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Ald. Ed Burke’s lawyer warns of ‘staggering’ amount of evidence, long cross-examination — if he ever gets to trial

It wasn’t clear following a hearing Wednesday when the 14th Ward alderman and his co-defendants could go to trial in the blockbuster racketeering case.

Flanked by his attorneys, Ald. Ed Burke (14th) walks out of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse, Tuesday morning, June 4, 2019. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Flanked by his attorneys, Ald. Ed Burke (14th) walks out of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse on June 4, 2019.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file photo

A lawyer for Ald. Edward M. Burke said Wednesday the cross-examination of a single witness in Burke’s federal criminal case could last more than a week if the longtime politician ever goes to trial.

He also said the amount of evidence prosecutors have yet to turn over to them about potential witnesses in the case is “staggering” and “unprecedented.”

Which means it could still be quite some time until the 14th Ward alderman goes to trial on a blockbuster racketeering indictment leveled against him more than a year ago. U.S. District Judge Robert Dow told lawyers during a hearing in the case Wednesday that it’d be premature to set a trial date using anything other than a “very erasable pencil.”

That’s in part because of a flurry of recent defense filings in the case aimed at dismissing counts, suppressing evidence and severing the defendants. Dow said Wednesday that “it’s going to take a while to resolve those motions” and he said a hearing might even be needed.

At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted jury trials across the country. Trials have slowly resumed at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse, but Dow questioned Wednesday whether the building has a courtroom large enough to accommodate Burke’s trial. Another judge in an unrelated case has said three-defendant trials are not possible at Dirksen under current COVID-19 protocols, which involve masks and strict social distancing.

One of Burke’s lawyers, Charles Sklarsky, told the judge he planned to raise “constitutional issues” if Burke gets anything “other than a normal trial.” Sklarsky told the judge the trial should wait until the COVID-19 pandemic passes and a vaccine is developed.

“Then we can have a normal trial,” Sklarsky said.

Dow scheduled another hearing in the case for Feb. 5, but he anticipated communicating with the lawyers about various issues in the meantime.

Among them is a schedule for the disclosure of what is apparently an overwhelming amount of evidence by prosecutors about their witnesses. Sklarsky told Dow he’d been asked by prosecutors not to share the actual amount of that evidence publicly.

The other issue is the court’s ability to put Burke and his co-defendants, political aide Peter Andrews and developer Charles Cui, on trial. Though a prosecutor suggested Wednesday Burke’s trial could last only three weeks, Sklarsky questioned that and made note of the lengthy estimated cross-examination of one witness.

Sklarsky did not name that witness, but former Ald. Danny Solis (25th) is known to have played a key role in the case, cooperating with federal prosecutors and secretly recording Burke.

Last month, Burke’s attorneys said Solis struck what’s known as a deferred-prosecution agreement with prosecutors early in 2019 after admitting he solicited campaign donations in exchange for taking official action on the Chicago City Council Zoning Committee he once led.

Solis could potentially avoid a criminal conviction under that agreement, though the terms of the deal are unknown. The U.S. Attorney’s office has declined to comment.

Burke is accused of using his seat on the City Council to steer business toward his private tax law firm amid schemes that involved the Old Post Office, a Burger King at 41st and Pulaski Road, and a redevelopment project on the Northwest Side.