The architect in charge of the 2017 remodel of a Burger King in former Ald. Ed Burke’s ward said it was “highly unusual” that the project ran into an issue with driveway permits with the city after they’d already been granted a building permit to begin work.
Architect Warren Johnson took the witness stand Thursday afternoon, more than a month after trial proceedings got underway in Burke’s landmark corruption case.
Burke is accused of attempting to shake 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 former alderperson and city Finance Committee chair is accused of orchestrating.
The longtime 14th Ward alderperson faces 14 criminal charges, including racketeering, bribery and extortion. He’s being tried alongside former aide Peter Andrews and businessman Charles Cui.
Much of the testimony this week has centered on the remodeling of a Burger King located at 4060 S. Pulaski St.
Tracy Willie, who worked for Johnson, the architect on the project, testified Wednesday 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 TriCity Foods owners Shoukat and Zohaib Dhanani had not yet hired his law firm.
“What was the issue? Why was I able to hold that up? What did they need from me?” Burke said on a wiretapped phone conversation with Andrews, who replied that the owners needed their “driveway permits and everything signed off on.”
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.
“It’s highly unusual,” Johnson testified. “I always get my building permits and have never had an issue with a driveway permit after the issuance of a building permit.”
Johnson in an October 2017 email called the situation “quite disturbing.”
“This does not seem right that Burke can shut this project down considering we have our permit,” Johnson wrote in the email.
An employee with the city’s Department of Buildings responded to Johnson a day later, telling him: “I do not currently see a stop work order in our system.”
Shoukat Dhanani — 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 — previously testified that he believed Burke intentionally held up the remodeling project in late 2017 because he hadn’t hired Burke’s property tax law firm, Klafter & Burke.
His son Zohaib Dhanani told jurors he was “taken aback” by Burke’s comments during a recorded call in June 2017 when the alderperson told him “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.”
Johnson was repeatedly questioned on cross-examination about the confusion surrounding the driveway permit.
Burke’s attorney Joe Duffy argued that for months after the permit issue was first raised, Johnson did nothing to resolve the situation. Johnson disputed that, saying they were trying to sort out whether the driveways were owned by Burger King or the shopping center to which it is adjacent.
Johnson also said that he had gone to City Hall in November 2017 to submit a driveway application. But in an email presented by Andrews’ attorney Todd Pugh, Johnson wrote the day after the application was submitted that it had been one of his employees who’d gone to submit it.
Johnson said he didn’t recall exactly what had happened, noting it was several years ago.
Pugh also argued that Andrews had told Johnson and the Burger King owners multiple times during this period that they needed to get their driveway permits sorted out.
Federal prosecutors are expected to rest their case by early next week, at which point defense attorneys will begin calling their own witnesses, possibly including disgraced ex-Ald. Danny Solis.
Solis, the former Zoning Committee chair and 25th Ward alderperson, agreed to work as a government informant after being confronted by federal agents who’d been probing him. Solis then secretly recorded hundreds of hours of conversations as part of investigations against Burke and former House Speaker Michael Madigan, officials said.
Heather Cherone contributed to this report.