Chicago Alderman Burke charged with extortion attempt

By Kevin Beese Staff reporter

An artist’s sketch of Ald. Ed Burke (right) and his attorney, Charles Sklarsky, during the 14th Ward alderman’s appearance in court Jan. 3. Burke has been charged with attempted extortion. (Thomas F. Gianni sketch)

Not even the traffic lights went Ed Burke’s way Jan. 3.

Less than an hour after being arraigned on an attempted extortion charge, the longtime Chicago alderman made a quick exit from the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse in Downtown Chicago without comment and headed north on Dearborn Street with television cameras just feet from his face. He got into a passing cab with his lawyer, Charles Sklarsky, and stared ahead silently.

The cab headed north on Dearborn, only to be stopped by the light changing red, allowing cameramen to run up to the light and the media circus to continue.

The 14th Ward alderman wore a black pinstripe suit as he stood before federal Judge Sheila Finnegan on Thursday afternoon, acknowledging that he understood the charge leveled against him.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Amarjeet Bhachu said that in 2017 and continuing into 2018, Burke “attempted to extort fees for his law firm from Company A.”

Company A is believed to be Burger King, which needed permits to remodel one of its restaurants, one located in Burke’s ward.

Attempted extortion is punishable by up to 20 years in prison and/or a fine of up to $250,000. The longtime alderman could be sparred prison time and serve up to three years on supervised released.

Burke sat silent, staring straight ahead, waiting for the arraignment to begin. He only turned briefly to answer questions from Sklarsky, then returned to staring straight ahead.

Burke was released on a $10,000 appearance bond.

An artist’s sketch of key players in Ald. Ed Burke’s arraignment Jan. 3. From left are Assistant U.S. Attorney Amarjeet Bhachu, defense attorney Charles Sklarsky, Burke and Judge Sheila Finnegan. (Thomas F. Gianni sketch)

The chairman of the City Council’s Finance Committee is confined to the boundaries of the Northern District of Illinois, according to Finnegan. The only agreed-upon exception is that Burke can travel to his summer home in Power Lake, Wis.

Burke was ordered to have no contact with “Company A,” to which Sklarsky later in the arraignment asked, “Are they going to identify Company A for us?”

Burke was also ordered to surrender the 23 firearms that federal agents found in the raids of his City Hall and ward offices. The alderman was given 48 hours to turn the guns in to authorities.

The case against Burke is slated for a preliminary hearing Jan. 18.

If Finnegan deems, in the preliminary hearing, that there is enough evidence for the case to proceed against Burke, the case would go before a grand jury for consideration. A grand jury could also be convened before the preliminary hearing and charges filed against the alderman, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Fitzpatrick.