Editor's note: This article was updated and revised on Friday Jan. 4, to reflect Ald. Burke's resignation as Chicago City Council Finance Committee Chairman; to include Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle's call for Burke to resign as alderman; and to include comments from a spokesman for the Illinois ARDC.
One of the most powerful political figures in Chicago history stood before a federal judge Thursday, hours after federal prosecutors unsealed their indictment against Ald. Ed Burke.
Burke stands accused of attempting to use his position, as an alderman and political boss, to extort business from the company that owns hundreds of fast food restaurants, including dozens in the Chicago area.
At the center of the accusation, however, stands Burke’s law firm, Klafter & Burke, and the huge business the firm has developed through the decades in representing business people and others, seeking to use the firm, with its politically-influential and deeply connected head, to win reductions in their property tax bills.
Alderman Ed Burke
According to the indictment released Thursday afternoon, Burke is accused of attempting to use his aldermanic office and political power to hold up the permits needed by the fast food franchisee to renovate their restaurant, located in Burke’s 14th Ward.
While the indictment does not identify the restaurant or the company in question, other published reports indicate the restaurant was a Burger King at 4060 S. Pulaski Road. The restaurant stands at another pivotal moment in Chicago history, as it is located near where Chicago Police officers gunned down Laquan McDonald in 2014, leading to ongoing political fallout and a Chicago Police officer’s conviction for murder.
According to the indictment, the company that owns the restaurant – identified as “Company A” – was seeking Chicago city permits to renovate the restaurant. When they contacted Burke’s office for assistance, prosecutors allege Burke personally spoke with executives from Company A and allegedly offered them their permits in exchange for them bringing their business to his law firm.
The indictment says that Burke did not just seek their business for the one restaurant, but for all of the fast food franchises they operate in Cook County.
It further alleges the company executives either did not initially fully understand what was being asked of them, or were resistant to agree to the deal.
At that point, the indictment alleges, Burke used his office to hold up a driveway permit the restaurant needed for its drive-thru, and to shut down construction work until the Company A executives agreed to his alleged demands.
According to the indictment, Company A never hired Burke’s firm.
Additionally, the indictment asserts, Burke also secured a $10,000 political donation from Company A, which the indictment asserts was requested on behalf of another unidentified politician. Other published reports assert that other politician was Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who also serves as chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party and is running for mayor of Chicago.
Burke was released on $10,000 bond, and was ordered to surrender his passport. He was forbidden from travelling outside northern Illinois, except to visit a lake house he owns in Wisconsin.
After the hearing, his attorney, Charles Sklarsky, of the firm of Jenner & Block, told reporters outside the Dirksen Federal Building that Burke denied the allegations and looked forward to his day in court.
The indictment threatens to end Burke’s five-decade-long reign at the top of the Chicago Democratic political machine. Burke has served for decades as chairman of the Chicago City Council Finance Committee, a spot that, combined with his purported extensive knowledge of city rules, gives him the ability to effectively control the Council. On Friday, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office announced Burke had stepped down as Finance chairman.
Others allege Burke uses his position to also sidestep rules that should otherwise apply, such as federal court supervision of city hires. In a lawsuit filed in 2018, for instance, a former city employee and a citizen activist accused Burke of unconstitutionally running the city’s workers' compensation division and using the office to further boost his political patronage “army.”
In addition to his official city office, Burke also heads the 14th Ward Democratic Organization and the Burnham Committee, which annually rakes in vast sums of political donations.
Burke is married to Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne M. Burke.
Already, however, Democratic Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza, a longtime ally of Burke’s and another candidate for Chicago mayor, has publicly called for Burke to step down, or be removed. Preckwinkle also added her name to the list of those calling on Burke to resign his seat on the City Council.
The indictment, however, also could have consequences for Burke’s law firm.
For decades, the firm has built its business on representing those seeking to reduce their property tax liability by appealing the assessments issued by the Cook County Assessor’s office.
According to online records from the Cook County Board of Review, a three-commissioner panel tasked with reviewing those appeals, attorneys with Burke’s law firm have handled tens of thousands of such appeals just in the last five years.
Attorneys working for Burke’s firm have included Kelly Keeling, which the Board of Review site indicates has represented property owners in at least 12,500 appeals since 2013; James Dooley, who left the Burke firm in 2017, and represented at least 3,200 such appeals since 2013; Christopher Caira, who the CCBOR website indicates also has represented at least 3,200 appeals since 2013; and Jennifer Burke, who left the Illinois Pollution Control Board in 2017 to join the firm. The CCBOR website indicates she has represented property owners in at least 850 appeals.
While the CCBOR reports handling around 400,000 appeals each year, only about 15 percent of those appeals annually comes from commercial landowners.
The CCBOR records indicate Burke’s firm handles primarily commercial appeals, representing a range of commercial property owners in the city and suburbs, including the owners of apartment buildings, high rise towers, factories, restaurants, bank buildings, utility facilities and shopping centers, among many others.
Burke’s firm, however, is far from the only law firm with deep Illinois and Chicago political connections at work in the property tax appeal business. Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and his firm, Madigan & Getzendanner, reportedly earned close to $10 million in tax reductions for clients from 2013-2014, according to an analysis from the Illinois News Network.
Illinois state Senate President John Cullerton also is a member of a large law firm involved in property tax appeals.
What the consequences of the Burke indictment may be for his law firm and his law practice, however, remain unclear.
A spokesman for the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, the state body tasked with handling investigations and hearing disciplinary complaints against lawyers in Illinois, said the ARDC typically waits until after criminal proceedings are completed before initiating discipinary actions against a lawyer.
The spokesman said lawyers are required to report any felony or misdemeanor convictions to the ARDC within 30 days of the conviction.
However, the ARDC is not required to wait for a formal complaint against an attorney to be filed to initiate an investigation or disciplinary action.
The spokesman said all attorney investigations remain confidential, until the ARDC brings disciplinary charges against a lawyer and holds hearings. The spokesman declined to say whether any investigation had been initiated against Burke. He also declined to comment on Burke's case, specifically.
However, he said an Illinois Supreme Court rule allows the ARDC to initiate proceedings against lawyers whose conduct "reflects adversely" on their "honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer."
Members of the CCBOR did not respond to queries from the Cook County Record.
However, a representative of the CCBOR, Chief Deputy Commissioner William O'Shields, in a prepared statement, said the Board was "unaware of any allegations regarding the presentation of valuation evidence to us or involving our jurisdiction."
"Consistent with the Board of Review’s past practices and procedures, any and all assessment complaints, including those represented by Klafter and Burke, are adjudicated based upon the valuation evidence presented as well as available market data," the statement said, adding: "... As part of our duties as a quasi-judicial tribunal, we will remain appropriately skeptical of all evidence presented and will continue to reasonably verify all evidence presented."