Perhaps the weakest federal criminal charge against former Chicago Alderman Ed Burke was about his plot to extort the Chicago Field Museum because a friend’s daughter never heard back about an internship after Ald Burke sent over her résumé.

U.S. District Court Judge Virginia Kendall seemed “unimpressed” by federal prosecutors’ reasoning in mid-December after Burke’s legal team moved to dismiss the charge ahead of closing arguments, according to Tribune reporter Jason Meisner.

Judge Kendall ultimately decided not to dismiss the charge, but said, “It certainly is an extremely odd attempted extortion count. I’m going to allow it to go to the jury, but I’m taking it under advisement,” Meisner reported at the time.

Burke’s lawyers had argued that to be convicted of extortion, the government must prove that the defendant knowingly took a substantial step toward extortion with the intent to commit extortion.

Burke had already hired his old friend’s daughter by the time of his conversations with the folks at the Field Museum, his attorneys pointed out. “In fact, he specifically repudiated the Field Museum’s overtures” about working something out, they maintained.

Burke did snap at a governmental-relations staffer who’d called to see if he was opposed to the Field Museum’s admission price-increase proposal because Burke had earlier come out hard against another museum’s entry-fee request with the Chicago Park District. Burke said he was angry that the museum had dropped the ball on the internship application and asked, “So now, you’re going to make a request of me?”

“I’m sure I know what you want to do,” Burke said. “Because if the chairman of the Committee on Finance [Burke] calls the president of the park board, your proposal is going to go nowhere.”

The employee testified that she perceived that as a “threat.”

But Burke didn’t try to stop the park district from ultimately approving the fee hike, and while the museum offered to find another spot for the young woman, she never acted on that. And Burke’s lawyers claimed that the governmental-relations person wasn’t a “decision maker” at the museum, pointed out that Burke had no direct control over the park district and that the museum’s CEO testified he didn’t believe he’d been shaken down.

“The requirement of proving a substantial step serves to distinguish people who pose real threats from those who are all hot air,” Burke’s lawyers quoted from an appellate-court case, U.S. v Gladish. Judge Richard Posner continued in that 2008 opinion: “You are not punished just for saying that you want or even intend to kill someone, because most such talk doesn't lead to action. You have to do something that makes it reasonably clear that had you not been interrupted or made a mistake. . . you would have completed the crime.”

To be abundantly clear, this is in no way a defense of Ed Burke. He bullied people for decades, and, hey, what goes around, comes around. And he was not only convicted on the Field Museum charges, but on a whole lot of other, more concrete and straightforward charges - which might possibly have helped buttress the case that Burke did indeed make a “real threat” against the museum.

Instead, this is a warning to everyone else in the political business.

The federal government has now convicted a former elected government official for making an oblique threat that he never followed through on (the museum’s fee hike was approved soon after) over his personal embarrassment that an internship application of the daughter of an old and dear friend that he’d forwarded had been lost in a bureaucratic shuffle.

I’ve been around long enough to know that this sort of thing is not a rare event in government at just about every level.

A lawmaker, for instance, feels insulted. So, in anger, the legislator makes a likely empty threat to retaliate on a bill, or an appropriation, or whatever. And maybe the threat isn’t even all that empty.

Don’t do it.


Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and Capitol

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