‘I perceived it as a threat’: Former Field Museum director tells jury about Alderman Ed Burke reading her the riot act over dropped internship application

Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune/TNS

CHICAGO — Deborah Bekken, a onetime Field Museum director, was calling powerful Chicago Alderman Edward Burke to ask for his support for the museum’s proposal for a fee increase in September 2017 when he caught her off guard with an immediately chilly demeanor.

“Well, uh, I was surprised to hear from you — to be very frank,” a gruff-sounding Burke said to Bekken on the Sept. 8, 2017, call, which was secretly being recorded by the FBI. Burke grew more icy as he explained that he’d recommended a good friend’s daughter for an internship at the Field Museum but never heard back.

“I was quite disappointed and surprised that I never heard another word after my initial request,” the alderman said on the call, which was played for the jury at his corruption trial Monday. “So now you’re going to make a request of me?”

Bekken, whose work included government affairs, had no idea at the time what internship Burke was talking about. She stammered in reply: “Well, uh, what I wanted to do was to — ” before Burke cut her off again.

“I’m sure I know what you want to do, because if the Chairman of the Committee on Finance calls the President of the Park Board, your proposal is going to go nowhere,” Burke snapped.

When Bekken said that she’d look into what went wrong with the application, Burke quickly said, “Well, somebody better.”

“We are working on fixing it. We will definitely fix it,” Bekken said, before Burke replied curtly, “Thank you,” and hung up.

That tense exchange forms the backbone of allegations in the Burke indictment that the then-powerful alderman threatened to block the Field Museum’s fee increase request because it had dropped the ball on the internship recommendation, which was for the daughter of Burke’s longtime friend, former Alderman Terry Gabinski, 32nd Ward.

Bekken testified Monday she was “very surprised” by Burke’s demeanor on the phone. “I perceived him to be very upset,” she said. “I perceived it as a threat.”

Half an hour after the call, Bekken emailed her boss with the subject line, “We have a problem,” explaining that Burke was irate over the internship snafu. Though Burke had no direct jurisdiction over the Field Museum’s pricing, everyone at the museum knew he took a keen interest in it and could make it difficult to pass, Bekken testified.

“The whole effort of trying to schedule a meeting with Alderman Burke was to try to make sure we didn’t have an upset public official,” Bekken told the jury. “It was obvious I already had an upset public official and I had no idea why.”

The issue touched off a scramble inside the Field Museum to figure out what had happened to the daughter’s application and how to placate Burke.

Bekken wrote in a subsequent email that maybe they could offer Burke a “mea culpa prize,” like “an internship that he can award as a scholarship to an intern of his choosing?”

Her boss, then-Vice President Charles Katzenmeyer, replied, “Good thinking, let’s bring a few of these ideas to him when we visit the Great Man in his history shrine.”

Bekken testified that her other idea was to offer a “special discount day to seniors” in Chicago “and start with Ald. Burke’s ward.” But ultimately that idea wasn’t workable, she said. “We couldn’t offer something to Ald. Burke and his ward without doing things for all the other wards,” she testified.

In the end, the museum offered Gabinski’s daughter, Molly, the chance to apply for a full-time paid position as a museum coordinator. In a recorded call from Sept. 12, 2017, five days after Burke’s dressing-down of Bekken, the alderman told Molly’s mother that he had “read them the riot act because of the way they treated (the) application.”

Her mother, Celeste Gabinski, said they were appreciative of the effort, but that Molly had by then “moved on” to another job and was doing very well. “She’s happy ... I don’t know if we should even pose this to her?” the mother said.

In the end, Molly Gabinksi never applied for the job, and the Field Museum’s fee increase was passed by the Park District board later that month, according to records and testimony Monday.

Cross-examination of Bekken was expected to begin after a lunch break.

Burke’s attorneys acknowledged in opening statements that the alderman “was pretty ticked off” the museum had ignored his recommendation, but stressed that being angry isn’t against the law.

“It’s not a crime to be in a bad mood. It’s not a crime to snap at somebody,” defense attorney Chris Gair said. “He didn’t extort anything at all. It’s just completely wrong.”

Before getting into the recordings, prosecutors on Friday called FBI Special Agent Jennifer Avila to establish how far back Burke and Gabinski’s friendship goes. The jury was shown city records showing both men were sworn in as aldermen on the same day: March 11, 1969.

Burke, 79, who left the City Council in May, is charged with 14 counts including racketeering, federal program bribery, attempted extortion, conspiracy to commit extortion and using interstate commerce to facilitate an unlawful activity.

Burke’s longtime ward aide, Peter Andrews Jr., 73, is charged with one count of attempted extortion, one count of conspiracy to commit extortion, two counts of using interstate commerce to facilitate an unlawful activity and one count of making a false statement to the FBI.

The third defendant, Lake Forest real estate developer Charles Cui, 52, is charged with one count of federal program bribery, three counts of using interstate commerce to facilitate an unlawful activity and one count of making a false statement to the FBI.

Earlier Friday, jurors got a crash course in the intricacies of City Hall, a seminar that a prosecution expert labeled the “Schoolhouse Rock” of Chicago politics.

As the first witness in the case, Elmhurst University political science professor Constance Mixon was tasked with bringing the jury, which includes many people from far-flung suburbs, into the nitty-gritty world that Burke dominated for decades, from the history and makeup of the Chicago City Council to the parliamentary procedures and balances of power that go with it.

Mixon was pressed on topics ranging from “How a Proposal Becomes an Ordinance” to Chicago’s unique setup where aldermen act as “mini-mayors” with broad discretion over what goes on in their wards.

But the crux of her testimony was to give the jury a sense of just how powerful Burke was. She said that not only was he the longest-serving member of the body, with 54 years of service, but he also chaired the Finance Committee, which had a more than $2 million budget and influence over virtually every aspect of city business.

“As mayors came and went, Ald. Burke was the one constant on the City Council,” Mixon testified.