Ed Burke thought he was “playing nice with ’em,” the feds say.
When two Burger King executives sought his support for a remodeling job of a fast-food location in his ward in 2017, Chicago’s most powerful alderman took them out for a swanky lunch at the Beverly Country Club — telling them all about his private law firm’s tax work.
Then, when they didn’t steer business to Klafter & Burke, a ward employee offered to play “hardball.” And Burke allegedly gave the green light.
That’s according to a bombshell 37-page criminal complaint unsealed Thursday that charged the powerhouse alderman with attempted extortion. After serving on the City Council for nearly half a century, Burke faced a federal judge Thursday, accused of using his position as alderman to try to steer business toward his private firm.
Burke, 75, now faces a maximum of 20 years in prison following an investigation that involved recorded calls on Burke’s cellphone and apparent federal surveillance of the alderman.
It all marks a stunning fall from grace for Burke, but it also threatens to upset the heated race for mayor. Burke allegedly encouraged the Burger King executives to attend a fundraiser for a politician not named in the complaint.
That politician was Toni Preckwinkle. The complaint does not accuse her of any wrongdoing, though Susana Mendoza and Gery Chico also have ties to Burke.
Meanwhile, three sitting aldermen are now facing criminal charges at the same time on unrelated cases for the first time in recent memory. Ald. Willie Cochran faces trial in June for allegedly shaking down businessmen to support projects in his 20th Ward. And Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd) faces a charge of domestic battery involving his wife.
Notably, the alleged shakedown in the Burke case revolves around the Burger King around 41st and Pulaski, where 17-year-old Laquan McDonald was fatally shot by Police Officer Jason Van Dyke, leading to Van Dyke’s second-degree murder conviction last year.
Not only that, Burke’s law firm had already earned notoriety for its tax work on behalf of the tower along the Chicago River that bears the name of President Donald Trump, resulting in more than $14 million in savings.
Thursday morning started with little drama for Burke. He attended 8 a.m. mass at St. Bruno Catholic Church near his home and later spent breakfast time at a Mexican restaurant.
After meeting with his high-powered defense lawyers, he strolled into the Loop courthouse around 2:20 p.m., dressed in a fedora and a pinstripe suit.
After he made his way through the metal detectors, he began to walk toward a southern bank of elevators. As he did, a voice called out “hey hey, ho ho, Ed Burke has got to go!”
In court, Burke faced U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheila Finnegan, speaking only when he said “yes, your honor,” in response to her questions. Before the judge ordered Burke released on a $10,000 unsecured bond, a prosecutor revealed that Burke had 23 guns in his offices. The judge gave him 48 hours to surrender all of his weapons.
While people filed out of the courtroom after the hearing, Burke appeared to slip his passport to his attorney, Charles B. Sklarsky. He left the courthouse without commenting. But outside the building, his attorney told reporters, “the transaction described in the complaint does not make out an extortion or an attempt to extort.”
Later, returning to his Southwest Side home, Burke told reporters: “I believe that I’m not guilty of anything, and I’m trusting that when I have my day in court, that will be clear beyond a reasonable doubt. … I look forward to trying this case in court. I’ve done nothing wrong.”
Burger King executives set out to remodel the restaurant near 41st and Pulaski around May 2017, according to that complaint, seeking a building permit and an aldermanic acknowledgement letter from Burke.
After being approached about the work, Burke asked a city employee to find out what law firm handled the restaurant company’s property tax work.
“I want somebody at the law office to check to see who’s filed with the assessor of the board on that one,” Burke told the employee.
That employee, Meaghan Cleary Synowiecki, is not named in the complaint, but the Sun-Times has confirmed she is the worker. She is a great niece of Burke’s wife, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke.
Synowiecki and her husband, Michael Synowiecki, a lobbyist with the law firm of Daley and Georges, were among several dozen people who circulated petitions to help Burke run for re-election in February.
The lunch at the Beverly Country Club followed Burke’s inquiry. Burke allegedly told the executives that his law firm handled property tax reductions. One of the executives “read between the lines” and believed Burke was soliciting work in exchange for his help with permits for the restaurant, according to the feds.
Nearly two weeks later, Burke discussed issues related to the remodeling with one of the executives. The feds say he abruptly changed the subject, saying, “we were going to talk about the real estate tax representation, and you were going to have somebody get in touch with me so we can expedite your permits.”
“I’m sorry Mr. Burke,” the executive said. “What was that last part?”
Remodeling work on the restaurant began in October 2017. Burke noticed, and a ward employee allegedly called to say “the office” never approved the plans, so the work stopped. Later, in a conversation with the ward employee, Burke said he had taken the executives to lunch.
“I was playing nice with ‘em —never got back,” Burke said in an alleged reference to the work for his law firm.
The worker later said, “All right, I’ll play as hardball as I can.”
Burke replied, “Okay,” according to the complaint.
The complaint does not name the ward employee, but the Sun-Times has confirmed it is Peter Andrews Jr., a retired Chicago Park District plumber and long-time Burke political operative.
After the company struggled to have its permits approved, it agreed to steer business to Burke’s firm, according to the complaint. When Synowiecki asked whether he wanted business from all of its Illinois locations or just those in Cook County, Burke allegedly replied, “Umm, all Illinois locations.”
That was Dec. 19, 2017. An application for a driveway permit from the company was approved the same day, according to the complaint.
However, the complaints indicates the person handling tax matters for the company didn’t want to give in. That person strung the process out for months and “did not end up giving Burke’s law firm any tax business,” the feds say.