Jury Selection Begins in Corruption Trial of Former Ald. Ed Burke

Former Ald. Ed Burke went on trial Monday, accused of brazenly using his position as the most powerful politician at City Hall to force those doing business with the city to hire his private law firm, as political corruption once again took center stage in Chicago.

Burke entered the Dirksen United States Courthouse for the first time since June 2019 wearing a tan coat over a dark suit, accompanied by his wife, former Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Ann Burke, and a phalanx of attorneys. Burke greeted reporters and photographers with a cheerful wave and headed inside.

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One of the first acts of Burke’s attorneys was to object to a large display in the hallway outside the 25th floor courtroom that memorializes the other high-profile public corruption cases that have taken place at the Dirksen Courthouse. U.S. District Court Judge Virginia Kendall said she would take that request under advisement.

Once seated at the defense table, Burke spoke only to greet Kendall as proceedings began, and then again after he was introduced to the first group of 53 prospective jurors by one of his attorneys.

Kendall informed the potential jurors that they could hear from an array of witnesses that once held significant power at Chicago City Hall, including former 45th Ward Ald. John Arena; former Building Commissioner Judy Frydland; current Building Commissioner Matthew Beaudet; former Planning Commissioner David Reifman and former Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld.

As Burke’s trial gets underway, one of the biggest questions revolves around whether former Ald. Danny Solis (25th Ward) will testify. But the jury will certainly hear conversations recorded by Solis as part of his work as one of most significant government informants and witnesses in public corruption cases during the last several decades, according to federal prosecutors.

Some of Burke’s turns of phrase recorded on those tapes immediately became an indelible part of Chicago’s long history of political corruption, and the jury is likely to hear Burke ask Solis, “So, did we, uh, land the tuna?”

Burke was also recorded cautioning Solis not to act because “the cash register has not rung yet.”

The process of selecting a jury began slowly Monday morning, with Kendall and lawyers quizzing prospective members about what they know about Burke, Chicago politics and their feelings about the criminal justice system.

Few people expressed enthusiasm about serving on a jury during a trial expected to last at least six week but most said they could be fair to Burke, who will be tried alongside his longtime aide Peter J. Andrews and real estate developer Charles Cui.

Opening statements were not expected to start until Wednesday, at the earliest.

Former Chicago Ald. Ed Burke makes his way through security at the Dirksen Courthouse on Nov. 6, 2023. (WTTW News) Former Chicago Ald. Ed Burke makes his way through security at the Dirksen Courthouse on Nov. 6, 2023. (WTTW News)

Prosecutors to Detail Four Schemes

Prosecutors will detail Burke’s involvement in what they say are four criminal schemes as part of their bid to depict the former alderperson as “thoroughly corrupt,” three involving his side hustle as a property tax attorney.

Perhaps the most elaborate scheme involves the Old Post Office, the massive building that straddles the Eisenhower Expressway at the edge of the Loop. Vacant for nearly 25 years after the departure of the U.S. Postal Service, the building sank into disrepair making it a perfect setting for director Christopher Nolan’s bleak depiction of Gotham in 2004’s “Batman Begins” and its sequel, 2007’s “The Dark Knight.” 

But once those productions faded from the limelight, the Old Post Office was best known for catching fire in 2014 and again in 2016, sending massive clouds of smoke billowing over downtown.

The landmark’s fortunes began to reverse when the building was purchased by 601 West Companies, which planned to spend $800 million to renovate the massive structure into offices. But to make that financially possible, the developers needed significant help from City Hall, which meant they needed the backing of Burke, the chair of the powerful Finance Committee, and Solis, the chair of the Zoning Committee.

Prosecutors are expected to tell the jury that Burke, working with Solis, whose ward included the Old Post Office, held up that assistance in an attempt to force the Old Post Office developer to hire Burke’s private law firm, which specialized in getting companies breaks on their property taxes by appealing to county officials. 

Burke pledged to kick back a portion of the spoils to Solis in return for his approval of an $18 million subsidy and a tax break worth $100 million, prosecutors alleged in the indictment.

But the scheme was slow to come together, as the New York-based developer balked at hiring Burke’s firm, angering Burke.

“So did we land the, uh, tuna?” Burke asked Solis during a meeting on May 26, 2017, according to recordings expected to be played for the jury.

