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Ald. Burke could give up bodyguards, or have them yanked

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

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

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Alde. Edward M. Burke’s bodyguard protection has already gone on longer than the security that former U.S. presidents enjoy. In 1997, Congress approved legislation that limits Secret Service protection for former presidents to 10 years after leaving office.

Here’s the security provided some other elected officials:

◆ Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has about 17 police officer bodyguards — compared with the 22 Mayor Daley had in office.

◆ After leaving office, Daley was assigned five officers who will guard him for an unspecified period of time.

◆ City Treasurer Stephanie Neely has a police security detail.

◆ Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has three police bodyguards.

Updated: October 27, 2011 12:29AM

The bodyguard saga of Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) appears to be coming to an end — one way or another.

Either Mayor Rahm Emanuel will follow through on a campaign threat and strip Burke of the four Chicago Police officers who have chauffeured and protected the alderman for nearly three decades — or, at the very least, cut the bodyguard detail in half.

Or Burke will bow to public and media pressure, voluntarily relinquishing the officers and dip into his $8 million campaign warchest for private security guards if he still feels vulnerable.

One of those scenarios will most likely play out in the coming days or weeks, Burke’s City Council colleagues and others in City Hall predict.

Fellow aldermen, who did not want to be named, expect Burke to give the bodyguards up to avoid the humiliation of having the detail stripped away.

Burke was out of town and unavailable for comment this week. His spokesman also could not be reached.

The city’s most powerful alderman’s bodyguard detail dates back to Burke’s role as a political lightning rod who marshaled opposition to Mayor Harold Washington during the 1980s Council Wars.

In 1986, Chicago police informed Burke his security detail would be reduced from four police officers to two, as the number of reported “incidents” — including threats — involving the aldermen plummeted.

In response, Burke sued the mayor, police superintendent and the city to keep the four-member detail.

Cook County Circuit Court records on the suit, long-mothballed in a county warehouse, were released this week and provide a window into the volatile political climate at City Hall and, his attorney argued, the need for police protection.

“A highly inflammatory, controversial, political climate exists in Chicago as a result of differences between a faction of the Chicago City Council, including plaintiff, and the Mayor of the City of Chicago over municipal issues and policies, and over measures to be taken which will best serve the interests of the public,” Burke’s attorney wrote in the decades- old legal papers.

“The mass media have given enormous public coverage to these differences. Large numbers of irrational, unbalanced persons have become excited and aroused by the controversy, have communicated threats, and present an immediate, present danger of physical harm to public officials involved in said controversy,” Burke’s attorney wrote.

But attorneys for the city fired back arguing that threats against the alderman had fallen off between the time he had been assigned officers in 1983 and 1986, according to court papers.

In 1983, there were 29 “case reports,” a year later there were 18, in 1985 just one and in 1986 three, attorneys for the city stated in court records.

The records also reveal that in 1986, Burke had five police bodyguards, but that number fell to four with no other explanation given than that one officer returned to regular police duty.

Ultimately, a judge sided with Burke and ordered that he keep his four bodyguards.

But a “stipulation” signed by Burke’s and one of the city’s attorneys — allows for a periodic review of the detail by the sitting mayor.

Emanuel was asked about Burke’s bodyguards again Thursday during an hour-long town hall meeting broadcast live on Facebook.

“Wow, these [questions] are great,” Emanuel said facetiously with a laugh.

The mayor then talked once again about the 650 police officers who had been reassigned to police districts since he took office.

“I’m gonna deal with the four officers related to Ald. Burke. That’s an issue — and I have the police superintendent and the [corporation] counsel’s office looking at it … I have the right people dealing with the four officers. I will await their recommendations, then deal with it appropriately,” he said.

“But, I will not take my eye off of what, I think, people need people to focus on. We’re gonna get to it. But, those four officers don’t get ahead of what’s going on in Englewood. Those four officers don’t get ahead of what goes on for the kids on Woodlawn. ... I have that laser-like capacity.”

At the time of the 1986 court order, Judge Joseph Wosik upheld Burke’s argument that he was a high-profile figure subject to periodic threats and that a reduction in the number of bodyguards would have stifled his opposition to Washington.

But, the alderman has not functioned in that controversial role since Washington’s death in 1987. In fact, he’s spent the last 24 years trying to repair his image and make voters forget.

Judson H. Miner, city attorney under Washington, said that beyond the Washington administration there wasn’t an automatic expectation that Burke would receive taxpayer-funded security in perpetuity.

“It’s on the books, yes, but somebody’s got to take some steps to deal with this,” Miner told the Sun-Times. “Does Burke think he needs them? He has to answer that. It can’t be ‘because Judge Wosik said I need them.’ That’s just goofy,” he said of the late judge who presided over the case. “If he does, then you need to decide what the need is.”

“The question is, is there serious evidence it’s necessary? And in a city as big as Chicago I would think that additional police officers engaged in police activity is more valuable to the city than guarding Ed Burke, but that’s a decision for the city to make.”

The Burke bodyguard controversy comes up periodically as critics question whether it makes sense to tie up four full-time police officers — at a cost of nearly $500,000-a-year including salary and benefits — to watch one alderman while the other 49 fend for themselves.

Mayor Richard M. Daley maintained the detail as part of an unspoken political deal reached in 1989 that called for Burke to drop out of the mayor’s race and endorse Daley in exchange for being restored to the role of Finance Committee Chairman he held during Council Wars.

With the title came the bodyguards and city sedan. Every Finance Committee Chairman since the 1940’s has enjoyed those perks.

Emanuel had no such deal. In fact, he blamed Burke for laying the groundwork for the residency challenge that nearly knocked the former White House chief-of-staff off the ballot earlier this year.

During a campaign debate, Emanuel rocked the boat with a pre-election threat to re-organize 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.

Newly-appointed Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy told reporters his hands were tied when it comes to Burke because of the court order.

That allowed Burke to strike a defiant tone.

He argued that “a court order is a court order” and signaled that he was not about to voluntarily relinquish the detail, regardless of the two-year hiring slowdown that has left the Chicago Police Department 2,300 officers-a-day short of authorized strength.

But, that was before the court file showed that the court order is subject to periodic review by the mayor. In other words, Emanuel is free to change it.

When Burke learned that, he told WLS-TV that it may be time to take another look.

Although Burke is popular among his colleagues — and feared for the power he wields, the warchest he controls and the dossier he keeps — his bodyguard contingent has long been a source of contention among aldermen.

Aldermen privately joke about the bodyguards running errands for Burke and serving as his family chauffeur and valet. They also wonder aloud why the bodyguards accompany the alderman when he goes to his Wisconsin summer home.

“If threats are the issue, I’ve got a file of threats an inch thick. Every alderman does because of the decisions we have to make. None of us have bodyguards,” said one alderman, who asked to remain anonymous.

Even if it ends soon, Burke’s bodyguard contingent has already gone on longer than the protection that former U.S. presidents enjoy.

In 1997, Congress approved legislation that limits Secret Service protection for former presidents for ten years after leaving office.

The law does not apply to former presidents who were in office before Jan. 1, 1997. They retain lifetime protection.

Former Presidents Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton are the only living presidents who fall under that grandfather clause.

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