A restaurant group official said he was “taken aback” when Ald. Ed Burke brought up possible work for his property tax law firm as the pair discussed driveway permits for a Burger King undergoing a remodel in Burke’s 14th Ward in 2017.
Zohaib Dhanani — president of the Burger King division of the Houston-based Dhanani Group, which owns the Burger King at 41st Street and Pulaski Road and around 150 fast food restaurants across Illinois — testified Tuesday that he believed Burke was tying his pending approval of those permits to the Dhanani Group contracting with the alderperson’s law firm.
“I felt a little weird,” Dhanani said, “in a sense that again, the two were being linked together, the property taxes and the permits. I just thought that was unusual.”
Burke is accused of shaking down the restaurant owners to try to get them to hire his law firm to handle their property tax appeals — one of four schemes the longtime alderperson and city Finance Committee chair is accused of orchestrating.
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.
Dhanani’s father, Shoukat Dhanani, the head of the Dhanani Group, testified last month that he believed Burke intentionally held up the remodeling project in late 2017 because he hadn’t hired Burke’s law firm.
The Dhananis went with Burke and Andrews for a tour of the restaurant site before the remodeling began in June 2017 and then joined the alderperson for a lunch he’d organized at his country club.
During that lunch, Burke — unprompted — brought up his tax firm Klafter & Burke and told the Dhananis how successful it was. He’d also discussed issues at the restaurant site about overnight truck parking and driveway permits. Those trucks had become a magnet for sex workers, according to prosecutors.
Jurors on Tuesday heard a recording of a wiretapped phone call between Burke and Zohaib Dhanani two weeks after that meeting, in which Burke, again, brought up his tax firm.
“And we were gonna talk about the real estate tax representation and you were gonna have somebody get in touch with me so we can expedite your permits,” Burke said on the June 27, 2017, call.
When asked about this in court Tuesday, Zohaib Dhanani testified he was “taken aback a little bit” by that statement.
“It was a little unusual,” he said.
The remodeling work eventually got underway in October, but when Burke saw this was going on, he called Andrews and asked: “What was the issue? Why was I able to hold that up? What did they need from me?”
Andrews replied in another wiretapped phone conversation 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.
Andrews then contacted Pam Smith, an official with the subsidiary of the Dhanani Group which owned the Burger King, and the project was temporarily shut down.
That same day, Smith wrote in an email to her colleagues in reference to Burke’s office: “I know these guys are very powerful and they can make life very difficult for all of our Chicago stores and I do not want to take this risk at this time until we meet and discuss everything.”
While the remodeling was shut down, sales at the Burger King dropped 55%, according to Zohaib Dhanani, who said the restaurant looked like a construction site during this period and customers likely assumed it was closed.
The Dhananis flew back to Chicago to meet with Burke at the Union League Club in December 2017 with hopes of finally resolving the driveway issues, but Zohaib Dhanani testified that Burke complained that no one from the restaurant group had reached out about hiring Klafter & Burke.
Burke also invited the men to a fundraiser for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle in January 2018 that Burke was hosting at his Gage Park home. They ultimately did not attend, but each made donations to her mayoral campaign and, a short time later, the remodeling project was able to resume.
Zohaib Dhanani was asked Tuesday if anything else had changed around that time in regards to the Burger King driveways or their application that would have led to the permits suddenly being approved.
“No,” he replied.
The Burger King remodel was eventually completed around April 2018.
Jimmy Wachaa, who worked as an asset manager for the Dhanani Group, testified Monday that after the project was finished, Shoukat Dhanani instructed him to send property tax work for 10 to 20 restaurants to Burke’s firm,
But Wachaa ultimately declined to do so, saying he had “reservations” about Klafter & Burke. He told jurors he didn’t believe Burke’s firm could provide them with the “speed, accuracy and organization” they were already getting with their existing tax consultant.
Ultimately, the business never did contract with Klafter & Burke for any work.
Under cross examination, Zohaib Dhanani noted that Burke had not threatened or intimidated himself or his father.
Burke’s attorney Chris Gair also pointed out flaws in Zohaib Dhanani’s memory about some of the events back in 2017. He had testified that he hadn’t heard anything about driveway permits or truck parking problems until meeting with Burke in June 2017.
But emails showed Zohaib Dhanani had been told about those issues months earlier.
“Your memory failed you?” Gair asked.
“Correct,” he replied.
Zohaib Dhanani also stated that it wasn’t until he was interviewed by law enforcement in late 2018 that he made any connection between the driveway permits and tax work for Burke’s law firm.
“It was only after the agents’ questions that you formed this link in your mind?” Gair asked.
“Correct,” Dhanani stated, adding again that he thought it was “unusual” that Burke had brought it up, but that he had then “moved on from it.”
Heather Cherone contributed to this report.