When Donald Trump hit town more than a decade ago to build a luxury hotel, he soon scored a hefty tax break after linking up with a highly connected political insider.
Trump was from New York, yes. But he understood the Chicago Way.
As a businessman, Trump hustled straight into Chicago’s political shadows. Doubtful optics were fine by him, long as he could reduce his bottom line.
Trump hired the law firm headed by Edward Burke, Chicago’s most powerful alderman and one of the city’s biggest power brokers, to pursue a property tax reduction for the downtown Trump International Hotel & Tower. And it worked out well for him, if not necessarily for you. The law firm, Klafter & Burke, helped Trump and investors slash their property taxes by 39 percent over seven years.
That put $11.7 million back into their pockets — and took it out of the pocket of all other Cook County taxpayers. Property taxes are a zero-sum game. One payer’s tax break is every other payer’s tax hike.
This is all perfectly legal, we hasten to add. And there is no hard evidence Trump might not have done just as well with a less politically connected tax lawyer. But when admiring Ed Burke’s wildly successful art of the deal all these years, we can’t get past the blatant conflicts of interest that would seem to give him an unsavory edge.
Burk is a major Democratic Party slatemaker and campaign bankroller. Plenty of judges who rule on tax breaks for Burke clients such as Trump owe their jobs in part to Burke. The alderman also has helped bankroll campaigns by candidates for Cook County state’s attorney, whose office must work against Burke when he sues county officials seeking lower property taxes for Trump and other clients.
Meanwhile, there is this: A new study by a California financial data company, CoreLogic, reports that Illinois has the highest property taxes in the nation.
Burke is not alone in playing this particular game. As we have written before, the law firm of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan routinely seeks property tax reductions from Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios. And Berrios, for his part, goes to Springfield as a lobbyist to ask Madigan for favors on behalf of clients.
You can be sure they are very, very tough on each other.
Burke was one of 47 aldermen who voted in 2002 to approve the development of Trump’s 92-story skyscraper. Trump didn’t hire Burke’s law firm until 2006, but Trump easily could have avoided any hint of insider dealing by hiring someone else.
Burke didn’t win all his tax battles for Trump, according to Sun-Times reporters Tim Novak and Chris Fusco. When he contested the valuations by then-Assessor James Houlihan in 2006, 2007, and 2008, he lost. But his batting average was a lot better in six of the next seven years, when he persuaded the assessor or the Cook County Board of Review or both to lower the assessments. In one year, he persuaded Berrios to cut the valuation on the Trump properties by 60 percent.
Most property owners in Cook County can only dream of a tax cut like that.
In January, Trump told NBC News: “I try and pay as little tax as possible, because I hate what they do with my tax money. I hate the way they spend our money.”
But working the system the Chicago Way to get it over on an ordinary taxpayer who might own a little two-flat or a beauty salon?
Trump doesn’t hate that so much.
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