Federal prosecutors hinted Tuesday at the portrait of Chicago government they plan to paint for jurors in the upcoming corruption trial of ex-Ald. Edward M. Burke, having an expert describe City Council members to a judge as “mini-mayors” with a “hyper-local ward focus.”
Along the way, the extent of Burke’s power at City Hall emerged as a potential point of contention — with Burke’s lawyers suggesting his power fell short of an actual Chicago mayor.
Elmhurst University political science professor Constance Mixon agreed during a sneak preview of her potential trial testimony that Burke’s role as the Council’s finance chairman put him in a “powerful and influential position.” She said he’s often been described as the Council “dean,” and she noted he has a “deep history” of the city’s legislative body.
But Burke lawyer Chris Gair set out to undermine Mixon’s’ credentials during the hearing, questioning her about her “fair amount of punditry” on TV news. He even got Mixon to agree that former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, not Burke, was the city’s most powerful politician during Emanuel’s eight years in office.
“Would you agree with me that Rahm Emanuel is a force of nature?” Gair asked Mixon.
Mixon agreed with Gair, including when he asked whether she understood Emanuel to be “very aggressive” and “famously profane.”
“You’ve heard so from some of the sources you rely on, like the newspapers,” Gair quipped.
U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall held Tuesday’s hearing to determine whether Mixon should be allowed to testify during Burke’s trial, which is set to begin Monday. Prosecutors want Mixon to explain to jurors how the Chicago City Council works, as well as the role of its members and the concept of aldermanic privilege at the center of Burke’s case. It gives Council members unquestioned say over a broad range of decisions in their wards.
Many of the jurors in Burke’s case will likely hail from outlying areas, including outside of Cook County.
The feds tried to offer similar testimony earlier this year through Mixon’s colleague from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Dick Simpson, during the separate trial of four people convicted of conspiring to bribe former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.
Simpson’s testimony about the Chicago Machine was blocked by U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber out of concern that Simpson, a former City Council member, would emphasize the city’s history of corruption.
Prosecutors on Tuesday did not probe Mixon explicitly about the Chicago City Council’s corruption record. Instead, they argued Mixon’s testimony about government operations would be crucial to helping the jury understand the evidence in the case. Burke’s lawyers contend Mixon’s methods are unreliable and seem “to be based on reading the newspaper.”
Kendall said she would rule on Mixon’s testimony soon.
Burke is accused of using his clout and position on the City Council, including as chairman of the powerful Finance Committee, to steer business to his private law firm amid schemes that involved the Old Post Office, a Burger King at 41st Street and Pulaski Road, and a Binny’s Beverage Depot on the Northwest Side.
He is also accused of threatening to block a fee increase at the Field Museum because it didn’t respond when he recommended his goddaughter as an intern.
The schemes allegedly took place between 2016 and 2018, when Emanuel was mayor.
“There’s going to be many jurors that are not from the city of Chicago, may not even know what an alderman does,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Streicker said. And “even if the jurors are from Chicago,” they might not understand the inner workings of its government, she argued.
Streicker also responded to Gair’s questions about Emanuel by asking Mixon about Burke’s more than 50 years in office — a longevity that far exceeded Emanuel’s two terms.
If the judge admits Mixon as a witness, the prosecution would have the political science professor share a roughly 20-page slideshow that serves as a crash course in how the City Council operates. That presentation includes everything from a Chicago ward map, a list of the neighborhoods that Burke’s former ward encompassed, when elections take place, how ordinances move through the Council, the budgets of each of the Council’s committees and more.
A slide titled “Alderpersons are mini-mayors” is meant to explain the longstanding practice in which City Council members focus on hyper-local issues, such as garbage cart inventory or street permitting, in their wards.
“It means that alderpersons have a great deal of autonomy and authority, a lot of discretion over services and zoning within their own particular ward,” Mixon explained when asked to describe the slide.
Mixon would also characterize the influence and power Burke had in his role as finance chairman. Her slideshow includes a table detailing the budgets of each of the City Council’s committees in 2018 — with Burke’s Finance Committee at the time topping $2 million, and the second most expensive committee — the Council’s Budget Committee — receiving less than $550,000.
“Was Alderman Burke, as chairman of the Finance Committee of the City Council, in a powerful and influential position?” Streicker asked, also inquiring if Mixon knew he’s often been referred to as the dean of the City Council.
“Well, he’s been written about as dean quite a bit, and he has this long knowledge of Chicago City Council going over 50 years,” Mixon said. “It’s very clear that he knows the parliamentary procedure of Chicago City Council, he has a deep history of City Council, and it’s a term that many of us who study Chicago politics use to refer to Alderman Burke.”