CHICAGO — Opening statements continued Friday in the Ed Burke federal corruption trial.
At this point, Jurors in Burke’s trial have heard starkly different descriptions of the once powerful alderman — federal prosecutors called him a “bribe-taker” and an “extortionist,” while defense attorneys painted him as an “old school, hard working public servant.”
These are the two perceptions jurors will have to decide the accuracy of, as Burke’s trial goes on.
Was Burke a public official abusing his office, or was he a public servant simply doing his job?
According to WGN legal analyst Paul Lisnek, the case might hinge on how jurors react to nearly two years of wiretapped phone calls.
“There will be a balance of tapes in this case, some that make former Alderman Burke look pretty bad in his dealings with others, and others perhaps where he looks like an honest, hardworking alderman,” Lisnek said. “That’s going to be the battle of the lawyers, and that’s going to be the battle of the tapes, and that’s what this case is all about.”
On Thursday, prosecutors opened the trial by laying out what they called a “pattern of corruption,” outlined in four episodes involving a Burger King, a Binny’s, the old main post office, and the Field Museum, in which prosecutors argued Burke was twisting arms to extort business owners and institutions into paying his private law firm in exchange for permits and favors.
Burke’s defense attorney, Chris Gair, discussed the alleged Burger King scheme in his opening statement Thursday, where Burke is accused of using his official power to stall construction on a Burger King restaurant in his ward, until the owners agreed to pay his law firm to appeal their property taxes.
“You will not hear one witness say – Mr. Burke or anyone else say – ‘We’re holding up your driveway permit until you hire me,'” Gair told the jurors. “There’s not one shred of evidence.”
Later, Gair discussed the accusation that Burke tried to block a proposed admission fee increase at the Field Museum after his goddaughter did not get an internship there, saying the internship had nothing to do with the fees.
“Mr. Burke, because he cares about this city, was very concerned about kids and people in underserved communities about price increases,” Gair said.
He then told jurors that Burke neither accepted money, nor threatened anyone.
“This is a curious extortion because they never hired Ed Burke’s firm,” Gair said. “That’s how scared they were of Ed Burke.”
Elmhurst University political science professor Connie Mixon was the first witnessed called to the stand. Mixon was brought on as an expert to explain the complexities and peculiarities of Chicago’s government.
“Chicago has one big mayor and 50 mini mayors,” Mixon said of the roles of City Council members. “Each one of the alderpersons serves as a sort of mayor of their own ward.”
The Elmhurst professor also provided context to the history of Burke’s career as a Chicago politician.
“He’s [been] a fixture in Chicago politics for over 50 years, as mayors came and went, Alderman Burke was the one constant on city council,” Mixon said on the stand. “Very influential within the city of Chicago.”
Burke is facing 14 federal charges including racketeering, bribery and extortion. He’s being tried, along with his former chief of staff Peter Andrews and Portage Park developer Charles Cui.
Andrews and Cui also outlined their cases Friday, saying they had minimal involvement in Burke’s alleged schemes. To underscore the point, Andrews’ attorney Todd Pugh referred to Andrews as “Part-Time Pete” and “lunch Pail Pete.”
The trial is scheduled to take about six weeks and all three co-defendants have pleaded not guilty.