On Oct. 25, 2017, Burke told Solis the plan was on ice because, in his words, “The cash register has not rung yet.”

Former Ald. Ed Burke and his legal team in federal court before U.S. District Court Judge Virginia Kendall on Nov. 6, 2023. (WTTW News) Former Ald. Ed Burke and his legal team in federal court before U.S. District Court Judge Virginia Kendall on Nov. 6, 2023. (WTTW News)

Burke’s lawyers unsuccessfully tried to prevent the jury from hearing Burke’s continuing frustration about not consummating the deal, which he blamed on the religion of the company’s leaders.

“(W)ell, you know as well as I do, Jews are Jews and they’ll deal with Jews to the exclusion of everybody else unless … unless there’s a reason for them to use a Christian,” Burke said, according to a recording.

Eventually, the renovation of the Old Post Office was completed, and it is now a a gleaming office building home to Uber’s Chicago operations and Walgreens’ corporate headquarters. In June, its meticulously restored Art Deco lobby hosted a speech by President Joe Biden.

Burke’s law firm had a number of prominent clients, including former President Donald Trump, who hired Burke to appeal the property taxes he owed on the hotel and tower his firm built along the Chicago River at Wacker Drive. Burke saved the future president $11.7 million in property taxes, according to a report by the Chicago Sun-Times.

But jurors won’t hear the name of the former president during the trial, with prosecutors not opposing a plea from Burke’s lawyers that contended it would unfairly prejudice the jury because Trump, the likely Republican nominee for president in 2024, is “despised by a significant percentage of the population.”

The very first charge levied against Burke in January 2019 — attempted extortion — involved a similar scheme, this one involving the owners of a Burger King in Burke’s 14th Ward. 

In 2017, the owners of the fast-food joint needed city permits to renovate the eatery at 4060 S. Pulaski Road. Under the City Council’s decades-long tradition of aldermanic prerogative, they needed Burke’s sign-off — and prosecutors say Burke explicitly withheld that permission until the owners hired his private law firm to appeal their property taxes.

The complaint also alleges Burke urged the Burger King executives to donate campaign cash to Toni Preckwinkle, who was running for another term as president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners at the time. Preckwinkle’s connection to Burke was enough to torpedo her 2019 run for mayor, even as she won reelection as county board president in 2022.

A longtime aide to Burke, Andrews is charged with participating in the attempted extortion of the Burger King restaurant, which has earned its place in Chicago political history twice over. In 2014, 17-year-old Laquan McDonald was shot 16 times and killed by police Officer Jason Van Dyke just outside the eatery’s front door, leading to his second-degree murder conviction. 

While neither the developers of the Old Post Office nor the Burger King owners ended up hiring Burke as their property tax appeal attorney, a Portage Park businessman who transformed a long-vacant Six Corners bank building into a Binny’s Beverage Depot, Culver’s and gym did.

Charles Cui was charged with bribing Burke and will stand trial alongside the former alderperson and his aide. 

According to federal prosecutors, Cui went to Burke when city officials denied his request for a large pole sign outside the former bank building he redeveloped. Burke offered to help Cui, if he hired Klafter & Burke. Cui did, according to the indictment, and now he will stand trial alongside Burke. The pole sign was never erected.

The final charges Burke faces accuse him of threatening to block a fee increase at a museum in 2017 because officials didn’t agree to hire a friend’s daughter as an intern. While not identified in the indictment, Burke intervened to help the daughter of former Ald. Terry Gabinski (32nd Ward) get a job at the Field Museum. Eventually the fee hike was approved, and Gabinski’s daughter never took a job at the museum.

Crash Course in Chicago Politics

The judge agreed to allow prosecutors to give jurors what is likely to amount to a crash course in Chicago politics by calling Elmhurst College Professor Connie Mixon to the stand, ruling that the case against Burke requires a deep knowledge of how City Hall operates.

“The structure of Chicago’s City Council is not inherently understood through common sense; nor does it parallel that of other large municipalities,” Kendall wrote in her ruling.

That is likely to mean Chicago itself — with its deep and long history of corruption — will be on trial alongside Burke and his codefendants, with the jury's ultimate decision passing judgement not just on individuals but on the system that stands charged with allowing wrongdoing to flourish.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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