Jim Burns, former U.S. attorney, longtime inspector general for Illinois secretary of state, dies at 75

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Jim Burns, inspector general for Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White.
Jim Burns was inspector general for Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White and, before that, a federal prosecutor, candidate for governor — and a Chicago Bull. | Illinois Secretary of State

Burns led the U.S. attorney’s office during the Operation Silver Shovel corruption investigation and the Operation Haunted Hall ghost-payroll prosecution. His office also took on the Gangster Disciples street gang.

Longtime Illinois Secretary of State Inspector General Jim Burns, who served four years as Chicago’s U.S. attorney, died this week at 75.

Secretary of State Jesse White announced the death of Burns, who also once ran for governor and played for the Chicago Bulls, in a news release Friday.

“Burns was a strong, visible and independent inspector general, and I am grateful for all he accomplished,” White said. “Burns restored the public trust and changed the culture of the office. His legacy of honesty, fairness and transparency leaves an indelible mark on the Secretary of State’s office and the state of Illinois.”

Burns’ reputation as a corruption-buster led White to tap the former top fed as his inspector general in 2000. Burns led the U.S. attorney’s office during the Operation Silver Shovel corruption investigation and the Operation Haunted Hall ghost-payroll prosecution. His office also took on the Gangster Disciples street gang.

U.S. Attorney Jim Burns at a March 1996 press conference.
Chicago Sun Times
U.S. Attorney Jim Burns at a March 1996 press conference.

Randall Samborn, hired by Burns as the first full-time spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago, remembered Burns Friday as “the epitome of what you would want, and expect, the U.S. attorney to be.” He said the two had remained close friends.

“Being United States attorney is a serious job, and Jim took it seriously, as you would expect,” Samborn said. “But he never took himself seriously. He always had a quip or an acronym that made you chuckle and kept you on your toes.”

Relatives declined to speak Friday night. Arrangements are pending.

Burns earned his law degree from Northwestern University in 1971 and was a shooting guard the Chicago Bulls, briefly, during the 1967-68 season before moving to the Dallas Chaparrals of the American Basketball Association.

Jim Burns played part of one season for the Chicago Bulls after graduating from Northwestern University.
Sun-Times file
Jim Burns played part of one season for the Chicago Bulls after graduating from Northwestern University, where he had averaged nearly 20 points a game over three seasons for the Wildcats.

He then worked as a federal prosecutor from 1971 until 1978, eventually becoming chief of the criminal litigation division before moving to private practice.

President Bill Clinton appointed Burns as Chicago’s top federal prosecutor in 1993. In Chicago, Burns led an office staff of 250 people while battling street gangs, public corruption and organized crime, leaving that job in 1997.

Ron Safer, who served as a federal prosecutor when Burns was U.S. attorney, recalled how Burns took on the Gangster Disciples even though it was “not in the heartland” of an office long known for battling public corruption. He also did so despite fallout from earlier convictions involving the El Rukn street gang that were being dismantled.

“(Burns) had the courage to say, ‘We are going to do this because people in our streets are being killed,’” Safer said.

The Gangster Disciples investigation “got legs” on Burns’ watch, Safer said. Burns reached out to the Chicago Police Department to enlist officers who could help identify street activity that corroborated secretly taped conversations between Gangster Disciples co-founder Larry Hoover and his top lieutenants at the Vienna Correctional Center.

Gubernatorial hopeful Jim Burns on Election Night in March 1998, talking to reporters in his hotel suite. Next to him is his wife, Marty.
AP
Gubernatorial hopeful Jim Burns on Election Night in March 1998, talking to reporters in his hotel suite. Next to him is his wife, Marty.

Following his time as U.S. attorney, Burns unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for governor in 1998. Samborn acknowledged Burns had political ambitions, but said Burns pursued them “without ever letting that have any effect on the way he performed his job as U.S. attorney.”

White appointed Burns as inspector general in April 2000. Burns expanded the size of the office, hired professional investigators from a variety of backgrounds and initiated legislation that made the post permanent and broadened its reach. He created a website and hotline to allow the public or employees to make complaints, established an audit review committee and strengthened relationships with outside law enforcement agencies resulting in several prosecutions, according to White’s office.

“He made a world of difference in our office,” said Dave Druker, White’s spokesman.

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December 11, 2020 at 07:25PM

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