Defending the indefensible | On Politics | Chicago Reader

Defending the indefensible 

The Ed Burke question: If the city’s going to waste millions on downtown TIF deals, why shouldn’t he get a little piece of that pie?

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click to enlarge Ed Burke with his constituents - EDWARDBURKE2019.COM
  • Ed Burke with his constituents
  • EdwardBurke2019.com

Having finally gotten around to reading the 59-page federal indictment of Alderman Ed Burke, I feel compelled to say a word or two in his defense. No easy task, I assure you.

Of all the slimy characters I've watched rise from the ooze of Chicago politics over the years, Burke may be the most reptilian.

I don't think I'll ever forgive him for helping lead the Council Wars, a Trump-before-Trump white supremacist aldermanic uprising against Mayor Harold Washington back in the 80s.

However, I must concede that in his own foul and greedy way, Burke asks a pertinent question about Chicago's tax increment financing program: "What's in it for me?"

It's a question, folks, I've been posing for years. Let me explain . . .

As you know, a TIF is, in effect, a surcharge the city adds to your property tax to feed a slush fund that's largely controlled by the mayor.

Hence, Mayor Rahm just threw away about $2.4 billion of your property taxes on the Lincoln Yards and 78 TIF deals.

As the long-standing head of the council's Finance Committee, Burke was in a position to do what most Chicago citizens can only dream about—get something from a TIF deal.

And that brings us to the federal indictment.

A New York developer, 601W Companies, wanted an $18 million TIF handout to help subsidize its redevelopment of the massive Old Main Post Office in the South Loop.

Not sure why they needed all that money. Of course, TIF recipients are rarely, if ever, required to justify the handouts, as Chicago inspector general Joe Ferguson pointed out in his recent report on the TIF scam.

My guess is most developers take the money because our mayors—Rahm and Daley—have been so thirsty to give it to them.

In the case of the Old Main Post Office, the developers from 601W were also seeking a multimillion-dollar property tax break from Cook County. So, they'd pay less in taxes and receive a TIF handout.

Don't tell me Chicago has a Second City grudge against New Yorkers.

Apparently, Chicago's largesse really irked Burke. Not because we were throwing away tax dollars that we need for our schools, cops, and firefighters. Clearly, he doesn't care about that.

No, Burke was feeling slighted because he wasn't getting his slice of this deal.

We know this because Burke's conversations were being secretly recorded by former 25th Ward alderman Danny Solis, who was wearing a wire for the feds.

As early as August 2016, Burke told Solis he wasn't going to approve the post office deal unless 601W hired his law firm to handle its property tax appeals.

Burke promised to cut Solis in on some of the goodies should 601W retain his law firm by paying him as a "marketing representative." "I'm a believer in sharing the wealth," Burke told Solis, according to the indictment.

Over the next few months, Solis taped several conversations in which Burke bellyached about not getting business from 601W, cracking lines that will go down in the annals of Chicago quotes. Like . . .

"The cash register has not rung yet."

And "Did we land the, uh, tuna?"

And "Oh, good. Good, good, good. I like Asian."

My bad—that's Solis, the former chair of the council's Zoning Committee, in another FBI recording, explaining how he was willing to swap approval of zoning deals for rubdowns at a massage parlor.

Oh, our aldermen, Chicago.

On October 17, 2017, Burke, Solis, and representatives of 601W met in Solis's office as the developers explained why they needed TIF money for the post office deal.

After the developers left, Burke told Solis, "as far as I'm concerned, they can go fuck themselves."

Which pretty much sums up how I feel about most developers looking for TIF handouts.

Solis reminded Burke of something Burke already knew—601W, or any developer, needs Finance Committee approval before it gets to eat from the TIF honey pot.

To which Burke said: "Well, good luck getting it on the agenda."

I must confess—if I had the power to bottle up needless TIF handouts, I'd be tempted to do the same thing. Only instead of looking for business as a property tax lawyer, I want to know . . .

Why should we divert millions in property taxes from the schools for this deal when there's no money for special education?

Or, if we have money for wealthy developers, how come there's no money to fund mental health clinics in high-crime neighborhoods? Or pension payments for retired cops, firefighters, and teachers?

And other questions that never get asked, much less answered.

Alas, Burke had more personal concerns on his mind. Namely, how to get some money for his law business out of this deal. Think of it as the pinstriped-suit version of taking cash in an envelope.

By August 7, 2018, Burke apparently had gotten what he wanted. On that day, he told Solis a representative of 601W's real estate company had contacted his property tax firm, according to the federal indictment.

Solis asked Burke if he now supported TIF funding for the post office deal.

And Burke said: "Absolutely."

That's what has passed for TIF oversight by our ever-vigilant Finance Committee.

As the Sun-Times noted: "The proposal sailed through Burke's Finance Committee on September 17, 2018, and the City Council on September 20, 2018."

I love that line—makes me think of a little sailboat on the lake.

According to the feds, Burke expected to receive at least $45,000 in property tax business for greenlighting the post office TIF deal. That's about $45,000 more than the public schoolchildren of Chicago will get from this project.

Representatives of 601W released a statement saying they've been "the victim of a corrupt solicitation by" Burke. And they're voluntarily cooperating with federal prosecutors.

Like I said, I kind of understand Burke's perspective. Chicago's TIF program is a scam, as everyone should know by now.

If Mayor Rahm was dumb enough to throw millions to wealthy developers, a slimy shakedown artist like Burke would be dumb not to get himself $45,000 here or there.

As for the rest of us? Well, we have no excuse for putting up with this bullshit any longer.   v

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