IPO Logo Home Search Browse About IPO Staff


Investigating political corruptioncould make Democrat Jim Bums a contender in a general election. But will he have enough friends left to get that far?

by Mark Brown
Photographs by Jon Randolph

Jim Burns

The playbook on how to become the Democratic nominee for governor of Illinois would certainly not include this advice: Take the next four years of your life and antagonize nearly every major Democratic official in Cook County. Yet that's pretty mud the course of action followed by the man who some think would have the strongest chance of any Democrat in 1998 to break the Republican Party's two-decade domination of the state's highest office.

22 / July/August 1997 Illinois Issues

From Operation Silver Shovel to Operation Haunted Hall, Burns has made his mark largely at the expense of his fellow Democrats.

James B. Burns, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, whose aspirations for elective office are well known, even if his timetable for pursuing it isn't, has spent his four- year term making himself unpopular with Democratic officeholders in Chicago. From Operation Silver Shovel, a classic FBI sting involving payoffs to public officials, to Operation Haunted Hall, a simple yet ground-breaking probe of "ghost" or no-show payrollers on Chicago City Council committee staffs, Burns has made his mark largely at the expense of his fellow Democrats.

No major political figures have been charged so far during Burns' tenure, just some second-tier Chicago aldermen and an already-imprisoned congressman, but even officials who haven't been implicated in any wrongdoing have had to endure grand jury subpoenas and federal agents probing their employee records. That's a show of political independence that could help make someone a formidable contender in a statewide general election against a Republican, but a big question has to be: Does Jim Burns have enough friends left to get that far?

The biographical outline is certainly enough to whet the interest of any Democrat Burns hasn't already indicted: a 51-year-old, 6-feet-4-inch, gangbusting, ghost-busting federal prosecutor from Chicago; a resident of suburban Evanston, born in Quincy; an All-State basketball star who grew up in McLeansboro and went on to become a member of the Chicago Bulls. (Okay, so his brief benchwarming stint with the Bulls predated Michael Jordan's entrance into first grade, but it gets people's attention.)

Burns, whose only campaign experience was an unsuccessful bid as Neil Hartigan's lieutenant governor running mate in 1990, has declined to talk about the governor's race. He admits, however, that he is indeed contemplating his future.

"I would think politics or public service would certainly be one of the considerations whether it's running for elective office, whether there might be another appointment somewhere, whether I might stay here," Burns said in a recent interview at his Chicago office in the Dirksen Federal Building, a JFK bust at his side and a stuffed leopard seized by U.S. Customs agents prowling nearby. But there's also private practice to consider (he still has two kids to put through college) or maybe even something in business, he allows. "Have I ruled anything out? No," Burns said.

That is telling. The fact that he won't rule out a run for governor is evidence enough that it's on his mind. After all, Burns is not some mid- to low-level elected official stringing everybody along about his aspirations for higher office in hopes of beefing up his campaign fund.

Still, time is running out. U.S. Rep. Glenn Poshard of Marion is busy sewing up the downstate support that Burns might have hoped to garner with his southeastern Illinois roots, nd Chicago lawyer John Schmidt is busy lining up the major Democratic contributors Burns would probably need. Gene Callahan, a former top aide to Alan Dixon and Paul Simon, who expects to support Burns if he enters the race, figures he'll need to make up his mind before Democrat Day at the Illinois State Fair. That's August 14. If he chooses, Burns could make things hotter than usual on the dais.

Meanwhile, Burns shrugs off any suggestion that Chicago Democrats are unhappy with him, acknowledging only the antipathy of those he has indicted. "I don't hear it personally. None of them have ever come to me," Burns says. "We play it by the book."

His friends have heard it, though.

"Sure, he's made enemies. ... He's made a lot of enemies," says Callahan, who counts that as one of Burns' political pluses. Callahan, who recently returned to Springfield after stepping down from his job as Capitol Hill lobbyist for Major League Baseball, says he expects support for Burns among average citizens in Chicago would more than overcome the reluctance of their public officials. He recounts how Burns asked him to talk to Simon in 1993 about the U.S. attorney opening, which was widely expected to go to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley's pick, Richard Devine, who has since been elected Cook County state's attorney. "What would you do if a member of my family committed a felony?" Callahan recalls asking Burns. "I'd prosecute them," Burns responded. That was the right answer, says Callahan, who gave Burns his recommendation.

