Ed Burke, ‘figurehead of the old regime,’ faces historic corruption trial

The stage has been set for another legal clash at the Dirksen courthouse. But it’s unclear whether another central political figure, former Chicago Ald. Danny Solis, will make an appearance in the courtroom.

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Former Ald. Ed Burkę enters the Dirksen Federal Courthouse Monday for the start of his corruption trial.

Former Ald. Ed Burkę enters the Dirksen Federal Courthouse Monday for the start of his corruption trial.

Ashlee Rezin | Sun-Times

Edward M. Burke spent decades consolidating power, challenging his political nemeses and cementing an unrivaled legacy representing the 14th Ward at City Hall.

But the final chapter of his 54-year career as Chicago’s longest-serving City Council member is now set to be written in depressingly common fashion four blocks to the south — at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse.

That’s where Burke faces trial Monday with two other defendants in a courtroom controlled not by Burke or his allies but by U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall. Burke is charged with racketeering, bribery and extortion in a case that has been pending nearly five years.

It is the result of an aggressive federal probe into the same old-school Chicago-style politics through which Burke built his power, and which he personified for generations through natty pinstripe suits, a penchant for perks and rough-and-tumble political brawls.

If found guilty in federal court, Burke would be the fourth current or former member of the City Council to be convicted there in five years. More than three dozen have been convicted of crimes since the early 1970s.

But Burke is hardly just another federally indicted Chicago City Council member. His political career began in the City Hall ruled by the late Mayor Richard J. Daley. Decades later, Burke came to be regarded as one of the most powerful politicians in the city Daley left behind.

“He’s a figurehead of the old regime,” James L. Merriner, author of the book “Grafters and Goo Goos: Corruption and Reform in Chicago,” said of Burke.

“Whether he’s acquitted or convicted, he’s a relic.”

Burke’s trial will be the most high profile this year to result from federal public corruption investigations in Chicago dating back to 2014. Seven other people have been convicted since January in four separate trials. And jurors in those cases have sided with prosecutors on every single count.

Ald. Ed Burke walks into the Dirksen Federal Courthouse wearing a fedora and trench coat.

Ald. Ed Burke (14th) walks into the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in January 2019.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file photo

If that pattern continues, Burke could be facing significant prison time. Kendall is a former federal prosecutor nominated to the bench in 2005 by President George W. Bush.

She once handed a 10-year prison sentence to a former City Hall staffer after a public corruption trial in 2016. In doing so, she noted that “it takes years to build back the people’s trust in the government.”

Burke and his two co-defendants have pleaded not guilty. And the stage has been set for another historic legal clash at the Dirksen courthouse: Prosecutors behind many of this year’s public corruption convictions will go head-to-head with well-known defense attorneys Joseph Duffy, Chris Gair and others.

The defense team seems ready to question the extent of Burke’s power at City Hall — especially compared with former Mayor Rahm Emanuel. They might also suggest Burke was busy, distracted and not as laser-focused on alleged schemes as prosecutors claim.

It’s unclear whether another central figure will make an appearance in Kendall’s courtroom — former Ald. Danny Solis, who represented the 25th Ward for two decades before federal authorities confronted him in 2016 with evidence of his own wrongdoing.

Solis quickly agreed to work with investigators in an apparent bid to avoid prison, secretly recording his conversations with powerful politicians. He helped build cases against Burke and former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. In the end, he landed a deal that could help him avoid even a criminal conviction.

Still, Burke’s lawyers have called Solis “singularly corrupt and untruthful.” They say he spent two years trying to “manufacture” an alleged quid pro quo that became key to Burke’s indictment.

Solis’ cooperation continued until the Chicago Sun-Times outed him in January 2019. He then went underground, before his recordings became the centerpiece of cases against Burke and Madigan. Eventually, Solis was charged with bribery. But prosecutors have said they do not intend to call him to testify during Burke’s trial. Instead, they want to share his recordings with jurors through the testimony of FBI agents.

After learning of prosecutors’ decision, Burke’s defense attorneys said they plan to call Solis to the stand themselves. Whether they make good on that promise won’t be known until after prosecutors rest their case.

Prosecutors have called Solis one of Chicago’s “most significant cooperators in the last several decades.” But the city will have to wait to see if he finally makes a public appearance at Burke’s trial, bringing him face-to-face with the colleague he famously turned on.

