Field Museum worker testifies about phone call with Burke: ‘I perceived it as a threat.’

Flanked by attorneys and supporters, former Ald. Edward Burke (14th) walks into the Dirksen Federal Courthouse.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The prestigious museums adorning Chicago’s lakefront had clearly gotten the message about admission fee increases by the time the Field Museum considered a hike in summer 2017.

They’d learned it was wise to be upfront with then-Ald. Edward M. Burke, who had waged a well-publicized battle with the Art Institute over the issue in 2009. By giving Burke a heads up, the Field Museum hoped it wouldn’t “end up in the newspapers” like its fellow cultural landmark, a jury heard Monday.

Instead, the move put the Field Museum right in the middle of one of Chicago’s biggest public corruption cases in years. Jurors heard what happened when Deborah Bekken, a government liaison at the museum, called Burke about a proposed fee increase soon after the City Council finance chair had failed to land an internship there for a friend’s daughter.

“So now, you’re going to make a request of me?”Burke demanded on Sept. 8, 2017. He then went on to warn her, “If the chairman of the Committee on Finance calls the president of the Park Board, your proposal is going to go nowhere.”

Prosecutors played that call with Bekken on the witness stand Monday. As they did so, she seemed to keep her eyes down, toward a transcript of the recording. Burke simply looked forward while seated at the defense table, rubbing his chin with his left hand.

When asked about the call by a prosecutor, Bekken told the jury, “I perceived it as a threat.”

Monday’s testimony about Burke’s alleged extortion of the Field Museum took jurors for the first time into the heart of one of the allegations leveled by the feds against Burke in 2019: That he threatened to block a fee increase at the museum because it had failed to 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 did. While being cross-examined by defense attorney Chris Gair, Lariviere testified that Burke did not threaten him or the Field Museum, and he said he did not believe the fee increase was in any danger. 

Gair also tried to insist that Burke never demanded a job for Gabinski’s daughter, but Lariviere eventually pushed back. He told Gair that Burke “kept sending us information about her application.”

Regardless, jurors in Burke’s trial spent much of the day listening to how one of Chicago’s most well-regarded institutions fretted over the angry comments of a powerful politician, and how its staff might assuage his ego. 

The trial was briefly halted when one of U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall’s therapy dogs apparently became sick — and the judge learned that a well-meaning juror had given the dog an “entire 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 whole point of reaching out to Burke “was to ensure that we didn’t have an upset public official.”

“And it was obvious I already had an upset public official,” Bekken testified. “And I had no idea why.”

She wound 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 prize” to keep Burke happy. 

“I wonder if we can offer him an internship that he can award as a scholarship to an intern of his choosing?” Bekken wrote in one email. 

They eventually realized such ideas were “either inappropriate or just not realistic.”

Lariviere told jurors that, when he became president of the Field Museum in 2012, he was advised by members of the board of trustees to “stay on Ald. Burke’s good side.” Then, in 2017, he spoke to Burke by phone just a few minutes after Bekken did. Lariviere told Burke, “I’m calling, first of all to apologize … because I understand that we dropped the ball on a request from you.”

Burke interrupted, “Uh, 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 that I would never get a call back.”

Discussing Gabinski’s daughter, Lariviere asked Burke, “Can I get in touch with her and see what we can do?”

But Burke told him,“No. That, that ship has already left the dock.”

Burke’s lawyers have seized on that comment as they argue that Burke never actually demanded the Field Museum give Gabinski’s daughter a job. Burke defense attorney Joseph Duffy also discussed with Bekken his client’s long opposition to museum fee increases for Chicago residents.

“His principal concern with price increases was that the average Chicago family would not be able to afford to visit a museum, isn’t that right?” Duffy asked. 

Bekken agreed.

The Field Museum wound up offering Gabinski’s daughter an opportunity to apply for a public relations coordinator position that had opened up. She ultimately turned it down, though, writing in an email, “I’m thankful that you thought of me for that position, however I must respectfully decline.”

Burke is also accused by prosecutors of using his seat on the City Council to steer business to his private law firm amid schemes that involved the Old Post Office, a Burger King at 41st and Pulaski, and a Binny’s Beverage Depot on the Northwest Side. On trial with Burke are political aide Peter Andrews and developer Charles Cui.

The trial was briefly halted Monday when Andrews signaled to the judge that something was wrong with one of her therapy dogs. Kendall brings the two Bernese mountain dogs, Birdie and Junebug, to the courtroom to help ease tensions for witnesses, defendants and jurors.

But when Andrews spoke up, Kendall quickly sent the jury out of the courtroom. Soon the judge and members of her staff could be seen cleaning the floor armed with paper towels, garbage bags and cleaning spray.

When Kendall returned to the bench, she explained that a juror had given the dog a full bag of treats. 

“I didn’t know this was going on,” Kendall said. 

Gair later warned the judge that her dog might wind up in the newspaper. 

“It’s such a shame,” Kendall said. “Because she’s such a good girl.”

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