Ed Burke sentenced to prison: 'There's more to life than a little money, you know'

A beautiful early summer day in Chicago sees the former lion of the City Council get a two-year prison term.

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Former Ald. Ed Burke (14th) walks with his wife, Anne Burke, after being sentenced Monday, June 24, 2024, in Chicago. | Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Former Ald. Ed Burke (14th) walks with his wife, Anne Burke, after being sentenced Monday to two years in prison for corruption. Burke also was ordered to pay $2 million.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The heat broke on Monday, a beautiful, clear, low-humidity early summer day in Chicago, beginning to end. A great time to be out and about, free and easy. I rode my bike to the paint store, got on my knees in the garden. The very last place anyone would want to be is inside a courtroom, particularly if you were the guilty party, like former City Council member Ed Burke, waiting to see how long you’d be put away.

Citing his role in “this erosion ... this chipping away at our democracy,” Judge Virginia Kendall gave Burke two years in prison, plus a $2 million fine.

I wonder which hurt more — the time or the money? For a man who would endanger his reputation to grab some more money and gain a client. Over a Burger King driveway easement. I’m always amazed at how little people wreck their lives over. For Dan Rostenkowski it was postage stamps, crystal and a couple of chairs. George Ryan got a grand back from some vacation. Rod Blagojevich didn’t get anything, but tried to shake down a children’s hospital.

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Two years. Not the 10 the prosecution initially sought. A light sentence, but more time in jail than anyone, never mind an 80-year-old with nine-tenths of his life behind him, wants to contemplate.

Give Burke credit. Unlike Blago, who multiplied his own prison time by being too stupid to realize he’d done anything wrong, Burke copped to his guilt.

“The blame for this is mine and mine alone,” he said.

That is refreshing. We live in an age of denial, when nobody is caught so red-handed they can’t off-load responsibility somewhere else. Then again, Ed Burke always had style.

It’ll be in a minimum-security federal prison. Not quite a resort, but he won’t be raking a tin cup across the bars, either.

But still, prison. Lights on, lights out, go here, go there. It’s like being sentenced to two years in a cinder-block-walled, fluorescent-lit cross between junior high school and the worst summer camp ever.

Was I the only one, when Burke received his punishment, to think of Frances McDormand’s great speech from the end of the Coen Brothers darkly comic thriller “Fargo?”

The very pregnant chief of police, Marge Gunderson, is driving a wrongdoer to his appointment with justice, and recounts his crimes.

“So that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there?” she intones, in her somber, yah-hey-dere Minnesotan accent. “And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.”

Burke probably couldn’t help himself. Half a century of power and habit, he just expected anyone who wanted to make something happen with the city to throw business his way, too. His interests and the city’s were one. He didn’t need the money, didn’t need to buy more expensive suits. Quality like that doesn’t wear out or go out of style. It was just Monopoly money at that point, another marker of success, like a Brioni label.

That has to be the most galling thing. He was already rich. He sent himself to prison out of habit. For pressing too hard into a federal wiretap for more business he didn’t need. There’s a lesson in there somewhere: Know when you have enough. I might buy my suits at Suits 20/20, but I don’t have to extort money from anybody to pay for them.

In a sense, Burke was already in a prison of ego and power and money. Maybe going into an actual prison will free him, a little.

The judge mentioned the letters of support for Burke, from people he’d been kind to over the years. And he did try to give back, in his way. Maybe that’s something he can think about now, how to keep giving back. Not to redeem his reputation — that’s impossible. But to endure what must be endured. Anyway, I know I’m not the only person to wish him well.

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