Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) changed the record of four past City Council votes involving his airline clients after the Chicago Sun-Times raised questions about possible conflicts of interest.
Burke used a rare parliamentary maneuver in March to remove four “yes” votes regarding leases for Midway and American airlines – votes that the alderman cast as long as seven years ago. He changed the yes votes to abstentions.
Burke, a lawyer who has represented both airlines in property tax appeals, blamed his aye votes on the late Ald. Thomas Cullerton, who headed the City Council Committee on Aviation, which has jurisdiction over airport leases. Cullerton died in February, 1993.
In a written statement, Burke said he told Cullerton “that he should record me as abstaining under Rule 14 of the City Council Rules of Order and Procedure in any matters relating to American Airlines and Midway Airlines.”
“When brought to my attention that my intent to abstain was not recorded in the City Council Journal of Proceedings, I corrected the record consistent with my intent,” Burke wrote. The journal is the official record of what happens in the Chicago City Council.
Burke said his intention to abstain in those matters is supported by his abstaining on other votes involving American and Midway.
While Burke blames Cullerton for the yes votes, Cullerton died three months before Burke cast one of the votes he later changed.
Other current and former aldermen scoffed at Burke’s attempts to blame the aye votes on Cullerton.
“You can’t just push it off on the dead committee chairman,” said one veteran alderman who asked not to be named. “Every alderman has a duty to make certain that matters are properly reported . . .”
“It strains credulity. It’s just preposterous,” said former Ald. Leon Despres (5th). “If an alderman wants not to vote on an ordinance or a resolution, the alderman gets up when the matter is on the floor. I’ve never heard of notifying a chairman to take your name off in advance of any matter. It’s the duty – the obligation – of an alderman to record his abstention when the matter comes up for a vote.”
Changing City Council votes is highly unusual.
In the last five years, only seven journal corrections have been introduced to change votes, said John Polacek, managing editor of the Council journal. Five of the corrections involved votes by Burke.
“Journal corrections usually consist of things like changing the direction on a street, changing an address that numbers had been transposed on – things of that nature,” Polacek said.
The changes are done by voice vote at the end of City Council meetings with little attention and no advance notice.
The lag time between Burke’s votes and the correction also is unusual, according to Despres, who served as Council parliamentarian under former Mayors Jane M. Byrne and Harold Washington.
“In all of my 28 years of experience – either as alderman or parliamentarian – nothing of that sort ever occurred,” Despres said. “Corrections to the journal would be made at the succeeding meeting. Corrections six or seven years later were just unheard of.
“(Burke) is trying to protect his record,” Despres said. “Apparently, he realizes he should not have voted as he did. I’m sure he’ll say, `Oh, I really didn’t vote for it.’ ”
To correct the journal on the airline votes, Burke asked the clerk to delete his name, reduce by one the number of votes in favor of the ordinance and insert the following language: “Alderman Burke was excused from voting under the provisions of Rule 14 of the City Council’s Rules of Order and Procedure.”
Rule 14 states: “Every member who shall be present when a question is stated from the Chair shall vote thereon, unless excused by the Council.”
Aldermen typically invoke Rule 14 to recuse themselves from voting when they believe they could have a conflict of interest or the appearance of a conflict.
Burke served Midway Airlines as an attorney handling property tax appeals until the carrier folded in late 1991. He also has represented American since 1992 in their property tax appeals.
Burke told the Sun-Times that it was his intention to abstain on votes relating to American and Midway “even though my legal representation of those clients was completely unrelated to the matters before the City Council and I had no personal interest economic or otherwise.”
The vote changes involved:
• A July 31, 1990, vote in favor of a Midway Airlines “lease of hangar facilities” at Midway Airport. Without Burke, the vote was changed to 46-0.
• Oct, 2, 1991, amendments to the use agreement and hangar lease between the city and Midway Airlines. The Burke correction dropped the unanimous vote to 47-0.
• A July 29, 1992, amendment to American’s “airport use agreement and terminal facilities lease.” Without Burke, the vote dropped to 44-0. A June 9, 1993, amendment to “adjust American’s exclusive use space” at O’Hare Airport. The “corrected” vote was 47-0.
The Sun-Times reported last month that Burke has represented seven airport tenants – including American Airlines – in their property tax reduction requests in recent years. They all lease land or space from the city at O’Hare or Midway and must pay property taxes on their facilities there.
Burke sits on the Aviation Committee, which approves city leases at the airports.
Burke also is chairman of the City Council’s Finance Committee, which has enormous influence over the airports, airlines and other companies that lease there. The committee must approve bond issues for airport improvements and other low-interest bond financing for construction projects by individual airlines and other tenants. And the committee has jurisdiction over city taxes – including a tax on jet fuel that the airlines have opposed.
The alderman has maintained that he does not have a conflict because he does not represent the companies in their dealings with the city – only on property tax appeals administered by the county.
Burke introduced the journal corrections on the airline votes on March 19, more than a month after hiring former U.S. Attorney Anton R. Valukas to represent him in the federal investigation of alleged ghost payrolling and other Council irregularities.
Before making the journal corrections, Burke had been told in early March by the Sun-Times that the newspaper was looking at his law firm and its clients. He probably also was aware when he made the changes that the newspaper had interviewed American Airlines and other clients. Two days after the journal corrections, the Sun-Times submitted questions in writing as Burke requested.
In April, Burke submitted another journal correction pertaining to a different matter questioned by the Sun-Times. On April 16, the Council approved his correction deleting his name from the list of 43 aldermen who unanimously approved incentives for the Roosevelt-Canal Redevelopment Project on July 31, 1996.
Burke said that the city clerk’s office had inaccurately reported him in the journal as voting for the project when he had in fact abstained because he has done tax work for the property. A Finance Committee transcript supports Burke by showing him abstaining from voting in committee for the project the day before the full Council vote.
City officials said the only other journal corrections in the last five years involving vote changes were:
On Dec. 15, 1993, Ald. Percy Giles (37th) moved to correct the journal of Oct. 7, 1993, by deleting his name from a vote. On Dec. 21, 1992, Burke moved to correct the journal to add the name of Ald. Ray Suarez (31st) to a Dec. 15 vote during that same year.