Some of former Ald. Ed Burke’s turns of phrase recorded by former Ald. Danny Solis, working as an informant during a corruption probe of the most powerful elected official at City Hall, have already become an indelible part of Chicago’s long history of political corruption.
They are now also evidence in Burke’s landmark corruption trial.
The jury of nine women and three men on Thursday heard a recorded conversation between Solis and Burke, who was frustrated that the firm renovating the Old Post Office had yet to hire his private law firm to handle the property’s property tax appeals.
The jury repeatedly heard Burke tell Solis he would not use his political clout to cut through the red tape that had ensnared efforts to restore water to the Old Post Office and get permission from Amtrak to stop the trains running under the building — two complicated and expensive efforts.
“So, did we, uh, land the tuna?” Burke asks Solis.
When Solis said Harry Skydell, who was leading efforts by the New York-based 601 West Companies, already had a law firm to do that work, Burke reminded his fellow City Council member he stood to profit if the deal was consummated.
“If we land the tuna there certainly will be a day of accounting, you can count on that,” Burke said.
On Wednesday, the jury heard Burke tell Solis he would not help the firm.
“If we’re not signed up, we’re not going to do heavy lifting,” Burke said. “The cash register has not rung yet.”
Solis is repeatedly heard reassuring Burke that even if Skydell couldn’t hire Burke’s law firm to represent them in connection with the Old Post Office, they had other properties in Chicago that they were interested in hiring “the good firm of Klafter & Burke,” as Burke put it.
During a meeting in Solis’ office that the former alderperson recorded, Skydell told Solis he’d “be happy” to hire Burke to represent them on other properties.
As part of the Old Post Office renovation project, Skydell and 601 West officials sought nearly $20 million in tax incremental finance (TIF) funding from the city to help repair the building’s west plaza. But to get that money, they’d need approval from Burke’s Finance Committee.
Burke, however, was upset that Skydell hadn’t been responsive enough to himself or Solis.
“Why would you go out of your way to help him, because he doesn’t apparently respond to you,” Burke said in an Oct. 6, 2017, phone call recorded by Solis. “And he certainly hasn’t responded to me.”
Following an Oct. 17, 2017, meeting inside Solis’ office — where an attorney representing 601 West laid out plans for the TIF funding and west plaza renovation — Burke told Solis he was “not very fond of the way they’ve conducted themselves … and as far as I’m concerned, they can go f--k themselves.”
When Solis mentioned that the TIF proposal would be going to the Finance Committee, Burke can be heard responding: “Well good luck getting it on the agenda.”
Solis kept urging Skydell to reach out to Burke, and in January 2018, Skydell called Burke and offered him tax work on a separate Chicago property 601 West was acquiring: the Sullivan Center on East Madison.
“I appreciate you thinking about our firm and we’ll do a good job for you,” Burke told Skydell on another recorded phone conversation.
Later that year, the Finance Committee approved an $18 million TIF proposal for 601 West.
Burke faces 14 criminal charges, including racketeering, bribery and extortion. He is being tried alongside his former aide Peter Andrews and Portage Park businessman Charles Cui.
Federal prosecutors are set to argue 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, formerly known as Klafter & Burke.
Request for Mistrial Denied
Before jurors on Thursday heard the tapes that are now a permanent part of Chicago political history, U.S. District Court Judge Virginia Kendall denied a request for a mistrial demanded by Burke’s lawyers, who argued that a witness’ statement Wednesday calling the former alderperson “corrupt” prejudiced the jury.
However, Kendall said she was confident that the jury would heed her instruction to ignore the statement from high-ranking Amtrak executive Ray Lang and said there was no evidence federal prosecutors engaged in intentional misconduct when Assistant U.S. Attorney Diane MacArthur asked the question that prompted that testimony.
“I have a very good jury,” Kendall said. “They are listening to me.”
Lang led a tour of Union Station and the underground tracks for Burke and Solis, who recorded the whole trip. That video was shown to the jury on Wednesday.
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, New York-based 601 West Companies, 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 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.
On Wednesday, Lang was asked by MacArthur what he meant by that characterization.
“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.
MacArthur said she had not expected Lang to use the word corrupt, and did nothing to knowingly elicit that testimony.
That was not enough for Gair, who moved for a mistrial, saying it had violated a pre-trial order issued by Kendall.
After Kendall rejected the request for the mistrial, Joe Duffy, another attorney for Burke, asked her to strike Lang’s testimony in total.
Duffy called Lang a “dangerous” witness, one with his own agenda.
“I don’t know what he’s going to say or try to say on cross,” Duffy said.
Kendall rejected that request but agreed to a request from the prosecution to strike the email that Lang sent from evidence.
Before Lang continued his testimony, Kendall admonished Lang just before the jury entered the courtroom.
“Yesterday you made a comment that it was your opinion that the Chicago Way meant everyone is corrupt or it’s all corrupt.” Kendall said. “That is absolutely not something you are permitted to say from this witness stand.”
Lang agreed to follow the judge’s instructions, and completed his testimony without another issue.
Matt Masterson contributed to this report.