The prestigious museums that grace Chicago’s lakefront clearly got the message about increasing admission fees by the time the Field Museum was considering a summer 2017 trek.
They had learned that it was wise to be frank with then-Ald. Edward M. Burke, who had fought a high-profile battle with the Art Institute over the issue in 2009. By warning Burke, the Field Museum hoped he would not “end up in the papers” like his cultural counterpart. , a jury heard Monday.
Instead, the decision put the Field Museum in the middle of one of the biggest public corruption cases in Chicago in years. Jurors heard what happened when Deborah Bekken, a government liaison at the museum, called Burke about a proposed fee increase shortly after the city council’s finance chairman did not failed to find an internship for a friend’s daughter.
“So now you’re going to ask me?”Burke asked on September 8, 2017. He then went on to warn: “If the chairman of the finance committee calls the chairman of the park board, your proposal will achieve nothing. »
Prosecutors played that call with Bekken on the witness stand Monday. As she did so, she appeared to keep her eyes downcast, toward a transcript of the recording. Burke simply stared forward as he sat at the defense table, rubbing his chin with his left hand.
Asked about a prosecutor’s call, Bekken told the jury, “I perceived it as a threat.”
Monday’s testimony about Burke’s alleged extortion from the Field Museum took jurors for the first time to the heart of one of the allegations the federal government made against Burke in 2019: that he threatened to block an increase in charges to the museum because it did not respond. when he recommended the daughter of ex-Ald. Terry Gabinski for an internship.
Jurors also heard Monday from former Field Museum president Richard Lariviere, who spoke to Burke by phone minutes after Bekken. Under cross-examination by defense attorney Chris Gair, Larivière said Burke did not threaten him or the Field Museum, and he said he did not believe the increase in costs represented any danger.
Gair also tried to insist that Burke never asked for a job for Gabinski’s daughter, but Larivière ultimately pushed back. He told Gair that Burke “continues to send us information about his candidacy.”
Regardless, jurors in Burke’s trial spent much of the day listening to how one of Chicago’s most storied institutions grew concerned about angry comments from a powerful politician and how his staff could soothe his ego.
The trial was briefly interrupted when one of U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall’s therapy dogs apparently became ill — and the judge learned that a well-meaning juror had given the dog a “whole bag” of treats.
During her testimony, Bekken told Assistant U.S. Attorney Sushma Raju that she tried to end her phone call with Burke as quickly as possible. She testified that the primary purpose of contacting Burke “was to make sure we didn’t have an upset official.”
“And it was obvious that I already had an upset official,” Bekken testified. “And I didn’t know why.”
She ended up sending her boss an email with the subject line “we have a problem.” Jurors then heard how she and her boss at the Field Museum brainstormed how to offer a “mea culpa award” to satisfy Burke.
“I wonder if we can offer him an internship that he can award as a scholarship to an intern of his choice?” Bekken wrote in an email.
They eventually realized that such ideas were “either inappropriate or simply unrealistic.”
Lariviere told jurors that when he became president of the Field Museum in 2012, board members advised him to “stay on Ald.” The good side of Burke. Then, in 2017, he spoke to Burke by phone just minutes after Bekken. Larivière told Burke: “I’m calling first of all to apologize…because I understand we dropped the ball at your request.” »
Burke interrupted, “Um, you sure did. And I’m sure it’s not you, but uh, I consider you a personal friend and, uh, I was very disappointed and, uh, embarrassed to never receive a call back.
About Gabinski’s daughter, Larivière asked Burke, “Can I contact her and see what we can do?”
But Burke said to him:“No. This, this ship has already left the dock.
Burke’s lawyers took advantage of the comment by claiming that Burke never actually asked the Field Museum to give Gabinski’s daughter a job. Burke’s defense attorney, Joseph Duffy, also discussed with Bekken his client’s long opposition to increased museum fees for Chicago residents.
“His main concern with the price increase was that the average Chicago family wouldn’t be able to afford to visit a museum, right? » » asked Duffy.
The Field Museum ended up offering Gabinski’s daughter the opportunity to apply for a public relations coordinator position that had opened. She ultimately declined, writing in an email: “I am grateful that you considered me for this position, but I must respectfully decline. »
Burke is also accused by prosecutors of using his City Council seat to steer business to his private law firm in projects involving the old post office, a Burger King at 41st and Pulaski, and a Binny’s beverage depot in the Northwest Side. Political aide Peter Andrews and developer Charles Cui are on trial with Burke.
The trial was briefly interrupted Monday when Andrews reported to the judge that something was wrong with one of his therapy dogs. Kendall brings the two Bernese Mountain Dogs, Birdie and Junebug, into the courtroom to help ease tensions between witnesses, defendants and jurors.
But when Andrews took the stand, Kendall quickly sent the jury out of the courtroom. Soon, the judge and members of her team could be seen cleaning the floor, armed with paper towels, trash bags and cleaning spray.
When Kendall returned to the bench, she explained that a juror gave the dog a bag full of treats.
“I didn’t know this was happening,” Kendall said.
Gair then warned the judge that his dog could end up in the newspaper.
“It’s a shame,” Kendall said. “Because she’s such a good girl.”
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