Madigan, Burke cases point to unrelenting greed, though it’s not like they needed the money
The charges they face of using their power for personal gain reflect something often seen in white-collar cases: No matter how much some people have, it’s never enough.
Greed knows no limits.
That’s a difficult concept to understand for people who don’t think that way.
But it’s the essential truth underlying the federal indictments of former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and Ald. Edward Burke (14th), the former Chicago City Council finance committee chairman.
Madigan, 79, and Burke, 78, are millionaires many times over. I won’t hazard a guess about their net worth, but I’m confident they are wealthy enough to provide for the financial security of their children and grandchildren.
Yet both stand accused of corruptly using their power to get even more clients for their law firms at a point in their lives when it hardly would seem necessary.
It points to another truth we see time and again in these white-collar criminal cases: No matter how much money some people have, it’s never enough.
Madigan and Burke got rich in the lucrative and ethically murky legal field of politicians representing commercial property owners seeking to reduce their real estate taxes. Their involvement has long raised red flags because the Cook County property tax assessment and appeal system operates within the framework of local Democratic politics, where both men have long been among the most important players.
Madigan’s Madigan & Getzendanner law firm handles the property tax work for more of the big downtown skyscrapers than any other law firm in Chicago, newspaper investigations over the years have shown. Klafter & Burke, Burke’s former firm, for which he signed away ownership after his 2019 indictment, always was close behind.
It was never any secret they could be aggressive in seeking new business. Madigan was known to make cold calls on prospective clients. Burke was believed to scout businesses with matters before the council who might see a need for a new property tax lawyer.
But the assumption from a distance was the two men performed their rainmaking while maintaining a semblance of subtlety, nothing like the heavy-handed tactics they are now accused of employing.
At this point in their careers, they could have continued to make money off their reputations alone. They didn’t need to chase new clients. Commercial property owners wanting clout on their side knew where to find them and would have continued to do so.
But we now know, thanks mainly to the undercover work of another corrupt former alderman, Danny Solis, that neither man’s tactics weren’t so subtle.
Court records show Madigan and Burke were caught on secret FBI wiretaps willingly attempting to take up Solis on his offer to leverage his power as chairman of the council’s zoning committee to get business for them — in exchange for certain financial inducements for Solis.
Burke’s approach might have been particularly outlandish with his complaint that “the cash register has not rung yet” from one would-be client, the developer of Chicago’s old main post office, and the alderman’s eager question to Solis regarding that: “Did we land … the tuna?”
But the misconduct Madigan is accused of is no less egregious, even if the famously close-mouthed politician let Solis do most of the talking. When Solis spoke of a “quid pro quo” agreement with one developer they were recorded shaking down, prosecutors say Madigan’s only objection — delivered tardily — was to school Solis on a more artful method of articulating his pitch.
And the indictments show both men were relentless in their pursuit of a new client once given the whiff of an opening.
It’s fairly shocking to see how Madigan and Burke managed to get hoodwinked by Solis, who was a second-tier player in the City Hall power game before rising to the coveted position of zoning chairman.
For those of us who cover politics and government, it was especially surprising in the case of Madigan, who always kept a tight inner circle in Springfield.
Both men and their lawyers say they have broken no laws. While I expect the courts to eventually determine otherwise, we must acknowledge their legal presumption of innocence.
Even under a best-case interpretation, though, there’s no denying Madigan and Burke engaged in unseemly efforts to further enrich themselves.
For some people, it’s never enough.