.
I immediately recognized the Alderman, who called Chris over to set up a meeting on an issue I’ve long since forgotten. When Chris kindly introduced me as “an up and coming suburban Sun-Times columnist,” Burke quickly sized me up, determined there was absolutely nothing I could do for him, and without saying a word to me, went right back to his conversation with Chris.
As the Alderman moved towards the elevator, I told him I was sorry that he and his wife lost the custody battle over his adopted daughter. Without skipping a beat, and barely acknowledging my presence, Burke said “It was our son” as he pushed the close door button and was gone.
Now, I’ve been dismissed by the best – former Kane County Chairman Karen McConnaughay and her royal flick of the wrist for example – but I’ve never been put in my all-too-obvious place quite like Ed Burke did that day.
I still laugh when I consider that encounter, but that’s Burke in a nutshell. If you could do something for him, you were golden, and if you couldn’t, you were gone! And I believe that vast arrogance finally caught up with him.
Given my longwinded propensities, I’m not going to go into all the indictment details when they’re already all over the Net. And I’m not going to put “alleged” in front of the term “attempted extortion,” either, because there’s absolutely no doubt as to what really happened.
When the Feds have you saying, “And, um, we were going to talk about the real estate tax representation and you were going to get somebody to get in touch with me so we can expedite your permits” on tape, there isn’t a whole lot left to the imagination.
And this is exactly how the FBI operates. Develop an airtight case on one count to use as leverage to get much more information. So, here’s what’s happening as we speak.
Facing 20 years in the pokey at the ripe old age of 75, those prosecutors will offer Burke a five-year deal if he sings like a canary. Burke will have to serve 80 percent, or four years of that sentence, but if he fully cooperates, he’ll be out in time to celebrate his 80th birthday.
All I can say is, I would avoid unnecessarily startling a number of very nervous Chicago politicians right now. Just ask Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
But what really gets me is Burke didn’t need to do this. Not counting the annual haul his law firm brings in, Burke and his Illinois Supreme Court Justice wife pull down almost a-half-a-million a year. The man is worth millions, he has a stranglehold over the Chicago City Council, and he’s second in Second City power only to Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
He’s skated on this kind of thing for 50 long years. So, why risk it all on the likes of one Burger King restaurant?
But he did, and now he’s going to jail.
This morning, I asked a savvy political friend why septuagenarian politicians like Burke and Mike Madigan hang on for dear life. Why don’t they simply walk away and enjoy their ill-gotten gains in peace? In turn, my friend asked me how many real friends – not just lackeys – do these Machine bosses really have. I answered perhaps two or three.
So, not only does the game become an addiction, but without that clout and political power, their lives are generally meaningless. That means they can’t let go, and after you’ve gotten away with it for as long as Burke has, the kind of inevitable entitlement mentality that makes you get sloppy takes over.
It’s a truly tragic ending for an almost mythical figure.