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Ed Burke did lots of favors for people, then 'cashed in the chits'

It was just days after my paternal grandmother passed away when my reporter’s cell phone rang with a call from an aide to then-Ald. Ed Burke.

The dean of the Chicago City Council, the aide said, had seen the death notice in the newspaper. Burke wanted to express his condolences — and sponsor a council resolution honoring my grandmother.

I thanked the Burke aide for the sympathy, but told him that my family are private people who declined the offer of a resolution.

My grandmother was an immigrant seamstress in the sub-basement of Marshall Field’s, who never became anywhere near fluent in English (though she made the diaspora’s best dolmades with wild grape leaves from forest preserves).

Then again, of course, Yiayia Eleni was not the reason why the Finance Committee chairman wanted to sponsor the resolution marking her passing.

Another time, on a December day a few years later, I found it harder to evade another, more modest offer of tribute from Burke.

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I was hanging around outside a charter school on the Southwest Side when a Burke ally, in the throes of an insider-contracting scandal, was about to step down as head of the publicly funded charter chain. That’s when I saw a sedan moving west on 51st Street, chauffeuring Burke to his house.

Seeking a comment for my story on the charter chief’s downfall, I tailed the car to Burke’s place a few blocks away. I jumped out to try to intercept Burke between the car and the door. After he told his police bodyguard detail to stand down, Burke gave me a comment praising his embattled ally.

At the end of the impromptu interview, Burke asked why I wasn’t wearing a hat in frigid weather.

"I left my hat in the car ‘cause I was in a hurry to catch you," I replied.

The alderman went to his trunk and pulled out a pair of earmuffs, the sort that cops are given, with the flag of Chicago stitched into each flap. He told me to put them on. I don’t know why, but I followed the order.

“Looks good on you,” Burke said, and quickly walked through the opening in his wrought-iron fence and into the house before I could return the earmuffs.

Earmuffs with Chicago flag on flaps.

The earmuffs Ed Burke gave to Dan Mihalopoulus.


Back at the newsroom downtown, I modeled the earmuffs for my fellow reporters. They ribbed me that I was now too compromised to report on Burke again.

Still, we later mined city snowplow-tracker data to show how Streets and San crews repeatedly shoveled the Burkes’ side street before getting to far busier roads after a big blizzard.

Burke ‘cashed in his many chits’

Then there was the far more serious matter of the federal corruption case against Burke. We detailed how he also loved to wear multiple proverbial hats, illicitly blurring the lines between his public service and private law practice.

But this week, I again remembered those times when Burke tried to provide favors that I had neither sought nor really wanted.

Burke was sentenced in federal court Monday, enjoying leniency far short of the sentencing guidelines and the prosecutors’ request. The relatively light, two-year term was thanks in great part to a flood of letters from many powerful people who gratefully detailed what Burke had done for them.

Burke may not always have kept accounts as closely — and crookedly — as the time he was caught on a federal wiretap, musing about how the “cash register has not rung yet” because a downtown developer who wanted his official assistance had not taken up his offer of legal services.


But as those letters poured toward the sentencing judge, Burke reaped a strong return on his steady investment over the decades. He no doubt benefited from all the times he had used his power for people who could someday possibly assist him, too.

Despite having worn those earmuffs for a few awkward moments before switching back to my own hat, I have no issue questioning why Burke got sentenced to a prison term far shorter than what prosecutors said his corruption so richly deserved.

I can see, though, how he amassed and cashed in the many chits that helped sway the judge.

Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter for WBEZ. He has covered Chicago politics and government for 20 years.

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