Ald. Daniel Solis stands and speaks during a Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall in 2018.

Ald. Daniel Solis speaks during a Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall in July 2018.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times file photo

Landmark case

The sweeping 59-page racketeering indictment handed up against Burke in May 2019 alleges four criminal schemes. Two of them revolve around historic Chicago landmarks. One is Chicago’s Old Post Office, straddling the Eisenhower Expressway and dating back to the 1920s. It is now an office building following a $600 million renovation. Tenants there have recently included the Chicago Sun-Times.

Another landmark is the Field Museum. Burke is accused of trying to block an admission fee increase there because its employees did not respond when he tried to land an internship for the daughter of former Ald. Terry Gabinski.

But a third Chicago landmark of sorts can be found in the case against Burke: Clout. Burke is accused of throwing his considerable political weight around, using his seat on the City Council to steer business from developers to his private law firm at the time, Klafter & Burke.

Along the way, he allegedly uttered comments into the recording devices that have now become part of the political lexicon. At one point, as he was allegedly trying to strong-arm the Old Post Office developers into hiring his firm, prosecutors say Burke told Solis, “The cash register has not rung yet.”

Ald. Ed Burke (14th) speaks during a Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall while wearing a grey coat and blue tie with matching pocket square.

Ald. Ed Burke (14th) speaks during a Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall in January 2023.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file photo

Later, the eager Burke allegedly asked Solis, “Did we land … the tuna?”

Burke is charged with one count of racketeering, two counts of federal program bribery, two counts of attempted extortion, one count of conspiracy to commit extortion and eight counts of using interstate commerce for illegal activity.

His two co-defendants are Peter Andrews and Charles Cui.

Andrews, a longtime political aide, is charged with one count of attempted extortion, one count of conspiracy to commit extortion, two counts of using interstate commerce for illegal activity and one count of lying to the FBI.

Cui, a local developer on Chicago’s northwest side, is charged with one count of federal program bribery, three counts of using interstate commerce for illegal activity and one count of lying to the feds.

Here are the four alleged schemes for which Burke faces trial:

The Old Post Office

Burke is accused of pushing the developer behind the Old Post Office renovation, 601W Companies LLC of New York, to hire Klafter & Burke as it sought approvals at City Hall between 2016 and 2018. Burke allegedly sought Solis’ help along the way.

He did so shortly after authorities secretly enlisted Solis for their own efforts. In July 2016, shortly after Solis began working for the feds, Burke approached Solis while both were attending the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, court records show. Burke recommended a wrecking company for the Old Post Office project in Solis’ ward.

That recommendation is not part of the case against Burke. But it was apparently enough to get the authorities’ attention. They purportedly told Solis to keep talking to Burke. And on Aug. 26, 2016, the Post Office scheme allegedly began when Burke asked Solis to recommend “the good firm of Klafter & Burke” to the Post Office developers.

“Then we can certainly talk about a marketing arrangement for you,” Burke allegedly told Solis.

The feds took that to mean Burke would pay Solis if Burke’s firm was hired.

Later, in December 2016, Solis told Burke the developers would hire Burke’s firm if Burke and Solis helped them land the permits they needed for the Old Post Office.

That turned out to be a law-enforcement ruse. In fact, Burke’s lawyers have insisted the developer “never said any such thing to Solis.” Still, Burke allegedly replied, “OK, great.”

Burke’s tone changed the next month. He allegedly told Solis he wouldn’t help the developers because “the cash register has not rung yet.” Prosecutors say he made a similar comment in May 2017, telling Solis he wasn’t “motivated” because there had been no word on hiring his firm.

Eventually, in August 2018, Burke allegedly informed Solis that someone had reached out about hiring Burke’s firm. When Solis asked if Burke would then support TIF funding for the Old Post Office project, Burke allegedly replied, “Absolutely.”

The next month, Burke moved for the City Council to pass the tax increment financing, or TIF, funding proposal and voted in favor of it. 601W did not hire Burke’s firm to help with taxes at the Old Post Office, though.

Burke’s lawyers have insisted the entire event “was designed, conceived, and executed by the government and Danny Solis.”

Brown paper covers the windows and glass door of Ald. Edward Burke’s office at Chicago City Hall.

