Chicago’s past is on line 2, eager to sink its teeth into the wounded Ed Burke

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Robert Cooley wore a wire for three years, while in the company of mobsters and crooked politicians. He related his experiences as a mob informant in a book. | Sun-Times file

“Is this Robert Cooley?”

“That was one of my many, many names,” replied the man on the phone.

Not a good start. I never watched “The Sopranos,” never romanticized the Capone era. It was brutal and bloody. There was something sad about my older colleagues who, you could tell, got a contact high from their association with gangland Chicago, basked in coining nicknames and listing aliases.

And now I’ve got The Man of A Thousand Faces on the line…Since most won’t remember, a quick refresher: It was Cooley who in 1986 went to the feds and began taping conversations at the Counsellors Row restaurant, an ice pick to the heart of the mobbed-up 1st Ward. This led to the Justice Department’s “Operation Gambat,” flipping over a rock of extortion, bribery and fixed murder cases.

A reader took issue with my describing Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke as “the platinum bar of probity” and shared passages from Cooley’s book, “When Corruption Was King,” painting the Burkes as, well, if not quite Bonnie & Clyde, then in that direction of the moral spectrum. Active carnivores in the fetid swamp of early 1980s Chicago.

I told Cooley I was all ears.

“These things happened 20, 25 years ago,” he began, shaving off a decade. “Eddie Burke and his wife Anne were very good friends of mine.”

Let’s just say, based on our conversation, my hunch is they aren’t friends any more.

Corruption is like rust. It spreads, both coming and going. When the party’s on and the lights are low, lots of people wander into the dim tent to help themselves at the long tables of pie. When the lights are snapped on, those same people are caught standing there with pie on their faces. It’s almost comical to see the casting call of mayoral candidates lunging for napkins to smear away Ed Burke’s money, or try to. It’ll be interesting to see how long that stain lingers around their mouths.

Talking to Cooley, I realized the Ed Burke extortion case will not only send shock waves through the current political scene; it also will crack open the past, and out will crawl denizens of the Mesozoic such as Cooley.

Talking to him was like listening to a record. I would try to direct the conversation, ask questions. That was like lifting the needle. The music stopped. There was a silence. Then the needle was set down again and he’d continue where we left off. Nor was what he was saying a font of fascination.

“One day , walking through Counsellors Row, I see the dad, Johnny Senior”— John D’Arco Sr. — heading up to my office. He says, ‘I hear you’re a fantastic lawyer. You know my son John? He’s a lawyer. Could you possibly teach him how to practice law?’ I said, ‘Lemme think about it.’ I arranged a partnership. I did all the criminal work…Everything was going great until one day Eddie wants me to …”

No, that’s not happening. Later, I made a few calls.

“I would not buy what he’s selling,” said James Merriner, whose book on Chicago corruption, “Grafters and Goo Goos,” is my bible on the subject. This echoed my gut sense. Journalism is like science: you need to be able to replicate the experiment. Cooley wanted to share with me every gruesome detail of what he believes the Burkes did, and I wanted to know who else in the world also believes this, other than him. We talked past each other and ended up with vignettes.

“These guys all thought I was a killer too, I was running around with these people,” said Cooley. “I had a reputation, there at Counsellors Row. One of  the unbelievable stories, Sammy Annerino was arrested and charged with possession of a gun…”

And away he went.

I wasn’t interested in this sort of stuff 30 years ago, when it was happening. There is a sameness to these stories. The thing about the word “corruption” is that, ironically, it is a very pure word — go back 2,000 years and you find it almost unchanged in Latin: “corruptio” meaning exactly what it means now. Corruption is a constant of the human condition, like going to the bathroom and just as pleasant to study. I’m glad somebody does it. I’m also glad — very glad — that the person studying it is not me.

“I’m going now,” I said to Cooley and hung up — it seemed the only way to end the conversation. He called back immediately. I did not pick up.

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