Burke’s charges bring fresh debate in Springfield about conflicts of interest

In the aftermath of longtime Chicago Alderman Ed Burke’s extortion indictment for allegedly using his elected position to steer business to his law firm, there are new calls to control who can practice property tax appeals, but not everyone thinks… https://www.ilnews.org/news/state_politics/burke-s-charges-bring-fresh-debate-in-springfield-about-conflicts/article_d5b430a4-150f-11e9-a492-2f27b792394a.html

In the aftermath of longtime Chicago Alderman Ed Burke’s extortion indictment for allegedly using his elected position to steer business to his law firm, there are new calls to control who can practice property tax appeals, but not everyone thinks that’s a good idea.

Last week, Burke appeared in a Chicago courtroom to answer to federal extortion charges that allege he tried to get company officials seeking to renovate a Burger King in his ward to steer the company’s property tax work to his private law firm. The charges came a little more than a month after FBI agents raided Burke’s City Hall and legal offices. As part of their investigation, federal agents obtained a warrant to wiretap Burke’s cellphone, according to the criminal complaint.

Burke, 75, was first elected to the Chicago City Council in 1969. He has denied wrongdoing.

Outgoing Gov. Bruce Rauner said the allegations against Burke aren’t unique.

“Unfortunately there are other elected officials who do exactly the same type of thing using their political position and their political power to exert pressure on business and property owners to enrich themselves,” Rauner said. “This is not a one person thing.”

Rauner said such behavior is common knowledge among the business community in Chicago and it makes people less likely to invest in Illinois. He said there should be controls on property tax appeal lawyers holding elected office. Rauner tried to use an executive order in January 2018 to prohibit state lawmakers from representing clients before the Illinois Property Tax Appeal Board.

“I did an executive order so we could at least stop it at the state level … and oh goodness, some legislators on [the Joint Commission on Administrative Rules] said ‘oh no, you can’t do that with an executive order,’ ” Rauner said. “I’m shocked.”

State Rep. Robert Martwick, D-Chicago, who’s also a property tax appeals lawyer, said blocking an entire profession from holding elected office because of one bad actor is wrong.

“One has nothing to do with the other,” Martwick said. “Illinois has a long and storied history of people committing corruption and abusing their public trust and not all of them have been tax lawyers. You can have good lawyers and bad lawyers. You can have good doctors and bad doctors. You can have good journalists and bad journalists.”

Every profession “has a conflict of interest in the state of Illinois. That is what a citizen government does,” Martwick said. “To pick out one and rule [them] out because one person has been overtly corrupt is really the wrong thing to do.”

Martwick said raising the issue is only meant as a political attack against House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, who also is a property tax appeals lawyer.

Rauner has criticized Madigan for having a property tax appeals business while holding the most powerful office in the Illinois House.

Madigan hasn’t commented on Burke’s situation, Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said.

As to Madigan’s perceived conflict of interest being in control of legislation dealing with local property taxes while having a property tax appeals business in Chicago, Brown said “during his career in public service [Madigan] has used a personal code of conduct that prevents any possibility that his public office is used to benefit himself, the law firm or clients of the law firm.”

State Rep. Tom Morrison, R-Palatine, supported a measure last session to bar state lawmakers from practicing property tax appeal law, but the bill died in a House committee controlled by Madigan.

“Either you serve in the General Assembly [and] you own a law firm or you represent clients in property tax disputes, you can’t do both because clearly there’s a conflict of interest,” Morrison said.

Brown said such a measure could be struck down by the Illinois Supreme Court.

Morrison said rumors of Burke’s activity have been floating around for decades.

“Anytime elected officials use their office to squeeze a taxpayer, to squeeze a business, it’s wrong, it’s corruption, it’s extortion and it needs to go,” Morrison said. “It absolutely chases individuals and businesses out of jurisdictions because the game is rigged.”

Morrison said property taxes are a major issue for every Illinois resident or business.

“And so many of the laws that are passed down here in Springfield do have an impact on property taxes back at home,” Morrison said. “That’s the conflict of interest.”

Illinois has among the highest property taxes in the country.


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