Let's all play 'Sit in Judgment of Ed Burke'

Hundreds of Chicagoans have weighed in on what sentence Burke should receive for his corruption convictions. Now it’s my turn.

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Ald. Ed Burke walks into the Dirksen Federal Courthouse, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, in Chicago.

Ald. Ed Burke has been at the center of Chicago power for 50 years. Next week, a federal judge decides how long he should serve in prison for his crimes.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

No, I didn’t write a letter about former Ald. Ed Burke to the judge in advance of his June 24 sentencing for corruption. He doesn’t need me. Hundreds spoke up, asking for leniency. (Does anyone write in and say, “Throw the book at him, your honor!”? I imagine so. Though people know these letters become public record.)

Frankly, this seems a situation where, to coin a phrase, less is more. Two hundred letters. Quite a lot really. I’m not sure whether that is mitigation of undue influence, or dramatization of it. No City Council meeting was complete without Burke firehosing official declarations and honors in all directions. Of course, some would leap to return the favor. Manus manum lavat, as the Romans said. One hand washes the other.

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Though I imagine I could write a good one. First, I’d ask U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall to set aside Burke’s personality. Being arrogant isn’t a crime. Just as wearing $2,000 chalk pinstripe suits that make you look like an extra in “Guys and Dolls” isn’t a crime. Maybe it should be.

I can see the temptation to send Burke to prison on general principles. While Burke seems more shell-shocked than smug in recent photos, he is a known quantity to anyone on the Chicago scene: Burke strode about in a haze of haughtiness you could cut with a knife. The insider’s insider. When Richard J. Daley died in 1976, it was Burke who commandeered the late mayor’s office on the fifth floor and huddled with a few others to decide who should be the next mayor of Chicago.

He was found guilty of 13 counts of racketeering, bribery and attempted extortion. In his defense, I would observe that Burke tried to stay on the right side of the law. The Better Government Association said Burke recused himself from 464 council votes over his last eight years in office, four times as much as the other 49 alderoids put together.

So he tried not to commit crimes, or not be caught committing crimes anyway, which is almost as good. Burke dwelled in a hazy realm of near criminality, of lawyers dancing a hair’s breadth over the line. That’s really what we should focus on — it’s the legal stuff that is truly unacceptable, not the occasional Ed Burke or Michael Madigan who gets careless in their old age and puts the squeeze on into a federal wiretap. Burke was like a guy who goes to Costco regularly to load up on free coconut shrimp and then, aghast one day to find himself there when free coconut shrimp isn’t being doled out, simply shoplifts a couple boxes. Habit has made him blind to the key distinction; in his mind, it’s all his shrimp.

Prison sentences are supposed to be a deterrent — the idea that horse thieves are hanged, not because stealing horses is such a bad crime, but in order for horses not to be stolen. That’s weak. You know what would be a strong deterrent? Give city council members raises, then forbid them to work other jobs. The highest paid alderperson pulls down $142,000 a year; not bad for you or me, but peanuts for a slick lawyer. We expect them to work side hustles, then flutter our hands in shock when they trip over the fine line between you’re-my-client-and-this-is-your-zoning-request-to-be-judged-purely-on-its-merits and hire-my-firm-or-I-won’t-support-your-variance.

Prosecutors are asking for a 10-year sentence. That seems ... harsh. In 2019, the other Eddie, Ed Vrdolyak, was given 18 months for his second offense. Pleading he was at death’s door, Vrdolyak got out after five months. (He seems to have fully recovered, thank God). And Burke is Mr. Clean compared to Vrdolyak, whose entire career was an unbroken chain of self-serving venality mixed with racial animus.

So how big a book to throw at Burke? I hesitate to set a figure. I spent a night in jail once. One night is a lot. Were I the judge, I’d consider Burke’s obvious good — he and his wife assumed guardianship for a baby scourged by cocaine, remember. His enemies tried to paint that as a stunt, but it wasn’t. I’d say give him six months, in the idea that he’s one-third as vile as Vrdolyak. Out in three. Three months is a long time when you’re 80. Punishment will be delivered, the point made, and we can go back to pretending to be surprised when the feds drop the next prosecution.

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