Former Alderman and FBI Informant Danny Solis Finishes Testimony, as Ed Burke Trial Heads for Closing Arguments

Video: The WTTW News Spotlight Politics team discusses the Ed Burke trial and more of the day’s top stories. (Produced by Paul Caine)

More than a month after opening statements painted former Chicago Ald. Ed Burke as a “bribe-taker” and an “extortionist,” federal prosecutors rested their case-in-chief on Tuesday. 

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Disgraced former Ald. Danny Solis (25th Ward) spent approximately three hours on the stand Tuesday afternoon in the landmark corruption trial of his former friend and colleague, who ruled City Hall with an iron fist for decades,

Solis was the only witness called by Burke’s squad of attorneys Tuesday, who have told the jury that he is not a criminal, but an “old school, hardworking public servant.” Burke exercised his right not to testify in his own defense.

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. Neither Andrews nor Cui presented a defense, and closing arguments are set to start Wednesday afternoon.

Among the final pieces of evidence presented to the jury by prosecutors was a 2012 copy of Chicago’s government ethics ordinance, which prohibits officials from using their public office to financially benefit themselves or their spouse or domestic partner.  

That law also requires alderpeople to annually disclose sources of outside income of more than $1,000 in what is known as a statement of financial interest. The jury saw the 2017 and 2018 forms filed by Burke, which included eight pages of disclosures. 

During 15 days of testimony from 33 witnesses, prosecutors methodically laid out the four criminal schemes as part of their bid to depict the former alderperson as “thoroughly corrupt,” three involving his side hustle as a property tax attorney for the firm formerly known as Klafter & Burke.  

When Burke arrived Nov. 6 to face U.S. District Court Judge Virginia Kendall, it marked the first time he has been in court since June 2019. 

Soon after Burke pleaded not guilty, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the federal court system, helping to delay his trial for more than four and a half years after he was indicted in May 2019. It has been five years since agents raided Burke’s ward office and City Hall suite, touching off a political earthquake that continues to reverberate. 

Once underway, the trial faced a number of bumps in the road toward a verdict. First, a case of COVID-19 delayed jury selection for a week, which could force the nine women and three men to deliberate up until the Christmas holiday. When an attorney for Andrews came down with COVID-19, prosecutors were forced to change the order of their case. 

Kendall also rejected pleas from Burke’s lawyers to declare a mistrial. His lawyers argued that a witness’ statement calling the former alderperson “corrupt” prejudiced the jury. If Burke is convicted, his lawyers are likely to bring that issue up on appeal. 

The backbone of the case was made up of dozens of recordings that captured Burke berating those who had displeased him, while attempting to charm those he sought to sign up as clients.  

In videos captured by Solis, who was working as a government informant, Burke displayed a part of his personality he long kept hidden from reporters and City Hall observers as he intensely pressed his former colleague to “land the tuna” and make the cash register ring while punctuating the discussions with the kind of profanities the courtly Burke would never let fly in front of cameras. 

Many of the prosecution’s witnesses came under withering cross examinations from the team of lawyers representing the three defendants, putting the bulk of the defense arguments in front of the jury.  

During the trial, Burke rarely showed the kind of anger many of the calls and videos captured. Dressed in his trademark pinstriped suit, with a pocket square offering a pop of color, Burke smiled broadly and crossed his arms in apparent pleasure when his lawyers landed a significant blow on one of the prosecutions’ witnesses, or brought up his love of Chicago history and predilection for handing out signed copies of his book about presidential nomination conventions in Chicago. 

Former Ald. Ed Burke (right) watches former Ald. Danny Solis (left) testify in federal court on Dec. 12, 2023. (WTTW News)Former Ald. Ed Burke (right) watches former Ald. Danny Solis (left) testify in federal court on Dec. 12, 2023. (WTTW News)

Four Schemes Alleged

Racketeering charges — usually brought against members of the mob or street gangs — allege a pattern of corruption unknown to its victims. Prosecutors will have to convince jurors that Burke committed at least two acts as part of that larger pattern of corruption. 

That effort began with prosecutors detailing what they said were Burke’s efforts to block a fee increase proposed by the Field Museum in 2017 because officials didn’t agree to hire former Ald. Terry Gabinski’s daughter as an intern. Gabinski and Burke served for decades together on the Chicago City Council, becoming close friends, and Burke is Molly Gabinski’s godfather. 

