Greising: Ed Burke Extortion Filing Reveals a Playbook for Chicago Business

The execs on the receiving end of Ed Burke's alleged shakedown attempt delayed and deflected the alderman's unyielding pressure, coming off as part brave, part stubborn and just crafty enough to stay one step ahead of him.

Ald. Ed Burke. (Brian Jackson/Chicago Sun-Times)

BGA President David Greising writes a regular column for Crain's Chicago Business.

Once in a rare while, when a corrupt politician in Chicago is angling for profitable advantage, the person or business on the other side of the deal just refuses to play along.

And when that happens, it's a beautiful sight.

And rare. Because far too often the people who receive demands for payoffs and graft simply follow the unwritten rules of corruption in Chicago.

Rules like: If you need a construction permit and your alderman meets you at an out-of-the-way spot, then boasts about the powers of his private tax-appeals business, he's not making small talk. That's the start of a pay-to-play pitch that's as old as Chicago corruption itself.

The rules work—for the pols and against the public—so long as businesses join in on the action.

The feds' Silver Shovel investigation of the 1990s might have dug up nothing had would-be vendors not offered bribes for city construction business. The same goes for Hired Truck, another case of chronic, corrupt corporate payments.

The unwritten rules seemed very much in play when Ald. Edward Burke in June 2017 met with officials from restaurant operator Houston Foods at the Beverly Country Club, according to a federal attempted extortion charge brought against Burke this month. He says he did nothing wrong, but the complaint lays out detailed evidence that says something else.

The Houston Foods executives needed permits to remodel a Burger King restaurant, and because it was in Burke's ward, they needed his help.

At the lunch, according to the complaint, Burke mentioned his tax-appeals firm, Klafter & Burke, which peddles property tax reductions to corporate clients all over the city.

And for the next seven months, according to the federal complaint, Burke tracked the progress of the Burger King remodel—and the persistent failure of Houston Foods to hire his firm—like a pickpocket tracking a mark. And with Houston Foods owning some 160 restaurants in Illinois, it was a big mark indeed.

Burke asked an associate to tell the Texans what a big, powerful dude he is in Chicago, the complaint says. He had an employee in his ward office pestering Houston Foods to sign on with his firm, it says.

At one point, Burke's underling, in response to the alderman's urging, promised to "play as hard ball as I can." City inspectors soon showed up at the Burger King to make certain no further work was done, the complaint says.

By mid-December, things came to a head. In a face-to-face meeting with Burke, a company official promised to hire his firm, the complaint says. Questions later arose about how many of the company's stores must sign up, and Burke informed a city employee that all of the company's locations would be represented by his firm.

The pursuit went on so long because the Texans never did put their money where their fibbing mouths were. They kept promising to hire Burke's firm, but Burke's big paycheck was perpetually in the mail.

The Houston Foods executives, who delayed and deflected Burke's unyielding pressure, come off as part brave, part stubborn and just crafty enough to stay one step ahead of him.

Not only did they not play by the rules, they refused to play the game at all.

At moments such as those faced by Houston Foods, some companies just cave in. They contribute to the cause of corruption in Chicago. They grease the palm. They help the alderman wet the beak. In a city where "Where's mine?" is the unofficial motto, they respond with a fat brown envelope and a simple, "Here's yours."

To stand up to corruption takes courage, and it can come at a cost.

At times it can seem downright heroic. Patrick Magoon, CEO of Lurie Children's Hospital, refused to comply with then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich's request for a $50,000 contribution. Magoon did so despite Blago's threat to withhold $8 million in state payments to the hospital.

Some businesspeople decide it's easiest just to hand over the brown envelope. They calculate the cave-in as a cost of business.

Then there are those who won't play that game. It can be terrifying, and even costly. It's also the right thing to do.