Some think the lukewarm attitude toward Burns at City Hall can be traced to his original selection over Devine, who was Daley's first assistant when the mayor held the state's attorney job. It didn't help when federal prosecutors questioned Daley's brother, John, about ghost payrolling allegations against Barbara Molaro, the wife of state Sen. Robert Molaro, a Chicago Democrat. No accusations have ever been made against John Daley, a former state senator, although some of Molaro's ghost employment was allegedly based out of Daley's 1 Ith Ward office. She's facing charges.

Also in the too-close-for-comfort category was the ghost payrolling indictment of former Chicago Aid. John Madrzyk, who long served as House Speaker Michael J. Madigan's man on the City Council. Then there's powerful City Council Finance Chairman Edward M. Burke, who, though never charged, has been dogged for three years by the Haunted Hall probe. The investigation landed squarely on his doorstep in January when Joseph Martinez, an employee of Burke's law firm and a former alderman himself,

Illinois Issues July/August 1997 / 23

The ghost pay rolling investigation carries Burns' personal stamp

The ghost pay rolling investigation carries Burns' personal stamp, inasmuch as it changed the unofficial rules of engagement about what constitutes a prosecutable federal crime. Previous V. S. attorneys had treated ghost pay rolling as too insignificant to merit federal interest.

pleaded guilty to being a no-show worker for the Finance Committee.

Burns takes particular pride in Haunted Hall, the FBI's code name for the ghost payrolling investigation, which already has bagged nearly 30 convictions, most of them employees of former Chicago Aid. Anthony Laurino or Cook County Sheriff James O'Grady, a Republican. Burns, who promises there's more to come, likes to remind people of the O'Grady connection when asked about the beef that his office is more interested in Democratic than Republican corruption.

The ghost investigation carries Burns' personal stamp, inasmuch as it changed the unofficial rules of engagement about what constitutes a prosecutable federal crime. Previous U.S. attorneys had treated ghost payrolling as too insignificant to merit the federal government's interest, unless kickbacks were involved. But Burns adopted the more hard-nosed philosophy that government employees with no-show jobs were, in effect, stealing from the public.

"In the past, I think there was a reluctance to go on ghost payrolling as too hard to prove," Burns acknowledges.

The shift in attitude sent shock waves through the City Council and Cook County government as it became clear that Burns was serious. The joke in some offices was that there wasn't anywhere for the newfound employees to sit as they streamed into work. And the change won Burns plaudits on the street.

"I get more kudos from the public about ghost payrolling than I do about Silver Shovel," says Burns, who adds that people are ticked off not only because somebody is receiving a salary and benefits for work they don't perform, but because the ghost is taking away a job from somebody who might really need it. 'That takes them ballistic. They say get them out."

Burns says he hopes the ghost pay- rolling prosecutions have caused a fundamental change in local government in Cook County that makes the practice a relic of the past.

He's not as hopeful about the long-term results from the flashier Silver Shovel, in which FBI mole John Christopher and an undercover FBI agent passed tens of thousands of dollars in bribes to public officials. Burns says he expects that kind of quid pro quo behavior to recur periodically.

One of the strange things about the U.S. attorney's job is that the person who holds the office often gets credit

24 / July/August 1997 Illinois Issues

for investigations that were actually put in motion by a predecessor who left before those projects came to a head. Burns, for instance, inherited Silver Shovel from predecessor Fred Foreman. Still, Burns' main claim to fame might be the results of that investigation.

approach to drug crime prosecutions

Burns says he's tried to change his office's approach to drug crime
prosecutions, concentrating more on cases that will reach higher-ranking
members of drug-selling organizations.

Further, Burns has shifted the federal office's investigative focus. John Gallo, an assistant U.S. attorney for seven years who moved to private practice after birthing the first Silver Shovel charges, says Burns put more emphasis on the prosecution of gangs and police corruption. Among the office's chief accomplishments under Burns' direction have been the conviction of Larry Hoover, leader of the Gangster Disciples, and the dismantling of the upper echelon of the gang's illicit drug operations. Prosecutors under Burns also have sent many of the top leaders of the Vice Lords street gang to prison.

In fact, Burns says that, in conjunction with the federal investigative agencies, he's tried to change his office's approach to drug crime prosecutions, concentrating more on cases that will reach higher-ranking members of drug-selling organizations. One result is that the number of drug prosecutions is actually down under Burns, a fact that could be open to mischievous use by a political opponent.

