After Investigation Forced Ald. Burke to Yield Control of Finance Committee, City Saved $1M: Annual Audit

Ald. Ed Burke (WTTW News)Ald. Ed Burke (WTTW News)

The city saved $1 million after an embattled Ald. Ed Burke (14th Ward) was forced to relinquish control of the Chicago City Council’s Finance Committee, which he ran with little oversight for decades, according to the city’s annual audit.

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In 2018, the committee spent approximately $2 million, the most of any of the City Council’s nearly two dozen legislative committees, in what was Burke’s last year. In 2019, the committee spent $1.1 million, according to the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report.

Burke resigned as chair of the City Council’s most powerful committee on Jan. 4, 2019, a day after he was charged with attempted extortion. Burke pleaded not guilty, and could face a trial in spring 2021 on an expanded indictment that includes 14 counts.

Former Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th Ward) replaced Burke as chair, only to lose his seat in April 2019 to Ald. Andre Vasquez.

Burke, who has rarely spoken to the news media after his indictment, did not respond to a request for comment from WTTW News.

Once Mayor Lori Lightfoot took office, one of her first moves was to tap Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd Ward) as Finance Committee chair. The former chair of the Progressive Caucus, Waguespack was long a thorn in Burke’s side, and was the first alderman to endorse Lightfoot.

Under Burke’s leadership, the committee’s payroll included 30 staff members. Under Waguespack, the committee has just three full-time staffers.

“There probably was significant waste,” Waguespack told WTTW News.

In this courtroom sketch, Ald. Ed Burke, left, appears before U.S. Federal Magistrate Judge Jeffrey Cole with his attorneys on Tuesday, June 4, 2019. (Credit: Tom Gianni)In this courtroom sketch, Ald. Ed Burke, left, appears before U.S. Federal Magistrate Judge Jeffrey Cole with his attorneys on Tuesday, June 4, 2019. (Credit: Tom Gianni)

The longest-serving alderman in Chicago history, Burke used the Finance Committee chair’s gavel to wield nearly unquestioned power at City Hall from a suite of offices decorated with Chicago history memorabilia and marked by a cabinet filled with guns.

Burke’s first stint as chairman ran from 1983 to 1987, when he was ousted by allies of former Mayor Harold Washington, whom the Southwest Side alderman worked to thwart at every turn. When former Mayor Richard M. Daley was elected in 1989, he returned Burke to his powerful perch, where he remained for 30 years.

The committee’s budget also paid for a security detail, which shadowed Burke since the 1980s when he said supporters of Washington posed a threat. In 2019, six people were assigned to drive Burke and serve as his bodyguards. Neither O’Connor nor Waguespack requested or received a security detail.

The Finance Committee’s large staff allowed Burke to loan employees to at least five aldermen who were struggling to stretch their $190,000 annual office budget far enough to meet all of the demands of their constituents, as first reported by WTTW News in March 2019.

Inspector General Joseph Ferguson said that power “indebted” aldermen to Burke — and gave him sources across the city and throughout City Hall who could report back to him.

Waguespack said he stopped that practice, and cut the staff while focusing on putting new computer software in place to review contracts and small claims. The Finance Committee ended 2019 under budget, spending $1.1 million when it was budgeted to spend $1.4 million, according to the annual financial report.

Ald. Ed Burke speaks with “Chicago Tonight” reporter Amanda Vinicky and other reporters outside his home on Thursday, Nov. 29, hours after FBI agents raided his offices. (WTTW News)Ald. Ed Burke speaks with “Chicago Tonight” reporter Amanda Vinicky and other reporters outside his home on Thursday, Nov. 29, hours after FBI agents raided his offices. (WTTW News)

In 2016, the City Council narrowly rejected a reform measure that would have given Ferguson oversight of the City Council’s committees amid concerted opposition from Burke. In July 2019, a measure giving Ferguson the authority to investigate aldermen and “audit council administrative procedures” passed 50-0.

While he was Finance Committee chair, Burke also controlled the city’s $100 million workers’ compensation fund. After the embattled alderman relinquished his gavel, former Mayor Rahm Emanuel moved the fund to the Finance Department and put the comptroller in charge.

An audit ordered by Emanuel and released on his last day in office found that, under Burke, the workers’ compensation fund had “significant control deficiencies and weaknesses” that could allow fraud, waste and abuse to flourish unchecked.

In January 2019, Lightfoot outsourced the program to a private firm, Gallagher Bassett.

It will take approximately two years for the city to work through the backlog of claims that accumulated under Burke’s leadership, and start to realize cost-savings, according to Comptroller Reshma Soni.

The revamped program is working as expected so far, Soni said.

Overall Committee Spending Down

Just before she took office in May 2019, Lightfoot unveiled her slate of committee chairs — anointing a dozen aldermen as her most prominent allies, but vowing to end business as usual.

The mayor said City Council chairs would help her “achieve our mission of a more transparent and accountable City Council.”

In addition to Burke, Lightfoot ousted another longtime committee chair, Ald. Carrie Austin (34th Ward), who led the Budget and Government Operations Committee for 12 years after the Chicago Sun-Times reported in July 2019 that she overspent her committee budget by 65%.

Under Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd Ward), the new chair of the Budget Committee, the committee spent 30% less in 2019 than it did in 2018, according to the 2018 and 2019 annual reports.

After ousting her, Lightfoot made Austin chairman of the Committee on Contracting Oversight and Equity. That committee, which has met just twice, spent $122,881 in 2019, significantly less than its original budget, according to the city’s annual report.

Lightfoot also created a Committee on Ethics and Government Oversight and a special committee designed to boost the city’s census response rate.

The mayor changed the scope of two committees — the Committee on Environmental Protection and Energy as well as the Committee on Health and Human Relations — making it impossible to compare their budgets directly between 2018 and 2019.

Most committees spent significantly less after Lightfoot took over. For example, the Committee on Workforce Development spent 20% less once Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th Ward) replaced O’Connor, Emanuel’s floor leader, as chair.

However, four committees spent more in 2019 than in 2018:

— Special Events, Cultural Affairs and Recreation Committee: 14.5% more
— Public Safety Committee: 30% more
— Aviation Committee: 35% more
— Economic, Capital and Technology Development Committee: 81% more

Just two committees exceeded their 2019 budgets, according to the annual report. The Public Safety Committee, led by Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th Ward) exceeded its budget by 7.5%, while the Special Events, Cultural Affairs and Recreation Committee, chaired by Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38th Ward), went 3.5% over budget.

Both aldermen blamed a mistake by the city’s budget office during the transition from one committee chair to another for the overspending. Neither alderman was aware of the overage before being contacted by WTTW News. Taliaferro was tapped by Lightfoot to replace Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30th Ward) and Sposato replaced Ald. Tom Tunney (44th Ward), who now chairs the Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards.

“Former Chairman Reboyras’ staff continued to be paid from the committee budget during a time in which my staff was on-boarding and being paid from the same budget,” Taliaferro said. “This was not my fault as chairman or former Chairman Reboyras.”

Sposato said the same error occurred with his committee’s budget.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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