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How is corrupt ex-Ald. Danny Solis still a free man? Ed Burke’s lawyers give answer in litany of court filings

Lawyers representing Ald. Burke in his high-profile corruption case also are alleging prosecutors withheld crucial information from Chicago’s chief federal judge as they sought to eavesdrop on City Hall phone lines, as well as Burke’s own cellphone.

Alderman Danny Solis during the Chicago City Council meeting, Wednesday, November 16, 2016.
Alderman Danny Solis during the Chicago City Council meeting, Wednesday, November 16, 2016.
Sun-Times file photo

The mystery of corrupt ex-Ald. Danny Solis’ fate may have finally been answered by the man he tried to help the feds put behind bars: indicted Ald. Edward M. Burke.

In a court filing Thursday, Burke’s lawyers wrote that Solis struck what’s known as a deferred-prosecution agreement with federal prosecutors on Jan. 3, 2019.

Until now, it hadn’t been publicly known whether Solis would face criminal charges after years of cooperating with investigators, who had ensnared Solis in corruption schemes involving Solis’ role as chair of the City Council’s zoning committee. But Burke’s lawyers say Solis cut his deal with the feds on the same exact day Chicagoans first learned that Burke had been criminally charged in an attempted extortion scheme.

A deferred-prosecution agreement would allow Solis to avoid a criminal conviction that might lead to prison time, providing he complies with the terms of the agreement, which remain unknown. Under such agreements, criminal charges against a defendant are typically dismissed after a period of time.

And that answers a key question political observers have been asking: How has Solis been able to walk free after admitting to corruption while a litany of other Illinois politicians have been charged or are under investigation?

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office declined to comment Thursday, as did Solis’ attorney. Though Solis’ name is redacted throughout the court filings, he is known to be the alderman who cooperated against Burke (14th). The Chicago Sun-Times first revealed Solis’ cooperation in January 2019. Later that month, it also detailed the evidence that had been gathered against Solis, the 25th Ward’s former alderman.

In a flurry of court filings Thursday, Burke’s lawyers also alleged that federal prosecutors withheld crucial information from Chicago’s chief federal judge as they sought to eavesdrop on City Hall phone lines, as well as Burke’s cellphone. Burke’s lawyers asked U.S. District Judge Robert Dow for a hearing over whether the recordings should be suppressed.

It has been more than a year since a blockbuster racketeering indictment accused Burke of using his seat on the Chicago 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.

Also charged in the indictment were Burke political aide Peter Andrews and developer Charles Cui.

Dow reserved time in the middle of 2021 for a trial in Burke’s case, though it is unclear whether that schedule is realistic amid the coronavirus pandemic. A judge presiding over an unrelated case this week said the Dirksen Federal Courthouse is unable to accommodate three-defendant trials under current COVID-19 safety protocols.

Though the filings from Burke’s lawyers shed some new light on the quiet work done by the feds in the earlier days of their public corruption investigations, his lawyers also complained that federal prosecutors have refused to say exactly how the Burke investigation began.

“The government’s investigation seems to spring out of thin air,” they wrote in one filing.

Burke’s lawyers say the feds sought to tap Solis’ cellphone on Sept. 26, 2014, more than a month after Solis had been secretly recorded in a meeting with House Speaker Michael Madigan. The feds listened to Solis’ calls until Aug. 21, 2015, according to the Burke court filings.

Burke’s lawyers said Solis agreed to cooperate with the feds after they confronted him in June 2016. Though Burke’s lawyers repeatedly described Solis as “desperate,” Burke’s team insisted that Solis told prosecutors “he had never been involved in any criminal wrongdoing with Ald. Burke — with whom he had served in the City Council for almost twenty-five years.”

Burke’s lawyers say the investigations of Solis and Burke “apparently intersected” in July 2016, when Solis and Burke attended the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. It was there that Burke’s lawyers say he — along with other politicians — approached Solis about contractors for the Old Post Office renovation. Burke recommended a wrecking company. That, Burke’s lawyers say, appeared to prompt prosecutors to deploy Solis against Burke.

They also say that, on May 1, 2017, the feds sought permission to wiretap six phone lines at the office of the Chicago City Council finance committee, which Burke led. That wiretap was soon expanded, and the feds wound up intercepting 2,185 calls from City Hall phones before abandoning the wiretap on May 31, 2017.

The feds also monitored Burke’s cellphone from May 15, 2017, until Feb. 10, 2018, Burke’s lawyers say. They described it as “the longest wiretap in the United States that concluded in 2018,” and they said the feds wound up recording 9,101 calls between the City Hall and cellphone wiretaps.

Burke’s lawyers say he was targeted by the feds, and that Solis wasn’t the first government cooperator to work against him. They said that, from Feb. 2, 2015, until Aug. 13, 2015, an unnamed cooperator from another federal case in Chicago was “contacting Ald. Burke regularly in an attempt to develop evidence against him.”

“Here, again, the government came up empty-handed, and yet it zealously pressed on,” Burke’s lawyers wrote.

Contributing: Mark Brown