"What we're interested in is the quality of cases," Burns says.

Nevertheless, the defense bar in Chicago, which often judges the U.S. attorney by whether or not his office is generating clients for them through aggressive prosecution, has been less than enamored with Burns.

"Overall, there has definitely been fewer indictments," says attorney Rick Halprin, who has battled with Burns. "I've been told that Burns' philosophy is for higher quality cases. I haven't seen that there are higher quality cases."

Indeed, another criticism of Burns is that he wants airtight cases that will result in guilty pleas to the exclusion of important cases the office might lose. In other words, the former jump- shooting guard who wishes he'd had more opportunities playing with the 3- point line seems to prefer the slamdunk in the courtroom.

"The government always does that," Halprin says in a backhanded defense of Burns. "They want cases they can't lose, not cases they can win."

In his own defense. Burns credits the large number of guilty pleas the office has rung up in the public corruption probes more to competence and thoroughness in the investigations.

Gallo also gives Burns high marks for his handling of investigations. He says Burns shows an ability for taking a hands-on approach without micromanaging. And he says Burns "did a fairly masterful job" of restructuring the staffing to create more opportunities for the rising number of career prosecutors who have chosen to stay instead of moving on to private practice.

Those would be valuable talents in a governor. Still, there are questions about whether Burns has the talent as a candidate to get that far.

It's difficult to judge from the 1990 campaign, when he was flying below the radar as Hartigan's surrogate downstate. And the nature of his current job pretty much dictates the serious, almost wooden, demeanor that Chicago television viewers usually see as he announces the latest indictments. Associates say he is a much more easygoing, even funny, individual away from the camera.

Political consultant Thorn Serafin, who helped Burns explore the attorney general's race before he accepted the offer to join Hartigan's ticket in 1990, says Burns has good instincts as a campaigner. "He works hard, and he likes people. Is he a great speaker like a Mario Cuomo? No. Can you sit on the front porch and talk with him? Yes. He's very disarming that way."

Burns would enter a political campaign with basically a clean slate on the issues. After all, not many people were paying attention to Burns and Bob Kustra while Hartigan and Gov. Jim Edgar were it out in the first post-Thompson election.

It would be difficult, for example, to predict where Burns might come down on the question of how to provide more money for education.

During the 1990 race, Burns pretty much stuck to the script of the Hartigan campaign, which opposed making permanent an income tax surcharge and promised more money for schools through state belt-tightening. Hartigan's attempt to appear more fiscally

Illinois Issues July/August 1997 / 25

conservative than Edgar was discredited on the editorial pages, but faithfully repeated by Burns.

"What we've got to do from the state government standpoint is get after spending," he said during a televised debate with Kustra in 1990. "If we don't get out of this spending spree, spending the state into oblivion, which we've done for the last decade and a half, then we're not going to be able to get to our priority, and that's education."

Burns, whose slashing debate rhetoric was quite unlike the cautious television persona he now cultivates, criticized Kustra and Edgar for their "tax-and-spend mentality." Would he take the same approach in his own gubernatorial campaign, when legislators from his party are now with Edgar at the forefront of another proposed income tax increase for education?

The 1990 Jim Burns seemed eager to portray himself as a different kind of Democrat, someone who would "bring a new mind-set to the table." But he sounded pretty much like every other candidate a lot of the time. "We must empower our teachers, and we must empower our parents and our commu- nities," he said when questioned about his plans for education. "What we have to do is take away education from the hands of the bureaucracy."

Burns does have an ace in the hole in a political campaign. He's a former Chicago Bulls player, and, even for a guy who played just a few games in the 1967-68 season before being waived, that has a certain ring to it.

In fact, his supporters see his athletic background as more than a pleasant diversion. "I can tell you, he's a tough guy," says Callahan. "You don't excel at the level of athletics that he did without being competitive."

Burns joined the U.S. attorney's office in 1971

When he finished law school in 1971, Burns joined the U.S. attorney's
office as a joint hire by the outgoing top prosecutor, William Bauer,
and the incoming James R. Thompson.

Burns had been a star at Northwestern University before he caught on with the expansion Bulls, then in their second year in the NBA. Utah Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan, a senior at McLeansboro High School when Burns was a freshman, was his teammate. They're still friends. It was Burns, not Sloan, who took his high school team to the state tournament's final four before losing to Chicago basketball legend Cazzie Russell and Carver.

