Burke hit with allegations of political interference by ex-aviation commissioner
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Former Chicago Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans is laying out a bill of particulars against Ald. Edward Burke (14th), alleging that he worked repeatedly behind the scenes to inappropriately pressure her and her staff on airport business.
In a memo to the Sun-Times, Evans, who resigned earlier this year, gave five examples of Burke or his staff allegedly interfering or overstepping.
• Burke personally intervened to make sure that the clout-heavy United Maintenance, which held janitorial contracts at O’Hare Airport, got paid promptly.
• Burke pushed to renew or extend a contract with Go Airport, which operates a shuttle service at O’Hare.
• Burke worked to help Clear Channel, the company that controls indoor advertising at O’Hare, when it was upset over a competitor’s actions at the airport.
• When dozens of leases for hangars and aviation support facilities were coming up for renewal, the City was obligated to offer them the same business terms. Those terms required City Council approval. However, Burke insisted that each lease be separately submitted to Council – which delayed and complicated the approvals.
• At a committee hearing on the leases, Burke continued to question Evans’ authority to sign them.
It’s unclear whether Evans’ allegations are related to the unprecedented federal raid last month on Burke’s City Hall and ward offices. Evans refused to answer questions about her memo. Nor would she say whether she has been questioned by investigators.
Burke didn’t respond to questions from the Sun-Times.
The Sun-Times reached out to Evans after she sent out a tweet after reading the newspaper’s story about David Axelrod’s prediction that Burke would be indicted.
Her tantalizing message over Twitter read: “The signs of his conflicts were an open secret. Burke attacked and put pressure on City staff regarding contracts and payments (presumably for his clients and business partners.) Hopefully, Burke will never do that again and other Council members will take note.”
When Evans was asked what she meant, she responded this week with her detailed memo.
Show them the money
In one instance, Evans claims Burke called her directly to report that the city’s payments to United Maintenance were late.
“I thought it was odd that such a high-level official would call on an item of normal business,” Evans wrote in the memo.
When Evans asked her staff about the late payments, she was told that United Maintenance had “skipped sending a bill for one month that summer” but that the most current and the late invoice were being processed.
When Evans told Burke, the alderman asked her to send an email, then called back to say he hadn’t received it.
“He seemed quite anxious and asked that I send the status report to his private email account and gave me the private email address, which I did,” Evans wrote.
“A couple of days later, his staff told my staff that they considered my response to be disrespectful. Much later, in passing, the airport finance office mentioned to me that, each month, like clockwork, one day after receipt of the United Maintenance invoice, they would receive a call from Burke’s office asking about the payment.”
Rick Simon, the man behind United Maintenance, is a former Chicago cop who once employed a man who went to prison after being indicted along with the late Chicago mob boss Anthony “Big Tuna” Accardo.
Simon has also been business partners in another venture with a man described by law enforcement as a member of the mob.
Reached by the Sun-Times on Thursday, Simon said of Evans’ allegations, “We’ve never had a problem getting paid, so I don’t know why the commissioner would say that.”
Simon added: “We’ve never engaged Ald. Burke for any service.”
Simon said he has not been in touch with law enforcement related to the Burke investigation.
Simon and Burke are long-time friends, with Simon being a key political supporter.
‘Idiots in the Law Department’
In the case of the Go Airport transportation contract, Burke was so concerned about it he called Evans directly, she wrote.
“He was demanding that their sole-source contract be extended or renewed,” Evans wrote in her memo.
Evans said she had “several exchanges” with Burke to articulate the issues involved and the status of the contract as outlined by the Department of Aviation’s general counsel.
“Overall, his tone was one of frustration, and he spoke disrespectfully of the attorneys,” Evans wrote.
“I recall he used the phrase ‘idiots in the Law Department.’ I had the clear sense that he was conveying this information to Go Airport officials and then, coming back to us.”
An attorney for the company said he was unaware of all this.
After negotiating new airline leases needed to bankroll an $8.7 billion O’Hare expansion project, Evans announced her resignation in June, making way for popular Procurement Services Commissioner Jamie Rhee.
