Former Mayoral Candidate Paul Vallas Tells Judge Ex-Ald. Ed Burke is Worthy of ‘Leniency’

Video: The WTTW News Spotlight Politics team discusses Paul Vallas’ letter and more of the day’s top stories. (Produced by Andrea Guthmann)

Former mayoral candidate Paul Vallas urged U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall to show “leniency” to convicted former Ald. Ed Burke (14th Ward) in a letter made public Tuesday, two months before Burke is set to be sentenced on 13 counts of bribery, attempted extortion and racketeering.

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Kendall released the letter from Vallas after attorneys for WBEZ and the Chicago Sun-Times urged her to do so, citing the likely news value of the missive. Burke, 80, is scheduled to be sentenced June 24.

Citing Burke’s body of “civic and charitable contributions,” Vallas told Kendall the former alderperson is “worthy of whatever leniency you see fit to provide.”

“I know he truly cared, not only for his own constituents, but for all of Chicago and for the success of our great city,” Vallas wrote of Burke, who was convicted of charges more often brought against mob bosses than politicians.

While Burke served as the chair of the City Council’s Finance Committee, Vallas served as former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s budget director and went on to lead Chicago Public Schools.

In his letter, Vallas tells Kendall that the reforms he pursued while a high-ranking city official and his “willingness to attack ‘sacred cows’ at city hall, and to terminate both ineffective employees and bloated contracts of the politically connected led some members of the ‘political machine’ to shun me, and certainly all of them to tread lightly around me.”

But that did not extend to Burke, Vallas writes.

“Ed was always supportive of my reforms and encouraged me to do the right thing for the average Chicago citizen, no matter how powerful were the feathers I ruffled,” Vallas said, praising Burke as a “true professional, whom I always felt met my standards for ethics.”

Vallas said Burke helped him learn to navigate the “treacherous political waters” at City Hall when he was starting out.

Read Vallas’ full letter.

However, the jury in the former alderperson’s trial unanimously found that Burke, once the city’s most powerful politician, habitually engaged in the kind of classic pay-to-play corruption that has made Chicago as well known for corruption as it is for deep-dish pizza.

The jury that convicted Burke heard hundreds of hours of tapes that captured Burke reflexively engaging in what prosecutors said was rampant corruption — without anyone around him blowing the whistle or even voicing the mildest objection.

Vallas first ran for mayor in 2019, an election that was shaped by the federal corruption probe that upended Chicago politics and ultimately led to Burke’s conviction.

During that election, Vallas often appeared at news conferences brandishing a broom to illustrate his vow to clean up City Hall and rid it of corruption. Vallas finished in ninth place, far behind former Mayor Lori Lightfoot who vowed to “bring in the light.”

During the 2019 mayoral election, candidate Paul Vallas often appeared at news conferences brandishing a broom to illustrate his vow to clean up City Hall and rid it of corruption. (Heather Cherone / WTTW News)During the 2019 mayoral election, candidate Paul Vallas often appeared at news conferences brandishing a broom to illustrate his vow to clean up City Hall and rid it of corruption. (Heather Cherone / WTTW News)

Vallas ran again in 2023, but lost to Mayor Brandon Johnson in the runoff. After the election, Vallas became a frequent critic of the mayor, regularly taking to social media and the opinion pages of the Chicago Tribune to blast Johnson’s initiatives and policies. Vallas is now a policy adviser for the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative public policy research and advocacy group.

In a brief interview with WTTW News on Tuesday, Vallas declined to answer detailed questions about why he wrote the letter in support of Burke.

“The letter speaks for itself,” Vallas said, adding that he was not commenting on the merits of the case that is likely to send Burke to prison.

Before ending the call abruptly, Vallas said there was no contradiction between his decision to write the letter and his 2019 campaign for Chicago mayor, which centered on promises to end corruption at City Hall.

Vallas’ letter was one of three letters released Tuesday that urged Kendall to show Burke mercy.

In a handwritten letter, James “Skinny” Sheahan, who also worked for Daley, asked Kendall not to send Burke to prison, but sentence him to work with the Special Olympics, which his wife, former Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne M. Burke, helped found.

The brother of former Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan, James Sheahan served as the director of special events and helped run political campaigns for Daley and his allies.

“We have not always been on the same team politically, but working with him at City Hall, I found him to be great,” James Sheahan said. “I found him to always be fair, honest and thorough.”

Read Sheahans full letter.

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

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