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Ethics hearings weighed in Burke investigation

Ed Burke at City Hall. | Sun-Times file photo.

Unprecedented hearings to determine whether Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) violated City Council rules or ethical standards are being considered by Rules Committee Chairman Richard F. Mell (33rd).

Several aldermen said Wednesday that Burke has become an embarrassment to the City Council and should step down as Finance Committee chairman.

Mayor Daley declined to say whether he agreed.

If Mell holds hearings, as he said Wednesday he might, it would be the first time in memory that an alderman has been called before a committee of his peers to answer questions about his conduct. While Chicago aldermen have gone to prison at a rate of nearly one a year since 1973, none has been the subject of City Council hearings.

Burke said in a written statement that he has “no intention of stepping down” as Finance Committee chairman. “Simply put, I have done nothing improper.”

Burke addressed reports in the Chicago Sun-Times that he used a rare parliamentary maneuver to change the record on his City Council votes dating back as long as seven years: “All members of the City Council have the opportunity to propose corrections to the Journal of Proceedings of the City Council when the journal is published with inaccuracies or omissions.”

If aldermen now wish to change the rules governing journal corrections, “It is also their right,” Burke said.

The Sun-Times reported that Burke changed the record of four past City Council votes involving his airline clients after it raised questions about possible conflicts of interest.

The March 19 corrections to the City Council journal angered Burke’s colleagues on the Council because they didn’t know what they were voting on when they approved them, and because Burke blamed the late Aviation Committee Chairman Thomas Cullerton (38th) for failing to record Burke’s abstentions. Cullerton, a popular figure around City Hall, died in February, 1993, three months before Burke cast one of the votes he later changed.

On Wednesday, several aldermen went public with their discontent. Of 21 aldermen interviewed, four – William Beavers (7th), Thomas Murphy (18th), Helen Shiller (46th) and one who asked not to be named – declared Burke an embarrassment to the City Council and called for his ouster as finance chairman.

Seven aldermen said they would not support a move to dump Burke. Six had no comment. One said maybe, two said they would have an open mind, and another said he would follow the mayor’s lead.

Daley, who has a strained relationship with Burke, wasn’t showing his hand, though he was sharply critical for a second straight day of Burke’s journal corrections.

Aldermen “are very upset with the whole problem of going back in history and changing a vote for a particular legislator,” Daley said. “That is uncalled for, because you could change history around.”

Asked if he would use his lopsided City Council majority to oust Burke as finance chairman, the mayor laughed and said, “Well, I’m not going to comment on that. I’m not going to comment.”

Told that some aldermen appear to have lost confidence in Burke, Daley said, “That will be up to them to determine. We’ll see. We’ll see what happens.”

The mayor’s comments were a marked contrast to his statement of two weeks ago. Asked then if Burke should step down as finance chairman, Daley said, “I did not say he should resign. I would never say that to any public official. . . .”

Murphy said the stories about Burke’s alleged conflicts – along with videotapes showing indicted Ald. Jesse Evans (21st) taking cash from an undercover FBI agent – have caused the City Council to be “unfairly tainted” as corrupt.

“As far as the finance chairman goes, it’s become a distraction for the whole City Council. . . . Changing votes years after the votes made are passed certainly seems to me to be a pattern of some type of cover-up,” Murphy said.

Beavers said, “If the mayor wanted to remove him, he could remove him. He has become an embarrassment to the City Council. Burke was one of the most talented aldermen, but I think he stepped on his toes.”

For Burke’s longtime political allies, a series of newspaper stories are not enough to change their opinion of an alderman they long have considered one of the most talented ever to serve in the City Council.

“So far, I haven’t seen anybody file any charges,” said Ald. Bernard Stone (50th). Referring to the call for Burke’s ouster and hearings on his conduct, Stone said, “If my colleagues are calling for things of that nature, I would only say that he who lives in a glass house shouldn’t throw stones.”