We've known for weeks now that the FBI recorded Chicago Alderman Ed Burke's mobile-phone conversations over a period of eight months, listening in on 9,475 calls. And then we discovered that the feds had wired up Chicago Alderman Danny Solis during his own conversations with Burke.
Alderman Burke has a rather, um, “earthy” way of talking when he's among friends and close allies. Race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, sexuality, whatever. You name it, if there's a socially unacceptable word to describe it, his pals say, he's probably used it.
I'm not saying for sure that the feds have him on tape saying stuff like that, but if they do, there's no way in heck that Burke wants a Chicago-area jury hearing it. Those words could destroy a defendant. And, of course, few on the other end of any of those conversations want that stuff to come out, either. People might bend over backwards to be helpful if the feds play them those tapes.
The feds, in other words, might very well possess some embarrassing leverage on Burke aside from the alleged illegalities. And the feds love leverage.
They most certainly used leverage against Alderman Solis. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that the feds recorded almost twice as many of Solis' calls as Burke's – 18,000 in all. Some of those calls centered around asking a political operative to set up trips to massage parlors, allegedly in exchange for official government acts. Alderman Solis agreed to flip on Burke when confronted with the evidence in 2016.
Being caught on an FBI wiretap doesn't automatically mean somebody did something wrong. Back in 2017 and then again in 2018, the mere presence of JB Pritzker on old FBI wiretaps of Governor Rod Blagojevich was enough to rattle his gubernatorial campaign to the very bone, even though there was no evidence then or since that he was ever under any sort of investigation.
Pritzker simply called the wrong guy at the wrong time and said some stupid things that wound up being memorialized on a government recording device. But lots of folks jumped to an immediate conclusion that the hint of federal smoke somehow meant the existence of a raging corruption fire. Nothing like that has ever emerged.
We don't yet know for sure, but the same might be said of what's being treated by the media as an explosive revelation that an FBI mole recorded a 2014 meeting with Alderman Solis, a Chinatown real-estate developer and House Speaker Michael Madigan.
Madigan didn't say anything illegal on the recording. He was at his law firm's office and Alderman Solis had brought the developer in to talk about perhaps retaining Madigan's property-tax assessment firm for a hotel the businessman was trying to build. The developer never hired Madigan's firm and never built the hotel. And all this happened almost five years ago and we haven't heard anything else since then.
The story does give us an inside peek into how things work in Chicago, however. Madigan's law office can apparently be an important stop on the path toward getting things done. And while Madigan himself can avoid doing anything overt to help his law firm's clients outside of property-tax appeals, just meeting with Madigan could help those clients check a very important box with other important people such as Solis.
Madigan himself could be completely ignorant of why a potential client is in his office. Indeed, it's almost 100-percent certain he wants it that way. You'd have to be insanely greedy to risk prison over a $3,000 annual property-tax retainer.
But Madigan is so powerful that people such as Solis want to do whatever they can to get into and remain in his good graces. So it's not at all inconceivable that part of an alderman's process of approving a development could include a meeting at Madigan's firm to show fealty and offer tribute.
The big question: If Solis wired up on Burke, did he also wire up on Madigan? The House Speaker issued a statement through his attorney admitting he “recalls attending several meetings with Alderman Solis over the past five years, including meetings with individuals in need of legal representation.”
Despite the frothing at the mouth from the usual Madigan haters, we simply have no way of knowing if the feds have any leverage on the guy. Be patient. If they've got him, they've got him. If they don't … . Well, it wouldn't surprise me.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.