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'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

Jason Meisner, Ray Long and Megan Crepeau, Chicago Tribune on

Published in News & Features

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.


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