Video: The WTTW News Spotlight Politics team discusses the Ed Burke trial and more of the day’s top news. (Produced by Acacia Hernandez)
When discussing the owner of a Burger King who was coming to the city to finalize a remodeling permit, former Ald. Ed Burke — who controlled whether those efforts would be approved — noted that the man owned hundreds of restaurants and said he wanted to “get some of his law business.”
Jurors on Tuesday began hearing evidence of the second of four criminal schemes prosecutors say the longtime 14th Ward alderperson was involved in — this one involving remodeling work at a Burger King restaurant located in Burke’s ward. That testimony continued through Wednesday.
Burke faces 14 criminal charges in his landmark corruption trial, including racketeering, bribery and extortion. He’s being tried alongside his former aide Peter Andrews and businessman Charles Cui.
All three men have pleaded not guilty.
Shoukat Dhanani — the co-CEO of the Houston-based Dhanani Group, which owns around 150 fast food restaurants across Illinois — testified that in 2017, he began efforts to renovate a Burger King located at 4060 S. Pulaski Road.
Dhanani, who lives in Texas, said he was informed by Harris County, Texas, Comissioner Rodney Ellis that he should set up a meeting with Burke so he could get the necessary permits to get that work started.
“He kind of mentioned you should get to know Ald. Burke in Chicago,” Dhanani testified. “He’s pretty powerful in the city of Chicago. I said, sure I will.”
In May 2017, Dhanani left Burke a voicemail in which he said he had “an application that’s been made for remodels and I think it’s stuck at your office for something.” When they spoke days later on May 25, Burke raised concerns he had about trucks parking at the restaurant overnight. Those trucks had become a magnet for sex workers, according to proscecutors.
“Some of the community activists are giving me a little aggravation about it,” Burke said in a phone call that was recorded through a court-approved wiretap and played for jurors in court.
Dhanani said he’d never heard about any such issues at the site, but the pair planned to meet in person in Chicago that June.
Days before that meeting, Burke spoke about the restaurant remodel on the phone with Ellis, who told Burke he’d let Dhanani “know how important you are.” Burke then mentioned the possibility of getting Dhanani to hire his law firm, Klafter & Burke.
“Well you’re good to do that, but I’d also like to get some of his law business and get him involved here in Chicago,” Burke said, adding that he had heard Dhanani has “got 300 Burger Kings” in Chicago. “So he’s somebody you and I could get to know.”
During that meeting, Burke mentioned — unprompted — that he owned a property tax law firm and how he’s been “very successful,” Dhanani testified.
Dhanani said he believed Burke brought this up because he “thought maybe he’s wanting us to give him the property tax business,” even though they already had a company that handled such matters.
“I thought it might make it easier for us to get our permits,” he testified, when asked why he would consider giving Burke’s firm his business.
They also discussed driveway permits for the trucks, though Dhanani believed his business did not need such a permit because the driveway was shared by several businesses in an attached shopping center.
The remodeling work eventually got underway in October, but when Burke saw this was going on, he made a call to Andrews, who had been present during the June site tour.
“What was the issue? Why was I able to hold that up? What did they need from me?” Burke said in an Oct. 24, 2017, phone call played for jurors.
Andrews replied that the owners needed their “driveway permits and everything signed off on.”
“Well I don't remember signing off on any driveway permits,” Burke said.
The remodel work was then shut down until December 2017, when Dhanani flew back to Chicago to meet with Burke at the Union League Club. Dhanani said he still didn’t understand at that point why the work had been stopped, but he had a “gut feeling” it was because he hadn’t given Burke any property tax business.
“I didn’t see any other reason why,” Dhanani testified.
At this point the Burger King had been losing money because its dining room was closed due to the unfinished remodeling work, Dhanani testified.
During the meeting, Burke again brought up his law firm, and Dhanani agreed to give him a list of all the Burger King restaurants he owned in Chicago so Burke could look into reducing their property taxes.
Asked why he agreed to do this, Dhanani said he was concerned “that our life would be pretty difficult at that particular location" if he had refused.
Shortly after that meeting, Dhanani testified, the construction was allowed to resume.
