A developer had a $750,000 problem with a city project, and he knew exactly the alderman to help him — Edward M. Burke.
The redevelopment project was on the Northwest Side — nowhere near Burke’s 14th Ward on the Southwest Side — but the developer, Charles Cui, turned to Burke for help in 2017 after the city rejected his request to reuse a pole sign for a new Binny’s Beverage Depot that was opening as part of the project, federal authorities allege.
It was a snag for a significant redevelopment project in the Portage Park neighborhood that also included a Culver’s and a Retro Fitness and had already secured $2 million in city government subsidies called tax increment financing, or TIF.
In an email to his property tax appeals lawyer, Cui candidly explained why he needed to hire Burke: “I have TIF deal going with the City, and he is the Chairman of Finance Committee. He handled [sic] his tax appeal business card to me, and I need his favor for my tif money. In addition, I need his help for my zoning etc for my project. He is a powerful broker in City Hall, and I need him now.”
That email forms a part of the indictment the feds announced Friday against Cui, 48, of Lake Forest. Cui faces bribery charges after he allegedly used Burke’s law firm for property tax appeal work as he sought the sign permit.
Cui declined to comment. But Vadim Glozman, his criminal defense attorney, said, “It’s our opinion that the allegations against Mr. Cui are baseless. I know he’s charged with bribery, but how can you bribe someone when they’ve never had a conversation?”
Burke is not charged or even named in the indictment, which refers to an “Alderman A.” But it is the latest blow against the embattled alderman as the feds left no doubt that the official is Burke, noting in the indictment that “Alderman A” is the 14th Ward alderman and was chairman of the City Council Finance Committee.
Burke faces separate charges of attempted extortion for allegedly shaking down a Burger King franchise owner for legal work when the businessman needed a permit for a restaurant in his ward. Burke also allegedly asked the business owner to make a $10,000 campaign contribution to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. Burke has denied any wrongdoing and couldn’t be reached for comment Friday.
After the latest allegations against Burke were revealed, Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot blasted him: “Today’s charges add more definition to the utterly corrupt way in which Ald. Ed Burke has exploited his position and power. This is exactly the kind of conduct that the voters mandated must change. My commitment is that we will be vigilant in cleaning up corruption throughout all of city government.”
Cui’s company stood to lose as much as $750,000 in reduced rent from Binny’s if it couldn’t get a permit to reuse an old bank pole sign, under the agreement it had with the liquor store, according to the indictment. The city rejected that request, saying the pole sign hadn’t been used for several years and was “illegal.”
In addition to developing real estate, Cui is also an immigration attorney, and his law firm made three donations to Burke’s political campaign funds: $1,500 recorded on Dec. 19, 2017; $2,500 recorded on May 22, 2018, and $1,500 recorded on Nov. 6, 2018, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections.
Cui’s development project is in the 45th Ward, represented by Ald. John Arena, who in 2016 worked with the Chicago Department of Transportation to vacate a city-owned alley to facilitate parking for the development.
Since 2014, Cui and his law firm have made two dozen donations totaling nearly $18,000 to Arena’s campaign funds.
Arena has not been accused of any wrongdoing and said he knew nothing of Cui’s backroom maneuvers.
“At no point did any of this stuff come to my attention while we were talking about the pole sign or the development of the property . . . he never mentioned Ed Burke to me,” Arena said.
Arena noted Cui’s project has not received any TIF money yet because it has not met certain benchmarks.
Burke was involved in the project early on.
At a City Council meeting in March 2016, Burke motioned to approve the redevelopment project and voted for it, records show. The tax increment financing deal was worth $2 million for the project.
After the city denied the permit for the sign in May 2017, Cui allegedly emailed Burke, asking him “to look into the matter.”
Cui’s email said the retailer “really needs it, otherwise they will cancel the lease, or ask for significant rent reduction,” according to the indictment.
And Cui decided to shift his property tax appeals work to Burke’s firm, dumping attorney George Reveliotis, who got an email from Cui in August 2017 explaining his decision to switch lawyers.
“Can I ask you for a favor? Can I have [Alderman A] handle 4901 W. Irving Park property tax appeal for me, at least for this year?” Cui wrote in the email to Reveliotis, according to the indictment. In an interview, Reveliotis confirmed he spoke to federal agents about the email and Cui.
Reveliotis said Cui is a father and immigrant from China who came here “in search of opportunities . . . and probably to avoid government treatment liked he received from Mr. Burke.”
Referring to Cui, Reveliotis said, “I think he’s more of a victim . . . when you’re given the business card, you’re in essence forced to use his business services. I think some people might be inclined to believe that.”
In 2017, public records show Burke’s daughter, Jennifer Burke, who works at her father’s law firm, filed property tax appeals with the Cook County Board of Review for the project. The appeals contested the value of the land, but the board declined to change the assessments.
In 2018, Reveliotis got the work back.
Cui is charged with one count of federal program bribery, one count of making a false statement to the FBI and two counts of interstate commerce to facilitate bribery and official misconduct. The date of his initial appearance in court has not been set.
Cui allegedly lied to the FBI when agents talked to him on November 29, 2018, in which he told them he hired Burke’s firm “just because he is a good tax appeal lawyer.”
That very morning, FBI agents had papered over the windows and raided Burke’s City Hall and ward offices.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of the story misidentified the business needing the sign permit.