Brown paper covers the windows of Ald. Edward Burke’s office at Chicago City Hall on Nov. 29, 2018.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file photo

The Burger King

The second alleged scheme involved a Burger King near 41st and Pulaski. It’s the same restaurant near which 17-year-old Laquan McDonald was killed by then-Police Officer Jason Van Dyke, leading to Van Dyke’s second-degree murder conviction in October 2018.

The scheme also allegedly involved Andrews, one of Burke’s co-defendants.

Tri City Foods, which owned the Burger King, reached out to Burke in May 2017 for help landing a building permit for a remodeling project. Burke wound up visiting the restaurant with two company representatives in June 2017. Then he took them out to lunch at the Beverly Country Club, records show.

Burke allegedly spent that lunch telling his guests all about his law firm and how it handled property tax reductions. One of the guests later told investigators he “read between the lines” and understood Burke wanted business in exchange for permits at the restaurant.

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That same month, Burke allegedly told one of the company’s executives in a phone call that “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. What was that last part?” the businessman replied.

They managed to get the building permits anyway. Then, when Burke saw that work was underway at the Burger King, he allegedly contacted Andrews. The political aide told Burke in October 2017 he’d “play as hardball as I can” with the owners, records show.

Prosecutors say Burke and Andrews managed to shut down work at the Burger King until its owners agreed in December 2017 to start the process of hiring Burke’s firm. Andrews then told them their permit issues had all been cleared up, records show.

In the end, the company did not steer any work to Burke’s firm. Burke’s lawyers have argued that people involved in the Burger King project drew conclusions based on their own perceptions, and “the proof does not support the charge” leveled against Burke.

The Binny’s Beverage Depot

The third scheme alleged in Burke’s indictment involves his other co-defendant. Cui, who is also an immigration attorney, allegedly hired Burke’s firm in a bid to ensure approval for a pole sign for a Binny’s Beverage Depot in the 4900 block of West Irving Park Road.

Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development denied an application for that pole sign May 18, 2017. Still, Cui’s company entered into a deal that summer he believed would cost it $750,000 if the sign couldn’t be used.

So Cui reached out to Burke by email in August 2017, claiming the pole sign was “becoming a landmark for the community.” He also reached out to an attorney who had handled property tax appeals there in the past.

Cui allegedly wrote to that attorney, “Can I have Edward Burke handle 4901 W. Irving Park property tax appeal for me, at least for this year? … He is a powerful broker in City Hall, and I need him now.”

Burke’s lawyers have pointed out the exchange “occurred before Mr. Burke ever communicated with Cui about the sign or anything else.”

On Aug. 30, 2017, an attorney from Klafter & Burke reached out to Cui to start the process of representing him. Later that same day, Burke allegedly asked an assistant at City Hall to begin looking into Cui’s issue with the pole sign.

Klafter & Burke performed legal work for Cui in 2018, records show. But City Hall ultimately denied Cui’s permit.

The Field Museum

The final scheme outlined in Burke’s indictment allegedly took place over a matter of days in September 2017. At the time, the Field Museum was seeking approval from the Chicago Park District to increase its basic admission fees. The board planned to meet Sept. 13, 2017, to consider the request.

Burke, the longtime chairman of the Council’s finance committee, spoke to a museum employee seeking his support five days before that meeting. Burke quickly told the person, “I was surprised to hear from you, as a matter of — to be very frankly,” records show.

Burke allegedly went on to explain that “there was a young lady who graduated from DePaul, whose father I served with on the City Council for almost 40 years. And she was applying for a position … as an intern there at the museum.”

The person in question was the daughter of Gabinski, the former City Council member. She has also been described in court as Burke’s goddaughter. Burke said he never heard back from the museum after sending over the woman’s resume.

“So now, you’re going to make a request of me?” Burke allegedly said.

The employee replied, “Well, uh, what I wanted to do was to —.”

Burke allegedly cut the person off and said, “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.”

The museum employee told Burke, “We will definitely fix it.” Later, Burke heard from an executive at the museum, offering Gabinski’s daughter the chance to apply for a full-time job, records show.

Burke’s lawyers have argued Burke “never made any suggestion that the museum should offer a full-time paid job for this individual.”

Either way, the Park District wound up approving the fee increase.

And Gabinski’s daughter turned down the job.

Ald. Edward M. Burke is seen through a partially closed elevator door after he attended his last City Council meeting at City Hall.

Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) walks out after attending his last Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall on April 19, 2023.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file photo

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