Prosecutors Finish Making Case Ex-Ald. Ed Burke Sought to Hold Up Renovation of Burger King Until His Law Firm Was Hired

Former Ald. Ed Burke in federal court before U.S. District Court Judge Virginia Kendall on Dec. 5, 2023. (WTTW News)Former Ald. Ed Burke in federal court before U.S. District Court Judge Virginia Kendall on Dec. 5, 2023. (WTTW News)

Federal prosecutors finished making their case Friday that former Ald. Ed Burke (14th Ward) and Pete Andrews, his top aide, sought to hold up the renovation of a Burger King until the developer hired Burke’s private law firm.

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Burke, 79, faces 14 criminal charges, including racketeering, bribery and extortion, in a case that accuses Burke of using 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.

Andrews faces five charges, including attempted extortion and lying to a federal agent.

Prosecutors capped their case revolving around the Burger King near 41st Street and Pulaski Road by playing a recorded call between Burke and Gery Chico from June 2017 about a fundraiser Chico was organizing for Burke.

Chico worked as an aide to the former alderman before becoming president of the Chicago Board of Education and a prominent political figure. After working as a lobbyist, Chico ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2011 and 2019.

Chico is heard telling Burke he was hoping representatives of construction firm Bully & Andrews, which built a school in Burke’s 14th Ward, would attend the event and contribute to Burke’s reelection campaign.

“They’re just pretty naive on this stuff, so we’ve had to drag their asses along the way, but we will have a nice event,” Chico said.

Burke’s reply came without hesitation.

“Well, maybe if they don’t have any access to the property because their driveway isn’t legal they might get the message,” Burke said.

Chico laughed.

Two years later, his close relationship with Burke would torpedo his second bid for mayor.

Much of the testimony about the alleged Burger King scheme centered on whether the restaurant’s owner, Houston-based TriCity Foods, needed a driveway permit before the company could proceed with planned renovation. Prosecutors have alleged Burke exploited the firm’s need for the driveway permit to extort the firm’s owners, Shoukat and Zohaib Dhanani.

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 building permit the renovation project needed had yet to get Burke’s approval.

Zohaib Dhanani testified previously 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.

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 and without Burke’s blessing.

“I took ‘em to lunch,” the jury heard Burke tell Andrews in a recorded phone call. “I was playing nice with ‘em — never got back.”

Burke asked Andrews to remind him about what the fast food joint’s owners had requested from the city.

“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.”

“All right, I’ll play as hard ball as I can,” Andrews replied, according to the recording.

TriCity Foods never hired Klafter & Burke, the ex-alderman’s former firm, and the remodeling project was completed in 2018.

The jury also heard from former FBI Special Agent Edward McNamara, who interviewed Andrews on the morning of Nov. 29, 2018, as other agents raided Burke’s offices and set off a political earthquake.

Andrews denied knowing Shoukat and Zohaib Dhanani even after he was shown their pictures when questioned by McNamara and another agent.

Eventually, Andrews acknowledged he may have met the Dhananis in his role as an aide to Burke.

“They may have come in to our office or something, maybe. I don’t know,” Andrews said, before ending the interview.

McNamara faced a withering cross-examination from Andrews’ attorney Patrick Blegen, who repeatedly suggested that the FBI agents attempted to trick Andrews into making a false statement by offering small bits of information during the brief interview. McNamara denied that.

During the interview, agents told Andrews the Dhananis had been doing business “in the ward here.”

But the Burger King owned by the Dhananis was in the 14th Ward, on the city’s Southwest Side, while Andrews lived in the 19th Ward, on the city’s Far South Side.

Blegen repeatedly suggested that McNamara “messed up” and pressed him on why he did not make it clear to Andrews that they were investigating a matter in the 14th Ward.

McNamara denied that he made a mistake, and said he was confident that Andrews understood he was talking about Burke and the 14th Ward.

The jury has heard evidence that Andrews met Shoukat and Zohaib Dhanani for less than 30 minutes at a meeting also attended by Burke.

Prosecutors have now completed presenting three of four criminal schemes to the jury of nine women and three men as part of their bid to depict Burke as “thoroughly corrupt.” Three of those alleged schemes involved his side hustle as a property tax attorney.

The final scheme charges Burke with accepting a bribe from businessman Charles Cui, who reached out to the former alderperson when he ran into a brick wall when city officials denied his request for a large pole sign outside the former bank building that he redeveloped in Portage Park.

Burke offered to help Cui if he hired Klafter & Burke. Cui did, according to the indictment.

That $14 million redevelopment relied on a $2 million subsidy from the area’s Tax Increment Financing District, which had to be approved by the City Council’s Finance Committee, which was then led by Burke.

That subsidy was backed by former 45th Ward Ald. John Arena, who wanted to transform a defunct movie theater in the building and surrounding space into a cultural center. Arena is expected to testify next week.

Cui leased part of the former bank building to Binny’s Beverage Depot, but that agreement included the use of that large pole sign on Irving Park Road, not far from Six Corners, which funneled thousands of cars and trucks through the Far Northwest Side.

Without that pole sign, Cui told Burke he would experience “extreme financial strain” and would have to give Binny’s a $750,000 break on rent.

Jurors heard recordings of Burke discussing Cui’s issue with his assistant — and referring to Cui several times not by name but as “the Chinese guy.”

Former Buildings Commissioner Judy Frydland returned to the stand on Friday, after testifying last week that she met with Zohaib Dhanani about their efforts to renovate the Burger King, but never spoke with Burke about the issue.

Burke reached out to Frydland about the pole sign, who asked her deputy Matthew Beaudet to look into the matter. In October 2020, Beaudet replaced Frydland as head of the Department of Buildings when she retired.

Frydland said it was not unusual for an alderperson to reach out to her to ask for assistance with an issue, and that Burke never asked her to do anything improper.

Frydland spoke with Cui and exchanged emails with him and his attorney.

In one email, Cui sent city officials a picture of a pole sign that had been photoshopped to make it look like it had been in continuous use, which would make it possible for city officials to issue a new permit for the sign.

But Beaudet, who lives nearby, immediately told Frydland that the picture had been faked and urged that no further action be taken.

Prosecutors have told U.S. District Court Judge Virginia Kendall they expect to rest their case Monday. It is not clear how long it will take Burke and his two co-defendants, Cui and Andrews, to present their defenses.

Burke’s attorneys have said they plan to call disgraced former Ald. Danny Solis (25th Ward). Solis recorded dozens of conversations with Burke as part of his work as one of most significant government informants and witnesses in public corruption cases during the last several decades, according to federal prosecutors.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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