“So now you’re going to make a request of me,” Burke said, according to a recorded phone call. “Because if the chairman of the Committee on Finance calls the president of the Park Board, we know your proposal is going to go nowhere.” 

Deborah Bekken, who retired in June as the director of government affairs and sponsored programs for the Field Museum, told the jury she clearly understood that Burke was linking the museum’s proposed admission rate hike and their failure to consider Burke’s goddaughter’s internship application. 

“I perceived it as a threat,” Bekken said. 

Burke and Andrews, his top aide, are charged with working to hold up the renovation of a Burger King near 41st Street and Pulaski Road until the developer hired Burke’s private law firm. Andrews is also charged with lying to a federal agent. 

Prosecutors have alleged Burke exploited the renovation’s need for a driveway permit to extort the firm’s owners, Shoukat and Zohaib Dhanani. 

Shoukat Dhanani testified 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 that Burke explicitly linked the success of their permit application with their decision to hire his law firm in a conversation that was recorded and played for the jury. 

Perhaps the most elaborate scheme Burke is charged with involves the Old Post Office, the massive building that straddles the Eisenhower Expressway at the edge of the Loop. 

Testimony about that scheme was explosive and entered into evidence turns of phrase that have become indelible parts of Chicago’s long history of political corruption. 

“So, did we, uh, land the tuna?” Burke asked Solis in one conversation the jury heard. 

In another conversation recorded by Solis, Burke told Solis the New York-based developer could “go f--- himself” if he thought Burke would help him win approval for an $18 million subsidy and a tax break worth $100 million. 

“If we’re not signed up, we’re not going to do heavy lifting,” Burke said. “The cash register has not rung yet.” 

In another exchange heard by the jury, Burke blamed the failure of the deal on the religion of the developer.  

“(W)ell, you know as well as I do, Jews are Jews and they’ll deal with Jews to the exclusion of everybody else unless … unless there’s a reason for them to use a Christian,” Burke said, staring right at Solis without apparent emotion. 

In the final scheme, Burke is accused of pressing city officials to look into why a request for a pole sign on the Far Northwest Side had been denied after the developer hired Burke’s private law firm. 

The former alderperson accepted a bribe from businessman Charles Cui, who reached out to Burke when he ran into a brick wall when city officials denied his request for a large pole sign outside 4901 W. Irving Park Road, a former bank building that he redeveloped in Portage Park, prosecutors alleged. 

Cui is also charged with lying to FBI agents.

Jurors watch former Ald. Danny Solis testify in the corruption trial of former Ald. Ed Burke on Dec. 12, 2023. (WTTW News)Jurors watch former Ald. Danny Solis testify in the corruption trial of former Ald. Ed Burke on Dec. 12, 2023. (WTTW News)

Solis Takes the Stand

After the Chicago Sun-Times reported Solis had been working as an undercover informant as part of the probe into Burke, Solis dropped out of public view and retired from the City Council. 

As part of a deferred prosecution agreement, Solis admitted taking a bribe as chair of the City Council’s Zoning Committee, but will not face a reckoning for his own misdeeds.

Solis deserves to keep his city pension and avoid prison time after serving as one of the most significant government informants and witnesses of the last several decades, according to federal prosecutors.

While entering and exiting the courtroom, Solis and Burke did not acknowledge each other, or show any emotion,

Soon after taking the stand, Solis faced a combative Gair, who unleashed a torrent of questions about his interactions with Burke. Solis answered most questions in a soft voice, showing little emotion. At one point, Solis answered “yes” when Gair asked if he agreed to cooperate with the government to “save yourself.”

“I was trying to help myself by recording Ed Burke,” Solis said, in his first public remarks about his extensive undercover work. “But I wasn’t trying to get him to say a particular thing.”

Gair repeatedly demanded that Solis acknowledge that former Mayor Rahm Emanuel was the most powerful Chicago official, and he pushed through the redevelopment of the Old Post Office.

“The mayor is not God,” Solis replied.

Gair’s questioning of Solis was interrupted by repeated objections by prosecutors, which often led to lengthy sidebars.

Gair did not question Solis about any of the recordings he made of Burke that made headlines, instead focusing on whether the redevelopment of the Old Post Office benefitted the whole city and was supported by Emanuel.

Solis could also be called to testify in the criminal trial of former House Speaker Michael Madigan, which is scheduled to start in April.

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

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