Federal prosecutors allege a Chicago developer steered business to 14th Ward Ald. Ed Burke in exchange for Burke’s help getting a City Hall permit.
The defendant, Charles Cui, was granted $2 million in tax increment financing funds by the City Council’s Finance Committee, which Burke then controlled, to develop a former Bank of America property at 4901 W. Irving Park Road, according to the indictment.
Later, Cui was rejected in his effort to secure a permit from the city’s Department of Buildings for a sign to advertise one of his building’s tenants. Cui says that failure caused him to reduce one of his tenant’s rent by $750,000, costing his company that amount.
Cui allegedly contacted Burke in an email, writing:
“Good morning (Alderman A). I had a chance to meet you and (Individual A) couple of months ago. Hope you still remember me. I have a legal matter that may need your representation, if your schedule allows.”
The email goes on to ask Burke to look into the matter and “advise how to proceed.”
In the indictment, Alderman A is listed as alderman of the 14th Ward, clearly referring to Burke, although it does not explicitly refer to him by name; Individual A is identified as being associated with a real estate consulting and project management firm in Chicago.
Cui allegedly contacted his real estate attorney and told him he’d need to switch his business to Burke’s law firm, Klafter and Burke, in order to coax Burke into helping him get the permit granted. He hired Klafter and Burke but did not win the permit approval, according to the indictment.
Burke is not charged in the indictment, but faces a separate count of attempted extortion for allegedly trying to shake down a Burger King franchisee to hire Klafter and Burke for property tax appeals.
Prosecutors have until May 3 to return a federal indictment against Burke, and have indicated that the investigation is ongoing.
Cui is also an attorney who operates an immigration law firm out of the building located at 4901 W. Irving Park Road, according to his website.
His lawyer says he has always conducted himself with “the utmost professionalism.”
“The recent allegations against him are baseless and it is our intention to prove his innocence,” attorney Vadim Glozman said.
The Irving Park Road development is in the city’s 45th Ward. Cui donated more than $17,000 to outgoing 45th Ward Ald. John Arena between 2014 and 2018, and gave $4,000 to political funds controlled by Burke, state election records show.
Arena issued the following statement:
“I was disturbed to learn today that the developer of 4901 W. Irving Park Rd., Charles Cui, tried to circumvent our community process, and the zoning code, through nefarious means. Mr. Cui was unsuccessful in his efforts to secure a permit for an abandoned pole sign, which is prohibited in the pedestrian street designation that covers The Six Corners Shopping Distinct.
“When Mr. Cui approached me about the rejected pole sign permit, I worked with him to find an alternative solution within what was allowed and would satisfy the needs of his tenants. Apparently that didn’t satisfy him, and he solicited Ald. Burke.
“At no point have I had any communication with Ald. Burke concerning the sign permit or legal work for his law firm.
“Mr. Cui has not received a penny of TIF funds to date because he has failed to uphold his end of the redevelopment agreement. He failed to meet the City’s requirements for MBE/WBE hiring, and he failed to lease the second floor theater to an arts organization, as required by the agreement.
“This indictment is further evidence that there is more work to be done to create the ethical government our residents deserve. I applaud the investigation that revealed this corruption.”
Creating a ‘mosaic’
This case plays into the broader narrative the U.S. attorney’s office is trying to build about Burke and pay-to-play culture, according to one former federal prosecutor.
“What they’re trying to do is sort’ve create a mosaic, a big picture of what’s happening,” said Patrick Cotter, a defense attorney with Greensfelder, Hemker and Gale. “And the narrative they’ll tell the jury is, don’t focus on each individual tile, step back and see the big picture. Don’t just focus on this one developer, focus on the 10-15 developers we show, and that will show you the mosaic.”
He also says the feds could be sending a message to other developers with this indictment.
“The other purpose of an indictment like this is to send a message to all other developers, and it’s saying, look, if you think you’re too small for us to bother with, think again. We’ll come after you hard unless you cooperate with us.”
Follow Paris Schutz on Twitter: @paschutz