RFI Statement on Former Ald. Ed Burke’s Sentencing

Former Ald. Edward Burke’s sentencing on corruption charges represents a clarion call for Mayor Johnson and the City Council to take action on ethics reform.

The longtime Finance Committee chair, who also chaired the Cook County Democratic Party’s judicial slating committee for many years, was convicted in December on racketeering, bribery, and attempted extortion charges and sentenced this week to two years in prison and a $2 million fine.

Reforms enacted in the months following Burke’s 2019 indictment addressed some elements of his corruption. Mayor Lori Lightfoot removed aldermanic control over business permitting decisions, and then-Ethics Committee chair Michele Smith led the City Council to enact a ban on outside employment that conflicts with Council members’ fiduciary duty to the city — such as the property tax law practice that helped make Burke a multimillionaire.

But further steps currently proposed appear to be stalled. These include Ethics Board recommendations such as expanding the limit on political donations from city contractors to cover owners and officers of those entities and their relatives, and codifying the ban on lobbyist contributions to mayoral candidates. Banning more outside employment by Council members, as the U.S. Congress and other large cities do, would also go further than current restrictions in preventing exchanges of money or jobs for political favors.

In addition, the Fair Elections small donor matching program for aldermanic candidates proposed by Ethics Chair Matt Martin would be a powerful anti-corruption tool that would reduce the costly pay-to-play politics that Burke exemplified. Mayor Johnson has repeatedly said he supports public campaign financing but hasn’t yet weighed in on Ald. Martin’s ordinance.

Burke’s two-year sentence is just a fraction of the ten years sought by prosecutors. And as the Chicago Tribune reported, he can likely pay his fine out of his campaign account. The law allows him to use the $2.45 million the account held in 1998, when political expenditure restrictions were enacted, for any kind of personal use.

That light sentence may not provide the accountability that Chicagoans deserve, given the tremendous damage Burke inflicted on the public’s trust. But Chicago’s leaders now have the chance to make real changes that can earn our confidence and create a more effective and ethical government. We hope they will act soon.


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