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Disgraced former Ald. Danny Solis — the once powerful chair of Chicago’s Zoning Committee turned government informant who wore a wire during federal probes of former House Speaker Michael Madigan and Ald. Ed Burke — pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to one count of bribery.
The hearing, conducted by phone by U.S. District Judge Andrea Wood, was expected to be a formality since Solis has already admitted that he demanded campaign contributions from a company that needed his support to win special permission from city officials in order to build an apartment on land once occupied by a restaurant in his 25th Ward.
Solis spoke only to answer routine questions from Wood during Wednesday’s hearing and to plead not guilty.
But the session came to an abrupt halt when Assistant U.S. Attorney Amarjeet Bhachu told Wood that attorneys for the city of Chicago notified the U.S. Attorney's Office Wednesday morning that city officials consider the city to be a victim of Solis’ crime and wanted to reserve the right to be heard as part of the case.
Solis entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with federal prosecutors in December 2018, admitting that he committed crimes while one of the most powerful elected officials in Chicago and agreeing to cooperate with federal prosecutors. Solis left the City Council after 23 years in May 2019.
That agreement calls for the single criminal charge Solis is facing to be dismissed in three years — in return for the “substantial assistance” that the once-powerful official is providing to federal officials attempting to convict Burke and Madigan.
Bhachu told Wood it was “doubtful” that the city was actually a victim of Solis’ crime.
Wood agreed to essentially suspend the hearing until 2 p.m. April 21 to give city attorneys a chance to weigh in before the case moves forward.
“I’d like to see what kind of argument the city might be making,” Wood said.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment to WTTW News about Bhachu’s statement that he doubted that the city was a victim in this case.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement that Solis should be “held accountable” for violating “the public trust in profound ways, not the least of which was by monetizing his position as Zoning Committee chairman for the benefit of himself and others, likely for years.”
“Because of all of the crimes that have been put on the public record, Solis victimized the residents of his ward and residents in the entire city, all of whom were deprived of the integrity and honesty that should be sacrosanct with all public officials,” Lightfoot said, adding that she had directed city attorneys to prepare a victim’s impact statement as part of the case against Solis.
“No one is above the law and Chicago residents expect that their elected officials will be held accountable,” Lightfoot said.
The attempt by the city to intervene in Solis’ court case comes after Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she was “deeply offended” by the agreement, which is likely to allow Solis to keep his pension and stay out of prison.
“This is a man who exploited his position,” Lightfoot said March 10. “There’s got to be consequences and accountability for that. It’s not enough for him to simply walk away. Sail off into the sunset. That sends the wrong message.”
Solis admitted taking a total of $15,000 from three executives of an unidentified firm in August and September 2015, shortly before and after he supported the zoning change they requested and shepherded it through the City Council. He also demanded that the executives attend fundraisers for his campaign, and solicit contributions from other people.
Those details match the Michigan Avenue Real Estate Group’s efforts in 2015 to win Solis’ approval for a $40 million apartment complex on what was once Carmichael’s steakhouse, approximately a mile from the United Center, as detailed by the Sun-Times in October 2019.
That development was approved by the Chicago City Council in September 2015, with Solis’ support. Such a change would likely have failed to advance to the full City Council without the powerful alderperson’s support, since the unwritten tradition of aldermanic prerogative gave Solis a veto over the proposal.
Lisa Noller, Solis’ attorney, could not be reached for comment.
Court records make it clear that Solis played a key role in the federal probe of Burke. A 14-count indictment made public in May 2019 alleges Burke repeatedly — and brazenly — used his powerful position at City Hall to force those doing business with the city to hire his private law firm by the Department of Justice.
Burke, who has represented the 14th Ward for 53 years, has pleaded not guilty to charges of racketeering, bribery and extortion. Racketeering charges — usually brought against members of the mob or street gangs — allege a pattern of corruption unknown to its victims.
At the same time, Solis was also recording Madigan, who served as speaker of the Illinois House for 36 years and led the Illinois Democratic Party for 20 years, according to a 22-count indictment made public March 2.
Madigan is charged with participating in a bribery scheme with Commonwealth Edison and illegally steering business to his private property tax law firm amid efforts to turn a vacant piece of land in Chinatown into a commercial development.
Solis played a key role in the discussions of the Chinatown development, according to Madigan’s indictment, which also alleges that Madigan suggested to Solis that he could arrange for Gov. J.B. Pritzker to appoint Solis to a state position, and did not have to put anything in writing to get it done.
Pritzker’s communications director Emily Bittner said Madigan never approached Pritzker.
“The governor does not recall Michael Madigan ever asking him to consider Danny Solis for any position,” Bittner said. “The administration has no record of Solis being recommended by Madigan. In addition, he was never vetted, appointed or hired for any role in the administration.”