By Aamer Madhani
CHICAGO – Over the last four decades, federal prosecutors have racked up more than 1,700 corruption convictions of elected officials, government employees and contractors, a whopping toll of graft and malfeasance that’s left longtime Chicagoans accustomed to the sight of public servants taking perp walks on the evening news.
Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, ex-Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and disgraced public schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett are among the many who in recent years have done or are still doing time in the federal penitentiary for using their office to enrich themselves.
More than 30 Chicago aldermen – members of the City Council – have been convicted of political corruption since 1973. Another, Willie Cochran, heads to trial in June to answer charges of wire fraud, bribery, and extortion. Federal authorities say the retired police officer solicited a bribe from a local business owner and made off with $30,000 he collected to help people in his ward.
But the latest political scandal unveiled by federal prosecutors this month has shocked even hardened veterans of Chicago’s political scene – and cast a shadow over next month’s mayoral election.
Authorities say Democratic Alderman Ed Burke, a 50-year veteran of the City Council and chairman of its powerful finance committee, tried to shake down officials of a company that operates dozens of Burger King franchises in Illinois.
The 14-candidate mayoral race already was shaping up to the city’s most competitive in decades. In the weeks since charges of attempted extortion against Burke were unsealed Jan. 3, political corruption has become the dominant topic in the campaign.
“Chicago is still America’s most corrupt city,” said former Alderman Dick Simpson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Simpson co-authored a study last year that showed Chicago had tallied more convictions for political corruption than any other U.S. city between 1976 and 2016.
“There is still a patronage problem left over,” Simpson told USA TODAY. “The bold corruption isn’t as rampant as it once was. But as we saw in Alderman Burke’s criminal charge, the old-style politics of shaking down businessmen for illegal bribes or campaign contributions still continues.”
Burke, who is running for re-election to the City Council next month, said he’s “not guilty of anything.”
“I have not done anything wrong,” Burke said. “And I’m sure that once it gets to court it will be clear.”
The nation’s third-largest city abounds with thorny challenges: Persistent gun violence terrorizes pockets of the city, taxpayers face $27 billion in unfunded pension obligationsfor city workers, and an ongoing exodus of residents from Chicago complicates nearly all facets of governing.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has served as Chicago’s mayor for nearly eight years, announced in September that he would not seek a third term.
Now, the city’s long-simmering problem with corruption has moved to the forefront.
The four top-funded candidates to succeed him – Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza, former Chicago Board of Education President Gery Chico and former U.S. Commerce Secretary Bill Daley – have all found themselves under scrutiny for longstanding ties to Burke.
Preckwinkle, who was endorsed by the powerful Chicago Teachers Union, says she has returned $116,000 in political donations she collected at a fundraiser at Burke’s home last year.
She’s also faced questions about why her administration hired Burke’s son, Edward Burke Jr., in 2014 to serve as the training and exercise manager for the Cook County Homeland Security and Emergency Management Department. The younger Burke left the job last year.
Mendoza was married at Burke’s home in a ceremony officiated by the alderman’s wife, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke.
When Mendoza announced she was running for city clerk in 2010, she called Ed Burke her “true champion,” and told supporters the alderman was “primarily the reason why I stand before you today.”
Burke endorsed Chico, who worked as an aide to the alderman 30 years ago and in recent years partnered in a law firm that has earned millions lobbying at City Hall on behalf of Cisco Systems, Exelon Generation and Clear Channel and other companies.
Burke said “there’s probably nobody more qualified” in the mayoral race than Chico.
Daley, commerce secretary under Bill Clinton and chief of staff to Barack Obama, is the son and brother of Chicago’s two most famous mayors – Richard J. and Richard M. Daley.
Burke has given the Daley family at least $30,000 in political contributions over the years, according to the Chicago Tribune. But the Daleys and Burke have also been rivals: Richard M. Daley beat Burke in the 1980 race for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office.
Former Obama strategist David Axelrod, director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago, said the Burke case “already has had an impact in that there is more focus on ethics than there has been in previous elections.”
“Elections are often turned by things you never anticipate,” he told USA TODAY. “This certainly fits that.”
The four candidates with ties to Burke are working mightily now to distance themselves. Some are trying to use the moment to tout ethics reform plans they say will purge city from the pay-to-play and kickback schemes that have bedeviled the political scene.
Preckwinkle has called on Burke to resign from City Council. She has proposed prohibiting council members from holding outside employment.
Bill Daley has also called for banning outside employment, shrinking the size of the council from 50 to 15 and imposing term limits.
Chico has also backed term limits and called for a ban on most outside income for aldermen.
He also wants to do away with aldermanic prerogative – the Chicago practice, dating back to the 1930s, that gives council members wide latitude over permits, zoning changes and parking and liquor licenses within their wards.
“The time has come to end this old-school practice,” Chico said. “No one deserves this much power.”
Daley says any politician who has been active in Chicago over the last half-century has inevitably had contact with Burke. Still, he said, his three rivals’ ties to Burke should be more concerning to voters than his own.
He said he’s had an “arms-length political relationship with Burke.
“You have to get along for political reasons,” Daley told USA TODAY. “The others have business, and really strong personal or political (ties) with Burke.
