Former Ald. Ed Burke observes testimony about Chicago’s 14th Ward, which he represented for 54 years, during a federal trial on Nov. 17, 2023. (WTTW News)
Over the coming weeks, jurors seated in former Ald. Ed Burke’s racketeering and bribery trial will hear how he allegedly used his power at City Hall to force those doing business with the city to hire his private law firm.
Thanks to our sponsors:
View all sponsors
But before they do, they’ll learn more about how Chicago politics actually work.
Federal prosecutors called their first witness Friday afternoon in the longtime alderman’s landmark corruption trial — Constance Mixon, a professor of political science at Elmhurst University, who gave the jury a crash course in the city’s political system.
Most of the jurors — nine women and three men — are from the Chicago suburbs, with some hailing from as far away as Antioch, Plainfield and Geneva. Mixon, who has co-edited multiple versions of a book titled “21st Century Chicago,” gave jurors an overview she referred to as a “Schoolhouse Rock!” version of the City Council.
She explained how each of the city’s 50 wards elects a single alderperson in off-year, nonpartisan elections. Alderpeople typically earn six-figure salaries, Mixon said, but often hold separate jobs as well.
Mixon also spent time explaining to jurors how the council is structured, how proposals become ordinances, the role of committees and the various rules and procedures alderpeople must adhere to.
Alderpeople are essentially “mini mayors” in their individual wards, Mixon explained, and would typically have final say over developments in their ward through aldermanic prerogative.
Burke was the longest-serving alderperson in Chicago’s history, Mixon explained, adding that he’s been referred to as the “dean” of the City Council as well as its “unofficial parliamentarian.”
“He was a fixture in Chicago politics for 50 years,” Mixon testified. “As mayors came and went, Ald. Burke was the one constant on Chicago’s City Council.”
Burke faces 14 criminal charges, including racketeering, bribery and extortion. He is being tried alongside his former aide Peter Andrews and Portage Park businessman Charles Cui.
Prosecutors in their opening statements called Burke “a bribe-taker” and an “extortionist,” alleging he used his power as 14th Ward alderperson and Finance Committee chair to “line his own pockets,” as he attempted to force those doing business with the city to hire his private law firm.
However, Burke’s defense attorney Chris Gair argued that his client “never asked for anything from anyone in this case.”
“Not for money. Not for legal business. Not for anything. Never,” he said during his own opening statements, which spanned from Thursday afternoon into Friday morning. “There will not be one witness who tells you that.”
Gair painted Burke as a victim of overzealous FBI agents and prosecutors, as well as former Ald. Danny Solis, whom Gair called “Exhibit A” of people who are “corrupt and untruthful,” determined to save his own skin by any means necessary.
After Solis was confronted by federal agents probing him, he agreed to work as an informant and recorded numerous phone conversations between himself and Burke. Some of Burke’s turns of phrase recorded on those tapes immediately became an indelible part of Chicago’s long history of political corruption, and the jury is likely to hear Burke ask Solis, “So, did we, uh, land the tuna?”
Solis was directly involved with the most elaborate scheme Burke is charged with orchestrating, which involves the Old Post Office, the massive building that straddles the Eisenhower Expressway at the edge of the Loop.
Burke quickly identified the $800 million renovation of the Old Post Office, which needed an $18 million subsidy and a tax break worth $100 million from the city to move forward, as an opportunity to force the developer to hire his law firm, Chapman said. The building is in the 25th Ward, which Solis represented on the City Council for 25 years.
Gair argued it was former Mayor Rahm Emanuel that pushed the project through City Hall.
While cross-examining Mixon, Gair portrayed Emanuel, rather than his client, as the most influential person in Chicago politics during his term in office. Mixon agreed that the former mayor was a “force of nature” who presided over a “very compliant, rubber-stamp council.”
After Mixon’s testimony concluded, prosecutors called FBI Special Agent Ryan McDonald as their second witness late Friday. He said investigators had tapped seven phone lines as part of their investigation into Burke.
The trial, which has already been delayed by a week after an attorney tested positive for COVID-19, is expected to take six weeks.
Heather Cherone contributed to this report.