Although he is self-deprecating in his assessment of his NBA career, Burns doesn't see it as a coincidence that the Bulls cut him soon after he received his military draft notice. "I guess they thought I was going to get drafted," Burns recalls, a hint of irritation in his voice.

Not ready to give up his basketball dreams right away. Burns headed for the Dallas Chaparrals of the American Basketball Association, then in its first year of existence as the land of the red, white and blue basketball. While in Dallas, Burns learned he wouldn't be going to Vietnam. "The bottom line is: I flunked the physical," Burns says. The diagnosis was curvature of the spine.

In only his fifth game, however, Burns injured an Achilles tendon, and while he continued to play, he was never up to par again. Unhappy with the slow progress of Burns' recovery, Coach Cliff Hagan cut him at the end of the season.

Burns, the son of a lawyer, decided it was time for law school and headed back to Northwestern. When he came out of law school in 1971, Burns joined the U.S. attorney's office as a joint hire by the outgoing top prosecutor, William Bauer, and the incoming James R. Thompson, the last guy to make the move from U.S. attorney to governor. During the next seven years, he worked alongside many top lawyers, not the least of whom was Thompson.

"I think as a U.S. attorney, he was outstanding," Burns says, begging off a question about what kind of governor he thought Thompson was. "Jim Thompson and I, I think, have a mutual respect."

Burns stuck around under Thompson's replacement, Samuel Skinner, and Skinner's successor, Thomas Sullivan, eventually being promoted to chief of the criminal investigation division. "I always felt the guy that was pushing me was Skinner," Burns says of his rise through the ranks.

Among the main accomplishments Burns cites from his assistant days were the first conviction in a police brutality case in the Northern District of Illinois and the conviction of former Lake County Sheriff Orville Clavey.

26 / July/August 1997 Illinois Issues

Burns credits Republican Richard Ogilvie

Burns credits Republican Richard Ogilvie with getting him involved in politics by introducing him to Democratic politicians. He got more involved after meeting Paul Simon. Burns helped out with fund raising when Simon ran against diaries Percy for the U.S. Senate in 1984.

Burns spent the next 15 years in private practice, first with Isham Lincoln & Beale. where he was hired by former Gov. Richard B. Ogilvie, and later with Keck Mahin & Cate. He specialized in civil litigation and white collar defense work.

Burns credits Republican Ogilvie with getting him involved in politics by introducing him to some Democratic politicians. He got more involved after meeting Paul Simon at a Northwestern event just before the then-congressman took on Charles Percy for the U.S. Senate in 1984. Burns helped out with fund raising and on an issue advisory committee. He did the same when Simon ran for president in 1988.

Burns wouldn't bring a lot of his own money to a gubernatorial campaign, as is often the case with lawyers turned politicians. He earned $124,096 at Keck Mahin in 1992, the last full year before he became U.S. attorney. His buyout from the firm totaled about $157,000, according to his federal disclosure report. His clients included Midas International, Stewart-Warner and the First State Bank of Grand Chain, 111.

Burns' wife, Marty, is a speech pathologist. They have three children, the oldest of whom, Heather, is trying to make it as an actress in New York, where she has had three appearances on the daytime soap "One Life to Live." Burns says he was reassured when somebody showed him an article contending that the prospects of steady employment are better these days in the entertainment industry than in the practice of law.

Burns, after all, understands the lure of the stage. In his junior year, he played the lead in the high school play, something about a lawyer. He was also student council president, played the saxophone in the band and sang in the chorus and barbershop quartet. Every Christmas, he was expected to solo "0 Holy Night" at midnight mass. In short, it was one of those small town experiences that can give you confidence that you can do anything if you just set your mind to it.

Now Burns finds himself contemplating the big stage a campaign for governor of the state of Illinois. He's probably confident he could do the job if elected, but he's got to be asking himself: Are the job prospects better in politics or in the practice of law?

Mark Brown is a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. His most recent article for Illinois Issues was a profile of Democrat John Schmidt, who is also considering a run for governor.

Illinois Issues July/August 1997 / 27

|Home| |Search| |Back to Periodicals Available| |Table of Contents| |Back to Illinois Issues 1997|
Illinois Periodicals Online (IPO) is a digital imaging project at the Northern Illinois University Libraries funded by the Illinois State Library Sam S. Manivong, Illinois Periodicals Online Coordinator