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Burke’s fight to keep records secret from city watchdog has cost taxpayers $248K

Embattled Ald. Edward M. Burke’s turf war to keep the City Hall inspector general’s office from reviewing workers’ compensation records has cost Chicago taxpayers nearly a quarter of a million dollars in legal fees, records show. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Embattled Ald. Edward M. Burke’s turf war to keep the City Hall inspector general’s office from reviewing workers’ compensation records has cost Chicago taxpayers nearly a quarter of a million dollars in legal fees, records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show.

The legal bills from Burke’s fight also show that the powerful Southwest Side alderman’s attorneys sent emails and documents to a federal prosecutor more than two years ago, according to the records from City Hall’s law department.

It’s unclear whether the records Burke’s lawyers released to the U.S. attorney’s office in February 2016 are related to last month’s FBI raids of the alderman’s offices at City Hall and his political headquarters in the 14th ward.

The Sun-Times has reported that the raids on Burke’s offices were unrelated to his past controversies, including his chairmanship of the City Council Committee on Finance and its oversight of the $100 million-a-year workers’ compensation program for city employees, which doesn’t include police and firefighters.

Inspector General Joseph Ferguson has long been blocked from examining the workers’ comp program, first by an ordinance that gave him no authority to investigate the city council and then by a new ordinance, passed in February 2016, that gave him the power to investigate aldermen and their staffs but not the programs they run, including workers’ compensation.

By the time Ferguson gained authority to investigate the aldermen, Burke had hired the powerhouse law firm of Jenner & Block to respond to the “inspector general’s inquiries,’’ according to the legal bills, which started coming in on Dec. 1, 2015.

Since then, according to the legal bills that Jenner & Block has submitted to City Hall, the law firm has billed Chicago’s taxpayers a total of $184,229 to:

• Respond to emails from Ferguson’s staff.

• Meet with Burke and his staff, as well as the inspector general’s staff.

• Review documents and produce records to the inspector general, some of those involving workers’ comp records.

Jenner & Block also was paid to represent Burke in a dispute with Ferguson’s staff regarding an investigation of city employees filing potentially fraudulent workers’ comp claims — a dispute that led Ferguson to hire another private law firm, Miller Shakman. Its legal bills have totaled $64,373.

That brings the total legal tab for Burke’s secrecy fight to $248,602.

In a written statement responding to questions, the inspector general’s office confirms that it hired Miller Shakman as part of the legal dispute “as it relates to the obligation of the Committee on Finance to provide records relevant to OIG investigations of allegations of fraud by city employees receiving workers’ compensation program benefits.”

City Hall Inspector General Joseph Ferguson found that Joel Kennedy Constructing Corp. engaged in a “fraudulent scheme” involving four city contracts — including ordering some employees to lie that they live in Chicago so they could help meet a city residency requirement.
Inspector General Joseph Ferguson. | Max Herman / Sun-Times
Max Herman / Sun-Times file

Things grew so contentious that lawyers from Jenner & Block began preparing for a lawsuit that Ferguson had threatened to file earlier this year, but hasn’t, against Burke’s committee, the records show.

Burke didn’t respond to an email seeking comment on the legal bills. Two Jenner & Block attorneys who are named in the city records — Jeffrey Colman and Gabriel Fuentes — didn’t respond to inquiries.

The attorneys began billing the city in early 2016 over an unidentified issue involving Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Otlewski. Their bills reflect a series of discussions with federal prosecutors as well as documents that were sent to Otlewski on Feb. 12, 2016. That was the last billing entry regarding Otlewski or the U.S. attorney’s office.

Otlewski, who no longer works for the prosecutor’s office, wouldn’t comment. The U.S. attorney’s office didn’t respond to questions regarding Burke.

Burke, 74, has represented the 14th ward since 1969, making him the longest-serving alderman in Chicago history. He’s seeking re-election in February from what’s now a majority-Hispanic ward and is facing four challengers, all of them Hispanic.

Contributing: Jon Seidel


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