Get more in-depth, daily coverage of Chicago politics at The Daily Line.
CITY HALL — FBI agents descended on the offices of the most powerful and longest-serving alderman in Chicago history Thursday, papering over the windows of Ald. Ed Burke’s City Hall and 14th Ward offices as they searched for hours.
The covered-up windows were the first indication that Burke, elected to the City Council a record 13 times and a candidate for a 14th term, was the target of a previously secret investigation by federal law enforcement officers.
As reporters gathered outside Burke’s City Hall office, an unfamiliar and unidentified woman emerged after 10 a.m. Asked who put the paper up, she said, “The FBI.”
It was not until nearly 2 p.m. that FBI spokeswoman Special Agent Janice Wheeler acknowledged the raids, which began before dawn and came with no notice to Burke.
“Our agents are executing search warrants at multiple locations today,” Wheeler said. “We have no further comment.”
It was unclear what agents were looking for at Burke’s offices, or what aspect of Burke’s 50 years in office the investigation was focused on. Burke’s office on 51st Street is split, and also houses his campaign and democratic ward committeeman operations.
Burke responded to the raid in a statement hand-delivered and emailed to reporters.
“As you are aware, there have previously been several other investigations such as this. In every instance we cooperated fully,” the 74-year-old alderman said. “And in every instance nothing has been found. So once again we will be cooperating fully and I am completely confident that at the end of the day nothing will be found amiss in this instance either.”
The office of Education Chair Ald. Howard Brookins (21st) is next to Burke’s office.
“That was like that when my staff got there at nine,” Brookins told a scrum of reporters in front of the papered over window. “I don’t care to speculate about anything and I wish Ald. Burke the best. He’s been a great friend and a mentor in leading me in the right direction with respect to legislation and other things.”
“I just wish him the best. …I pray that he will be alright,” he said. “I listen to the news and read the papers and I thought that they didn’t do anything that close to an election. It’s shocking to me as to how or why something like this would happen some 90 days before an election.”
Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) reminded reporters that Burke was “innocent until proven guilty.”
Raid reverberates in mayoral, aldermanic races
In October, Burke endorsed former aide Gery Chico in the race to replace Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
“Having Ald. Burke’s support is very important to our campaign. He’s the longest-sitting alderman who has contributed much over the decades to the city,” Chico said at the time.
Kelley Quinn, a spokeswoman for Chico, said his campaign was “monitoring the situation” but did not have any information about the investigation that prompted the raid.
“We can’t comment because we don’t know what is going on,” Quinn said.
Mayoral candidate Comptroller Susana Mendoza, who worked with the powerful finance committee chairman while she served as city clerk, has also touted her relationship with Burke, referring to him as a mentor on her website.
That page was “inadvertently” taken down Thursday by an unauthorized staffer, according to a source close to the Mendoza campaign. The page was restored within an hour, according to the Mendoza campaign.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s spokeswoman declined to comment on the raids.
Mayoral candidate Lori Lightfoot, who has been critical of Burke and clashed with him during her time at the Police Board, called the raids a “very serious matter.” In a campaign statement, she said Thursday’s events were “a stark reminder that we need to break from the old political machine.”
Lightfoot is a former federal prosecutor who worked on Silver Shovel, the federal probe that ensnared several aldermen in the 1990s.
Executing a search warrant so close to an election would have needed approval from the top officials of the U.S. Department of Justice, she told The Daily Line.
“There’s no way that the U.S. Attorney’s Office, main Justice is not cognizant of the fact that they are executing a search warrant on a sitting alderman and an election is months away,” Lightfoot said.
“All investigations originate somewhere,” Lightfoot said. “So this isn’t like drug cases where they’ve got [confidential informants] out there. That’s not how public corruption cases are handled. In my experience in dealing with these kinds of cases, it’s somebody who is a victim or who themselves is in the crosshairs and says, ‘Let me tell you about x, y and z.’ They don’t just happen organically.”
Three candidates hoping to cap Burke’s reign at City Hall at 50 years pounced, with Jose Torrez and Jamie Guzman speaking to reporters camped outside Burke’s 14th Ward office.
Guzman said he did not need to know what investigators were looking for.
“Yet another reason new leadership is needed in the 14th,” Guzman said. “We’ll wait for the facts, but federal investigations don’t happen by accident.”
In a release, candidate Tanya Patino called the raid “shocking” and listed some of the possible causes of the investigation, including Burke’s representation of the Trump Organization, which appealed the Cook County Assessor’s property tax valuation.
“It could also be an investigation of the $100 million dollar workers’ compensation fund that he controls as chairman of the City Council Finance Committee,” Patino said. “It could be his blatant disregard for campaign electioneering laws or a myriad of other disgraceful and unethical behavior that he has displayed during his 50 years in office.”
