A former official charged with overseeing the renovation of a Burger King restaurant in ex-Ald. Ed Burke’s 14th Ward said the powerful politician pressed him to set up a meeting for him with the firm’s owners and encouraged them to donate to two Chicago charities.
Jeff MacDonald, who worked for TriCity Foods in 2017, said he met with Burke and his aide Pete Andrews in the hopes that Burke would sign off on the plans to renovate the Burger King at 41st Street and Pulaski Road and the work could begin.
Instead, MacDonald told the jury of nine women and three men that an “irritated” Burke pressed him on concerns that a truck parking lot behind the fast-food joint had become a magnet for drugs and prostitution.
Burke declined to bless the project until after TriCity Foods owners Shoukat and Zohaib Dhanani met with him — and encouraged the Houston-based firm to donate to the Greater Chicago Food Depository and the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council to demonstrate their commitment to Chicago and its residents, MacDonald told the jury.
Alarmed that Burke’s displeasure meant he would hold up the business permit the firm needed to do the work, MacDonald sent Zohaib Dhanani, his boss, an email right away.
“In the beginning he was angry that we have not been a good neighbor to the area,” MacDonald wrote, telling Zohaib Dhanani that Burke mentioned that a nearby Dunkin Donuts operator had made a donation to the food depository and the neighborhood council.
MacDonald referred to that as “the shakedown,” putting those words in parentheses in his email.
MacDonald also warned Zohaib Dhanani not to underestimate Burke, according to the same email.
“Next to the mayor, Burke is arguably the most powerful politician in Chicago,” MacDonald wrote, telling his boss that Burke wanted the truck parking lot issue addressed and for the firm to make a charitable donation. “Without his signature, we cannot get a permit.”
MacDonald told Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Streicker he wrote that because “it felt like a shakedown” because Burke made it clear “we were not going to get this permit until there was some neighborhood or philanthropic effort. Something to be involved with the city and the community.”
MacDonald also testified that Burke asked him who handled TriCity Foods’ property tax work and told him that they needed to get a driveway permit, but did not put that in his email to Zohaib Dhanani.
Instead, MacDonald sent a separate email to Jimmy Wachaa, who worked as an asset manager for the Dhanani Group and testified Tuesday, about the driveway permit issue.
“Driveway permits are basically another money grab by the city,” wrote MacDonald, who was fired by TriCity Foods in May 2017.
Under cross-examination by Chris Gair, an attorney for Burke, MacDonald acknowledged that he told a private investigator working for Burke’s defense team in 2019 that he did not feel that Burke was trying to extort him.
On redirect, Streicker asked MacDonald whether he said that because he thought Burke was trying to “shake down” the firm, not him individually.
Under cross-examination by Patrick Blegen, an attorney for Andrews, MacDonald acknowledged that he did not tell prosecutors until October that Burke asked him who handled TriCity Foods’ real estate tax work.
FBI agents who questioned him in 2019 never asked him about that issue, while he was asked about in the weeks before the trial began, MacDonald told Blegen.
MacDonald also acknowledged to Blegen that he did not know who Andrews was when he was questioned by FBI agents in 2019 and used Google to find information about him.
As a result of that search, MacDonald said he had read some news coverage of Burke’s criminal case but denied that his testimony was influenced by what he read.
Burke faces 14 criminal charges in his landmark corruption trial, including racketeering, bribery and extortion. He’s being tried alongside Andrews and businessman Charles Cui.
For nearly three weeks, prosecutors have sought to prove Burke weaponized his powerful position as chair of the City Council’s Finance Committee and the longest serving member of the City Council to force those doing business with the city to hire his private law firm.
Shoukat Dhanani testified previously that Burke told him he’d like to “get some of his law business” when he met with Burke after inquiring about why the permit the renovation project needed had yet to get his approval.
Zohaib Dhanani testified Tuesday that Burke explicitly linked the success of their permit application with their decision to hire his law firm in a conversation that was recorded under a court-approved wiretap and played for the jury.
“Good,” Burke said. “And, um, we were going to talk about the real estate tax representation, and you were going to have somebody get in touch with me so we can expedite your permits.”
Zohaib Dhanani asked Burke to clarify what he had just said: “I’m sorry, Mr. Burke. What was that last part?”
Zohaib Dhanani told the jury he had been “taken aback” by Burke’s statement.
“It seems like the two were being linked together,” Zohaib Dhanani said. “The property taxes and the permits.”
TriCity Foods never hired Klafter & Burke, the ex-alderman’s former firm, and the remodeling project was completed in 2018.
Much of the testimony on Wednesday centered on whether TriCity Foods needed a driveway permit before the company could get a building permit and proceed with planned renovation. Prosecutors have alleged Burke exploited the firm’s need for the driveway permit to extort the Dhananis.
Tracy Willie, who worked for Warren Johnson, the architect on the project, testified that the Chicago Department of Buildings issued a building permit without a letter from Burke indicating his approval, as allowed by city ordinance.
But even after that permit was issued, it took Willie and employees of TriCity Foods months to sort out whether they needed a permit for the driveway that led to the eatery from 40th Street, as they had been told by Andrews and Burke. That effort was complicated by a recurring misunderstanding about whether the issue was related to the restaurant’s drive-thru, which requires a special use permit from the city, according to emails shown to the jury.
The jury heard an angry Burke call Andrews in October 2017 after he drove by the restaurant and realized the renovation was underway — but the Dhananis had not yet hired his law firm. Burke asked Andrews what they needed from the city, and Andrews told him they needed a driveway permit.
Burke ordered the renovation to stop, which prompted an alarmed Johnson to reach out to city officials, according to an email the jury saw Wednesday.
“This is quite disturbing,” Johnson said. “This does not seem right that Burke can shut this project down considering we have our permit.”
But Hal Hutchinson, who was an assistant commissioner at the Chicago Department of Buildings, told Johnson to take it up with Burke, since department officials had not ordered the renovation to stop.
The renovation was halted until December 2017. Before Thanksgiving, Dhanani told the jury he 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.
Former Buildings Commissioner Judy Frydland testified on Thursday that she met with Zohaib Dhanani about their efforts to renovate the Burger King, but never spoke with Burke about the issue.
Matt Masterson contributed to this report.