The former commissioner of the Chicago Department of Water Management testified Wednesday that he was terrified of former Chicago Ald. Ed Burke, so he jumped to resolve bureaucratic red tape that threatened to derail the redevelopment of the Old Post Office.
Barrett Murphy, who led the city’s water department from April 2016 to July 2017, agreed with Assistant U.S. Attorney Diane MacArthur’s suggestion that there was a “fear factor” when he dealt with Burke, who was then the longest serving member of the Chicago City Council and the chair of the City Council’s Finance Committee.
“Ald. Burke can be extremely intimidating,” Murphy said during the landmark corruption trial. “And you wanted to make sure you can be as responsive as possible.”
Murphy testified as federal prosecutors continued to build their case that Burke sought to leverage the $800 million renovation of the Old Post Office, which needed an $18 million subsidy and a tax break worth $100 million from the city to move forward, and force the developer to hire his law firm, Klafter & Burke.
Burke agreed to share those profits with then Ald. Danny Solis if he helped Burke shake down the developer, New York-based 601 West Companies, according to prosecutors.
Murphy said he was frightened of the powerful alderperson and did not want to anger or frustrate Burke.
“He was the most senior alderman of the City Council and, as head of the finance committee, he had a lot of power and influence,” said Murphy, adding that Burke had authority over his department’s budget and could influence whether Murphy stayed in his job.
“If Ald. Burke asked you questions it could be terrifying,” Murphy said.
In July 2017, former Mayor Rahm Emanuel ousted Murphy and his two top aides after a probe by the city’s inspector general uncovered evidence that an “unrestricted culture of overtly racist and sexist behavior and attitudes” infested the Water Department.
Burke is charged with what prosecutors say are four criminal schemes, three involving the former alderperson’s side hustle as a property tax attorney. Perhaps the most elaborate scheme Burke is charged with involves the Old Post Office and Solis, who agreed to serve as a government informant after being confronted by FBI agents who had gathered evidence of his own criminality.
Murphy told the jury he was involved in the effort to restore water service to the Old Post Office, which had fallen into significant disrepair after being vacant for nearly 25 years after the departure of the U.S. Postal Service.
The renovation of the massive building, which straddles not just the Eisenhower Expressway but also Amtrak tracks, was very complicated, according to Grant Uhlir, a Chicago architect who oversaw the project. For the project to start in earnest, the developer also needed permission from Amtrak to stop the trains running under the building — a complicated and expensive request.
Solis asked Burke to help cut through the red tape that had ensnared efforts to restore water to the Old Post Office, and Burke agreed to reach out to Tom Powers, who served as commissioner of the Chicago Department of Water Management before Murphy.
In turn, Powers alerted Murphy that Burke was interested in the Old Post Office renovation, even though it was in Solis’ ward.
Murphy said he understood that meant there was “City Hall heat” on the push to restore the building to its former art deco glory, a push that was backed by Emanuel.
Once MacArthur finished her questioning, Murphy faced a withering cross-examination from Chris Gair, Burke’s attorney.
Gair peppered Murphy with questions about his interactions with Burke and appeared incensed by Murphy’s statement that he was not friends with Burke.
Gair sought to establish that Burke and Murphy were both history buffs, and that Gair attended a political fundraiser after Burke was charged with attempted extortion in 2019.
Murphy said he only attended that fundraiser because a friend gave him a free ticket. Under cross-examination, Murphy acknowledged that he told FBI agents that he went because he believed “friends don’t abandon friends.”
However, Murphy told MacArthur that he meant only that he “thought (Burke) deserved his day in court.”
After Murphy finished his testimony, the jury saw secretly recorded video of the first meeting between Burke and Harry Skydell, who was leading the Old Post Office renovation.
During that meeting, Burke touted his law firm’s work with other well-known developers in Chicago, and highlighted his connection with Jeff Moreland, a member of the Amtrak board of directors.
“We made his daughter a judge here in Cook County,” Burke said on the recording. “You’ll find out that Chicago’s a very small town.”
As the meeting wrapped up, Burke shared with Skydell the origin of the phrase “we don’t want nobody nobody sent,” which became shorthand for Chicago’s long history of political cronyism.
After Skydell left, Solis told Burke he was under financial pressure, with a son in high school at St. Ignatius and a “large mortgage.”
Burke said he was open to Solis working to solicit business for his law firm, and pledged to share the profits.
“If you can tee him up, you can be our consultant,” Burke told Solis on the recorded conversation. “So, let’s try to do some business. They all need someone who do what I do.”
In a subsequent conversation, Burke told Solis he believed in sharing the wealth, adding that everything they were doing was “above board and legal.”
Jurors also heard and saw Burke voicing his frustration that Skydell’s firm had not yet hired Burke’s private law firm in a meeting with Solis that he secretly recorded with a camera affixed to his clothing.
“(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, staring right at Solis without apparent emotion.
Burke listened to that exchange impassively, wearing a black mask.
Burke’s attorneys fought to keep the jury from hearing that remark, which prosecutors said was evidence he “believed he would only be hired to perform tax work by if he was able to take favorable action for in his capacity as an alderman.”
In subsequent recordings played for the jury, Burke tells Solis he won’t help resolve the conflict with Amtrak until he is “retained,” meaning hired to handle the firm’s property tax appeal business.
“If we’re not signed up, we’re not going to do heavy lifting,” Burke said. “The cash register has not rung yet.”
Despite that reluctance, Burke went on a tour of Union Station and the undergound tracks with Solis — who recorded the whole trip. That excursion was led by Ray Lang, a high-ranking Amtrak official.
Before the trip, Lang sent an email about efforts by the developers to get access to the train tunnels underneath the Old Post Office that erroneously said that the developer had hired Burke.
“Alderman Burke (who is a friend of Jeff Moreland) is the longest-tenured Alderman in Chicago. … a very old school Chicago move to hire him,” Lang wrote.
Gair objected to that email being presented to the jury, telling U.S. District Court Judge Virgina Kendall that it included false information and that it was prejudicial to allow Lang to call Burke “old school.”
Kendall overruled that objection, noting that Gair had twice himself referred to Burke as an old school politician.
Lang was asked what he meant by that characterization by MacArthur.
“A developer hiring an alderman to do property tax work, I thought, was symbolic of the Chicago way of doing business,” Lang said. “I thought it was very corrupt.”
That remark brought an outraged Gair to his feet, demanding that the remark be stricken from the record and the jury instructed to disregard it. Kendall agreed, reminding the jury as they left the courtroom Wednesday to ignore the last sentence of Lang’s response.
That was not enough for Gair, who moved for a mistrial, saying it had violated a pre-trial order issued by Kendall.
MacArthur said she had not expected Lang to use the word corrupt.
Kendall said she would not rule on Gair’s mistrial motion until Thursday morning, before Lang is due back on the stand for cross-examination.