Fallout stretches to Springfield
Burke’s wife, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke, was scheduled to be sworn in for her second full term on the state’s high court in Chicago on Thursday afternoon. A woman at the Illinois Supreme Court’s communications office told The Daily Line Thursday morning that the ceremony was to be in the Bilandic Building in Chicago.
However, the ceremony ended up taking place earlier in the morning. Reporters confirmed from Bilandic Building security guards that they had been informed the event was cancelled. When asked what time Burke was sworn in and if Ald. Burke had been present, Illinois Supreme Court spokesman Chris Bonjean did not directly answer.
“Justice Burke was sworn-in earlier today in her chambers with family and colleagues,” he said in an email. “The news regarding Ald. Burke has nothing to do with the Judicial Branch.”
Meanwhile down in Springfield, Burke’s brother, state Rep. Dan Burke (D-Chicago) found out about the raid from a Democratic colleague while sitting on the House floor for the final hours of the fall Veto Session. The Daily Line caught up with him in the hall behind the chamber shortly after Burke was informed and after an initial phone call Burke took.
He said he didn’t “have a clue” as to why his brother’s office was being raided, and when asked if any federal investigators had been in touch with him prior to the raid, he said “certainly not.” But, he said he and Ald. Burke are close.
“We’re brothers,” he said. “My older brother. Just cooked the turkey for Thanksgiving.”
With that, Burke’s phone rang and he walked away.
A little while later, Burke was spotted speaking on the phone while smoking a cigarette outside of the Capitol’s East entrance doors. When a House staffer came out to inform Burke that House Speaker Mike Madigan (D-Chicago) was on the floor and would soon adjourn session, Burke lingered a while longer, speaking with State Rep. Bob Rita (D-Blue Island) and then State Rep. Melissa Conyears-Ervin (D-Chicago), who is married to Ald. Burke ally Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) and is running for city treasurer.
The Daily Line again caught up with Burke as he was heading inside, and asked if he had yet heard what the raid was regarding.
“[It’s] all news to me,” he said. “Very shocking to have this occur on my last day in the legislature. I have not heard anything.”
Burke then slipped into a locked door and never reappeared on the House floor.
Burke was defeated in his March primary race by progressive 26-year-old high school counselor Aaron Ortiz, who will take over the 1st District seat in early January. Ortiz is part of the greater progressive wave, driven by Cook County Commissioner and Congressman Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, that is also seeking to defeat Ald. Burke.
Retiring House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago) mentioned the absent “Danny Burke” later while honoring outgoing members before session was adjourned until January.
At a news conference in Springfield Thursday afternoon, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner called the raids “long overdue.”
“There are elected officials in our General Assembly and in the City Council of Chicago who are part of a very broken, very self-dealing system,” Rauner said.
But when asked if he knew something specific about Burke or had spoken with federal authorities about others he hinted at being ripe for investigation, Rauner just repeated that the raids were “long overdue.”
A former assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois who asked not to be named said federal agents would not make a raid on a government office without significant probable cause. While it doesn’t mean there’s a charge, a case, or a crime, law enforcement would not search a government office “without their ducks in a row”
“No U.S. Attorney’s office anywhere in the country is going to search a local politician’s work office unless their probable cause is sealed tight, and that’s certainly the case in Chicago,” the former assistant U.S. Attorney said, describing Thursday as “certainly noteworthy” in Chicago political lore.
While federal law enforcement officials typically do not not act in the weeks leading up to an election, Chicago’s is still nearly three months away.
“No one would say that’s too close to the election to not do this,” the former assistant U.S. Attorney said.
Burke’s ward and City Hall offices were both raided, but a receptionist at Burke’s private law firm Klafter & Burke said the firm was operating as usual and offered to take a message for the alderman.
“If it pertains to his legal work and tax work he’s done for the various buildings, then his law office certainly would have been raided,” the former assistant U.S. Attorney said. “The fact that just City Hall offices were searched and presumably items taken away seems to indicate this is a classic political corruption investigation.”
Suspicions could have arisen from a whistleblower, “another case where somebody flipped, a companion case where no one flipped” but where investigators found reason to search Burke, or a referral from another agency. “The feds don’t just wake up and say, ‘Okay we’re going to raid Burke.’”
Exactly what federal agents were looking for will remain a sealed document “until and unless there’s a charge that makes that warrant relevant,” including a charge for someone besides Burke. “Until there’s a charge, a public charge, a public prosecution, none of us will know what was taken from that office,” except for Burke, who will get a receipt for what was taken.
Inspector General Joseph Ferguson, who has previously sought more information into Burke’s oversight of worker’s compensation, did not respond to requests for comment.
Steve Berlin, the executive director of the city’s Board of Ethics, offered no comment or insight, and keeps proceedings confidential until they have concluded. Asked if he referred anything to federal investigators, he said, “I couldn’t comment whether we did or we didn’t.”