With a salary of $300,000 a year and an annual $100,000 bonus, Evans was the city’s highest-paid public official. She came under fire from Chicago aldermen and was particularly unpopular with Burke, in part because she was not deferential to aldermen.
Burke blasted her on several issues.
He raised a stink about the foul odor emanating from sound-reduction windows installed by the city in homes around Midway Airport. He held up a master lease for cargo operations at O’Hare in retaliation — even though the lease meant millions in additional revenue to the city.
And after the passenger-dragging fiasco aboard an United Airlines flight in 2017, Burke blasted Evans over her decision to strip the word “police” from the badges, uniforms and vehicles of Chicago’s unarmed aviation officers.
Evans’ memo helps explain her contentious relationship with Burke and the behind-the-scenes conflicts that at times erupted publicly.
List of demands
In the case of Clear Channel, the company “was upset that the airport had allowed JCDecaux to install advertising on the exterior of the pedestrian walkways,” Evans wrote.
The city’s Law Department and a prior airport concessions manager had “determined that it was within the scope of the original solicitation and contract to allow this activity,” the former commissioner said.
But Evans said: “It was reported to me that, in the meeting, Burke aggressively attacked the airport concessions manager.”
After that, Clear Channel sent a “written list of demands” for changes to the contract to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office of Legislative Counsel and Government Affairs, Evans said.
“It was reported to the airport that, if the demands were not met, Clear Channel would go back to Burke and ask him to intervene,” Evans wrote.
The former commissioner noted that some of the items on Clear Channel’s list were “legitimate administrative updates of contract information.”
But she said: “Most were unacceptable major modifications of the contract terms, including a demand that the city agree in advance to extend their contract by four or five years; eliminate some expenses required by their contract and modify the definition of ACDBE [Airport Concessionaire Disadvantaged Business Enterprise].”
After reviewing the list of demands, Evans said she notified the mayor’s office that the airport “would not continue to communicate with Clear Channel through a political dialogue.” Instead, she would meet with them directly.
Neither Clear Channel nor JCDecaux had a response when asked for comment.
A lease with a Russian airline?
The fourth example of Burke’s alleged behind-the-scenes maneuverings involved dozens of long-term leases and agreements due to expire during 2018.
The Mayor–with recommending signatures from the aviation commissioner and the Law Department–had been given authority under the old lease to sign leases with new airlines coming to O’Hare “in accordance with the existing lease” previously approved by the City Council.
That authority expired with the old lease but because of the sheer number of new leases and supporting detail, it made sense to give similar authority to execute the more than 50 leases required for the new 2018 O’Hare Airline Use and Lease agreement.
“Ald. Burke objected to this approach for the new leases and required, instead, that each individual lease come before his Finance Committee and Council,” Evans wrote.
Evans said she accommodated Burke “while emphasizing that there was insufficient time to do this for the main O’Hare Use and Lease agreement” involving more than 50 airline partners and scores of complicated exhibits that was a precursor to Emanuel’s $8.7 billion O’Hare expansion project.
Evans’ fifth example is related to the fourth.
After Burke staked out his position on the individual leases, Evans said she was told about a “high-level meeting” in the mayor’s office that included Burke and former Aviation Committee Chairman Mike Zalewski (23rd), who retired on May 31.
Zalewski wanted the leases to go through his Aviation Committee. Burke insisted that the leases go through the Finance Committee. The need for Council consideration of bonding authority was also discussed, she said.
“When it became clear that Burke was not going to budge, Zalewski stood up, slapped his palm on the table and said, ‘It’s settled. The bond ordinance will go to Finance and the airport leases will go to Aviation.’ Then, Zalewski walked out of the meeting, settling the matter,” Evans wrote.
But that didn’t stop Burke from getting the last word.
At a public hearing on the airline use-and-lease agreement, Evans recalled that Burke “intently questioned” Deputy Mayor Bob Rivkin about the legal issues surrounding giving delegated authority for signing the final leases to Evans.
“He stated that, with that delegated authority, the commissioner of aviation could sign a lease with a Russian airline!” Evans wrote.
“The city staff [was] astonished at this preposterous comment (and erroneous conclusion since it is the mayor who has the final signature authority, which was well known to Burke).”