I have yet to have someone do a fundraiser of $110,000. … That is a big fundraiser. Getting married in someone’s home is more than just showing up at a political event. Having your law business be very focused on City Hall – where Ed Burke is a force – is a different thing than engaging him around politics every four years when there is a campaign.”
Preckwinkle has also tried to play down her connections to Burke while spotlighting her rival’s connection to the powerful alderman.
“I won’t have my name dragged through the mud over the alleged criminal conduct of Susana Mendoza’s mentor, Gery Chico’s best friend and Bill Daley’s long-time political ally,” she said in a statement.
Mendoza has attempted to turn the spotlight on her rivals without addressing her own connections to Burke.
In a statement to USA TODAY, she said there is a “stark contrast to Bill Daley, who won’t release his tax returns and has chosen instead to hide his conflicts of interest, Toni Preckwinkle, who has a history of lying until she gets caught, and Gery Chico, who spent years lobbying Ed Burke at City Hall and is Ed Burke’s endorsed candidate in this race.”
Some candidates untouched by the Burke scandal question whether any candidate who has long been part of Chicago’s political establishment has the will or ability to bring meaningful change.
Former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot, ex-chairwoman of a city police accountability task force, began pushing ethics reform as key to solving other issues soon after she announced her candidacy last year.
She says voters should question the credibility of candidates who waited until the Burke charges landed to talk about corruption.
“If we’re going to truly have a new day in city government where we put people first, then we have to start attacking the elephant in the room,” Lightfoot said. “In some ways, we’re rotting from the inside out. We’re losing population, we’re losing our tax base, and the gap between the haves and have-nots continues to grow. I think there is a moral imperative to do something about it.”
Amara Enyia, a community organizer and municipal consultant running for mayor, said the Burke scandal seems to be spurring voters to consider how corruption connects to the other ails of a cash-strapped city that has seen the closure of dozens of schools in African-American neighborhoods, the shuttering of mental health clinics and disproportionate levels of poverty in black and Latino neighborhoods.
“Voters don’t want business as usual,” Enyia said. “They want someone who does not carry the baggage of corruption.
Burke, who was forced to give up his role as chairman of the finance committee after he was charged, has faced a federal investigation before.
In February 2012, a federal grand jury subpoenaed finance committee records related to the city’s workers compensation program.
Burke denied wrongdoing and vowed to cooperate with authorities. No charges were brought.
In the alleged Burger King shakedown, Burke first applied a light touch on operators of Tri City Foods Inc., the second-largest franchisee of Burger King restaurants with stores in six Midwest states.
Federal prosecutors say in court papers that Burke told the company’s owner that he had been holding up permits to renovate one of its Burger King restaurants in his wardbecause constituents expressed concerns about trucks parking there overnight.
Prosecutors say the company promised to address the matter.
Prosecutors say Burke told owner Shoukat Dhanani and another Tri City official that he was a partner in a law firm that works with clients on property tax appeals.
Dhanani told the FBI that he “read between the lines” that Burke was suggesting he’d smooth the permits in exchange for their business, prosecutors say. Dhanani said he told Burke that his company already had legal representation.
Less than two weeks later, prosecutors say, another official with the restaurant group called to give Burke an update on steps they had taken to address concerns about the trucks parking at the restaurant.
This time, prosecutors say, Burke was more direct.
“Good,” Burke said, in a conversation the FBI says was wiretapped. “And, um, we were going to talk about the real estate tax representation and you were going to have somebody get in touch with me so we can expedite your permits.”
Dhanani and others working for the restaurant group said Burke pressed them to give his law firm their business, prosecutors say. The FBI surveillance also picked up talk from the alderman that suggested he wanted the company as a client, they say.
Burke slow-walked the permitting process for months, prosecutors say, causing the Burger King franchise to lose 40 to 50 percent in sales because it couldn’t open an unfinished dining room to customers.
Dhanani told the FBI he eventually relented and informed Burke his company would hire his law firm, prosecutors say, but he never followed through.
Dhanani also told the FBI that he made a $10,000 political donation to Preckwinkle at the urging of Burke, prosecutors say.
Preckwinkle said her campaign returned the contribution to the donor because it exceeded the $5,600 contribution limit for individual contributions.
Former federal prosecutor Patrick Cotter, a white-collar defense attorney in Chicago, said an alarming number of city politicians have been caught committing graft and stealing taxpayer money.
Still, he said, it’s important to keep in perspective that Chicago is hardly alone in having to deal with political corruption.
Federal prosecutors in Los Angeles tallied more than 1,500 convictions for public corruption between 1976 and 2016, according to Simpson’s study. Federal prosecutors in New York counted more than 1,300 convictions during those years.
“The problems here are not because every once in a while an alderman gets caught doing something crooked,” Cotter said. “It is a bad thing, and it’s important to prosecute. But it’s not why the schools are not good. It’s not why we have a homeless issue in this city that’s insane. It’s not why we have the pension problem that is going to make life hard for every Chicagoan’s kids and their grandkids.
“There are basic structural problems in this city, and solving corruption alone is not going to bring an end to these big issues.”