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Feds say Burke made a ‘distasteful’ comment about Jewish people as authorities investigated him

The comment appears in a 227-page brief filed as part of Burke’s criminal case in federal court. Heavily redacted in key parts, it alleges the investigation of Burke revealed him “to be thoroughly corrupt and worthy of prosecution.”

Ald. Ed Burke (14th) attends the Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall, Wednesday morning, April 21, 2021. Wednesday marked the first in-person council meeting since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Ald. Ed Burke (14th) attends the Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall on Wednesday, which marked the first in-person council meeting since the start of the pandemic.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

In the midst of an alleged scheme at the heart of his racketeering indictment, Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) allegedly made a comment about Jewish people that federal prosecutors now say was both “distasteful” and evidence of his corruption.

Explaining why he needed to leverage his position on the City Council to get tax work for his private law firm as part of the renovation of the Old Main Post Office, Burke allegedly made the comment that, “Well, you know as well as I do, Jews are Jews and they’ll deal with Jews to the exclusion of everybody else unless … unless there’s a reason for them to use a Christian.”

The feds revealed that comment as part of a long-awaited, 227-page brief made public Wednesday that revealed new details about the case against Burke and the investigation that led to his indictment nearly two years ago. It’s also the most significant development in eight months in a case that has become bogged down in pretrial motions despite having once been on track for trial as soon as this spring.

Prosecutors made several redactions to key parts of the document filed Wednesday. They even removed the name of former Ald. Danny Solis (25th), who is known to have cooperated against Burke in the case.

Burke’s attorneys have previously balked at a reference in the indictment to Burke’s alleged belief that a company involved in the Post Office renovation would only work with Jewish lawyers. But the feds insisted Wednesday his comment showed that he solicited legal fees with “an understanding that he would improperly influence or attempt to influence” an official act or function.

And pushing back against Burke’s claim that federal law enforcement unfairly targeted him, prosecutors wrote that, “again and again, Burke shamelessly tied official action to his law firm’s receipt of business.” They said their investigation “revealed Burke to be thoroughly corrupt and worthy of prosecution.”

Burke’s lawyers did not respond Wednesday to a message inquiring about Burke’s alleged comments. They are due to file their reply in court June 19. WTTW political reporter Heather Cherone tweeted that she asked Burke following Wednesday’s City Council meeting whether he owed Chicago’s Jewish residents an apology, adding, “He did not reply.”

The Anti-Defamation League Midwest wrote in a tweet that, “Antisemitism has no place in Chicago and we expect better of our elected officials. At a time when antisemitic incidents are up more than 135% in the Midwest since 2016, we are deeply concerned by the reported comments of Ald. Burke and call for an immediate apology.”

The only two Jewish members of Illinois’ State Senate, Democratic Sens. Sara Feigenholtz and Laura Fine, also released a statement that read, “When he thought no one was listening Ed Burke revealed his true self. Simply said, Alderman Burke’s remarks smack of blatant anti-semitism and are both ignorant and repugnant.

“For starters,” they added, “he owes an apology to the Jewish community.”

State Sen. Sara Feigenholtz
Sun-Times Media

Mayor Lori Lightfoot noted Wednesday with a smirk that “choice parts” of the feds’ filing in Burke’s case had been trickling out. And she said, “The residents of this district deserve Ald. Burke to have a trial date — and soon. And that case needs to move forward much more expeditiously than it has.”

U.S. District Judge Robert Dow had at one point set aside time in May, June and July of this year for a trial in Burke’s case. But now he has more than 600 pages of court filings to dig through, with more to come. The judge has also said he will likely hold a hearing to address the multiple pretrial motions from Burke and his co-defendants — political aide Peter Andrews and developer Charles Cui.

For now, the next status hearing in the case is set for July 29.

In a flurry of legal challenges by defense attorneys last summer, Burke’s lawyers alleged that federal prosecutors withheld crucial information from Chicago’s chief federal judge as they sought to eavesdrop on City Hall phone lines, as well as on Burke’s cellphone.

They also said the feds didn’t square their work with the 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision involving former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell. In that opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that a public official “must make a decision or take an action” involving a formal exercise of governmental power in order for something to qualify as an “official act” in a public corruption case.

The feds rejected Burke’s claims in their brief Wednesday, writing at one point that the alleged schemes by Burke, Andrews and Cui “were unlawful before and after McDonnell.”

They also made a cryptic reference to criminal conduct by Burke “caught on tape by another cooperator concerning a separate offense.” Burke’s lawyers have previously said that an unnamed cooperator from another federal case in Chicago had been “contacting Ald. Burke regularly in an attempt to develop evidence against him” in 2015.

Finally, the feds’ filing offered new behind-the-scenes insight into the Burke investigation. They revealed they had technical difficulties while trying to tap phones at City Hall in May 2017, and they said they considered sending in undercover agents — or even pulling trash at City Hall.

Contributing: Mark Brown, Fran Spielman, Tim Novak