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Mayor Emanuel steers clear of Burke’s controversial tax appeals biz

Ald. Ed Burke (14th)  | Sun-Times file photo

Ald. Ed Burke (14th) | Sun-Times file photo

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Updated: November 9, 2013 6:17AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Monday steered clear of the controversy posed by Ald. Edward M. Burke’s public role as chairman of the City Council’s Finance Committee and the $3.6 million that Burke’s private law practice has cost the city by winning property tax appeals for business clients.

“Every public official has to speak for themselves about what’s both legal and appropriate, as I have in my own career,” the mayor said after cutting the ribbon at a new Mariano’s grocery store in the South Loop.

“I can speak for the law department of the city of Chicago. We’re going to pursue every case to make sure that the taxpayers’ interests are protected. . . . I know what my responsibility as mayor is and what the law department’s responsibility is,” Emanuel said.

Pressed on whether he would do what Burke is doing, the mayor said, “I just answered that question.”

The mayor’s claim to pursue all property tax appeals is contradicted by the facts. The law department rarely challenges the lawsuits that Burke files, with just one court challenge in the past three years, records show.

And City Hall is legally barred from contesting the majority of Burke’s appeals to the state — those seeking less than a $1 million cut in property assessment — under a 2002 measure Burke helped to pass in the City Council.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported this week that Burke’s boutique law firm has won more than $18.1 million in property tax refunds for Chicago property owners since 2003 and that those refunds have cost the cash-strapped city $3.6 million.

The 44-year veteran alderman has won those refunds by filing appeals with the Cook county assessor, the Illinois Property Tax Appeal Board and the Cook County courts. His greatest success — $10.6 million in refunds on 378 Chicago parcels — has come in the court system, where Burke holds great sway because he controls judicial slatemaking for the Cook County Regular Democratic Organization.

Emanuel and Burke are former political rivals who appear to have put aside their differences.

More than two years ago, Emanuel blamed Burke for laying the groundwork for the residency challenge that nearly knocked the former White House chief of staff off the mayoral ballot.

During a campaign debate, Emanuel rocked the boat with a pre-election threat to reorganize the City Council — and strip Burke of his police bodyguards and, possibly, his chairmanship.

“There will be shared sacrifice, including for Ed Burke and all the City Council. If Ed Burke has six police officers, that just can’t continue,” Emanuel said then.

But, after a peacemaking session brokered and hosted by Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), Emanuel’s City Council floor leader, Emanuel ultimately decided to retain Burke as Finance Committee Chairman and, at least initially, retained the bodyguard detail before cutting it in half.

Last year, Emanuel took a similar hands-off stance in the political battle between Burke and Inspector General Joe Ferguson over access to information needed to investigate Chicago’s $100 million-a-year worker’s compensation program. Email:

Twitter: @fspielman

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