Burke recommended Dhanani get to know more Chicago politicians, Dhanani testified, and the alderperson invited him to a fundraiser for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle in 2018 that Burke hosted at his Gage Park home.
In a recorded phone conversation, Dhanani told Burke he would be unable to attend because poor weather conditions kept him from flying out of Houston. He claimed he’d attempted to make a $10,000 donation to Preckwinkle, but then learned there was a $5,600 limit on how much one person could donate, so he instead made two donations in both his and his son’s name.
Preckwinkle claimed she returned all donations made at that fundraiser after Burke was indicted, though there were questions initially about Dhanani’s specific contribution.
After Burke was charged in January 2019 of attempting to extort Dhanani, news of his contribution to her campaign committee helped torpedo her run for mayor.
Under cross examination from Burke’s attorney Joseph Duffy, Dhanani said his company never actually gave any legal work to Klafter & Burke, and the remodeling project was completed in 2018 without interference from Burke or city officials.
Dhanani said he did not know whether his company ever obtained driveway permits from Chicago’s Department of Transportation. Dhanani also acknowledged that he was interested when Burke mentioned that with the departure of McDonalds from Midway International Airport, there could be a spot for another Burger King restaurant owned by Dhanani.
Todd Pugh, Andrews' attorney, spent most of his cross examination establishing that Dhanani did not initially remember who Andrews was when questioned by FBI agents and that Andrews was not present when Burke mentioned his property tax firm during a June 2017 lunch at the Beverly Country Club or the December 2017 meeting at the Union League Club.
In addiition, Pugh pressed Dhanani to acknowledge that he needed a driveway permit, which could prompt the jury to conclude that Andrews did nothing wrong when he moved to stop the restaurant renovation in October 2017.
Under renewed questioning from prosecutors, Dhanani said he had never before had to meet with a local City Council member regarding a restaurant renovation, despite owning hundreds of locations.
The jury also saw copies of emails sent by Burke's assistant to the employee who Dhanani told Burke could arrange for Klafter & Burke to represent his firm for property tax appeals. Burke's assistant asked for a list of all of the properties Dhanani owned in Illinois — not just in Cook County.
The trial is set to resume Monday after the Thanksgiving holiday with additional testimony from Pamela Smith, who worked for Dhanani.
‘He could withhold his support’
Prosecutors, who have called Burke “a bribe-taker and ... an extortionist,” plan to detail his involvement in 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.
Testimony on Tuesday began with continuing discussions of Burke’s alleged attempts to extort the Field Museum in 2017.
Deborah Bekken, the ex-director of government affairs and sponsored programs for the Field Museum, testified Monday that officials were determined to pass a “quiet” and “clean” admissions fee increase in August 2017, and knew they needed Burke’s support.
But when Bekken called Burke’s office on Sept. 8, 2017, the alderperson was upset over the museum’s treatment of Molly Gabinski — the daughter of former 32nd Ward Ald. Terry Gabinski, one of Burke’s closest friends, and Burke’s goddaughter — who had applied for a Field Museum internship.
Bekken said she understood Burke was linking the museum’s proposed admission rate hike and their failure to consider Gabinski’s application.
“Because if the chairman of the Committee on Finance calls the president of the Park Board, we know your proposal is going to go nowhere,” Burke said in a recording played for jurors Monday.
Bekken testified she “perceived it as a threat.”
Field Museum President Richard Lariviere testified Tuesday that he spoke with Burke about Gabinski, noting that the former alderperson was clearly “embarrassed and angry” about what happened.
“He could withhold his support (for the fee increase) if he was angry enough and embarrassed enough,” Lariviere said, telling jurors he believed Burke was tying his support for fee increase with that application.
But on cross-examination, Lariviere noted that Burke had never directly threatened him about withholding his support, nor did he demand that Gabinski be given a job at the museum.
Shawn Vanderziel, the Field Museum’s former head of human resources, recalled that Gabinski’s internship application was brought up during an executive team meeting in 2017 because there was “concern that we had dropped the ball” in bringing her in for an interview.
Asked if it was common for such applications to be discussed at these meetings, Vanderziel testified Tuesday that it would “not be standard practice.”
Heather Cherone contributed to this report.