Powerful Chicago Democrat Charged in Federal Corruption Case
By Jason Meisner
Longtime Ald. Edward Burke, one of Chicago's most powerful figures and a vestige of the city's old Democratic machine, has often been considered too clever and sophisticated to be caught blatantly using his public office to enrich himself.
But after years of dodging investigations while watching dozens of his colleagues hauled off to prison, Burke has been accused of crossing the line himself -- and doing so in a quintessential Chicago way.
A federal criminal complaint unsealed Thursday charged Burke with attempted extortion for allegedly using his position as alderman to try to steer business to his private law firm from a company seeking to renovate a fast-food restaurant in his ward. The charge carries a maximum of 20 years in prison on conviction.
The complaint also alleged Burke asked one of the company's executives in December 2017 to attend an upcoming political fundraiser for "another politician." Sources identified the politician as Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who is running for Chicago mayor.
The case filed in U.S. District Court comes five weeks after the FBI carried out a stunning raid on Burke's City Hall office, working for hours behind windows covered with brown butcher paper before leaving down a back staircase with computers and files.
The unveiling of the highly anticipated charges touched off a wild scene Thursday at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse, where Burke turned himself in to federal prosecutors before appearing before a magistrate judge in a packed courtroom on the building's 17th floor.
Dressed in a charcoal pinstriped suit, pink tie and his trademark pocket square, the silver-haired Burke, who turned 75 last week, sat with his attorneys before the hearing began, reviewing the charges with a deep frown on his face.
When the case was called, Burke walked to the lectern, buttoning his suit coat and standing with his hands at his sides while clasping and unclasping his fingers.
After Assistant U.S. Attorney Amarjeet Bhachu detailed the charges, U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheila Finnegan asked Burke if he understood them.
"Yes, your honor," Burke answered firmly.
Prosecutors revealed during the 10-minute hearing that the FBI found 23 guns in the raids on Burke's City Hall and ward offices in November. As a condition of his bond, Burke, a former Chicago police officer, was ordered to surrender the firearms and any others he may own within 48 hours of his release.
Burke was released on a $10,000 unsecured bond, meaning he would have to pay that amount only if he failed to appear in court as required. He left the courthouse about a half an hour later amid a scrum of television news cameras, ignoring shouted questions from reporters. As Burke hailed a cab on Dearborn Street, his lawyer, Charles Sklarsky, said the charges were false.
"The transaction described in the complaint does not make out an extortion or an attempt to extort," Sklarsky told reporters. "We look forward to a prompt day in court to prove the innocence of Ald. Burke."
As a consummate insider with his hands on many of the city's levers of power, Burke is arguably one of the biggest fish ever reeled in by the U.S. attorney's office, which has famously indicted a succession of Illinois governors, aldermen and other politicians in a seemingly never-ending parade of graft.
While the allegations have a familiar ring, the details in the 37-page complaint hint that it could be the tip of the iceberg for Burke. According to the complaint, the FBI had won a judge's approval to wiretap Burke's cellphone and was already recording his calls before the alleged shakedown at the center of the charge began to unfold in May 2017. It's unknown what other evidence federal prosecutors presented in the application for the wiretap because that filing remains under seal.
According to the charge, Burke tried to extort the owners of a company that operates dozens of fast-food restaurants in the Chicago area after they came to him in 2017 for help with permits for remodeling a restaurant in Burke's 14th Ward on the Southwest Side. The complaint does not name the restaurant, but sources said it was a Burger King located at 4060 S. Pulaski Road -- the same business that 17-year-old Laquan McDonald passed by moments before he was fatally shot by a Chicago police officer in October 2014.
The complaint quotes Burke in dozens of candid conversations over the course of eight months -- from May 2017 to January 2018 -- talking in surprisingly blunt language about the alleged extortion of two out-of-state businessmen whom the alderman did not know well.
In several recordings, Burke allegedly could be heard strategizing with his staffers on how to play "hard ball" with the executives once he realized they had moved forward with construction without hiring his law firm as promised.
"I took 'em to lunch," Burke allegedly told one assistant, identified as Ward Employee 1, in a phone call in October 2017. "I was playing nice with 'em -- never got back."
"All right, I'll play hard ball as I can," the staffer replied, according to the complaint.
The complaint does not identify the executives or their company, but details included in the charges show it is the Dhanani Group based in Sugar Land, Texas. The privately owned company is one of the country's largest franchisees for Popeyes and Burger King restaurants, according to Forbes magazine.
The principal owner, Shoukat Dhanani, could not be reached for comment Thursday. Messages left for other executives at the company's suburban Chicago office were also not returned.
The complaint details Burke's repeated attempts to pressure the executives into hiring his law firm, Klafter & Burke, including during a June 2017 lunch meeting at the swanky Beverly Country Club at 87th Street and South Western Avenue. The FBI had the meeting under surveillance.
After the meeting, Burke called a "public official" in Texas to talk about what was discussed, the complaint alleged.
"I'll let him know how important you are," the undisclosed official said, according to the complaint.
Burke allegedly replied, "Well, you're good to do that, but I'd also like to get some of his law business and get him involved, ah, here in, ah..."
"Chicago," the Texas official chimed in.
A week and a half later, the FBI intercepted a phone call between Burke and one of the executives, who still seemed caught off guard over the purported shakedown and uncertain how to react. At one point, Burke said bluntly that he needed assurances that he'd get the business before "we can expedite your permits," according to the complaint.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Burke. What was that last part?" the executive was quoted as saying.
After deciding to play "hard ball" with the executives, Burke had a stop-work order placed on the project and also sent a Chicago Department of Transportation inspector to the site to issue tickets for failure to procure a permit for a driveway at the restaurant that actually had been previously obtained, according to the charges.
In October 2017, an architect for the Dhanani Group sent an email to the Department of Buildings complaining about the harassment, according to the complaint.
"This does not seem right that Burke can shut this project down considering we have our permit," the architect wrote, according to the complaint. "Please advise as soon as you can."
That same month, a field representative for the restaurant company sent an internal email to company executives warning that Burke's interference with the project could have a ripple effect that would cost them a lot of money.
"I know these guys are very powerful, and they can make life very difficult for all of our Chicago stores," the rep wrote, according to the complaint.
In December 2017, both executives traveled to Chicago again to meet with Burke and try to smooth things over, according to the complaint. At the meeting, Burke reiterated his demand for business with his tax appeal firm and also encouraged them to "get involved with other politicians in Chicago" and attend an upcoming fundraiser for a local politician.
The executive couldn't attend because of bad weather but "felt it necessary" to donate $10,000 to the politician in order to keep Burke happy, according to the charges. The donation was later amended to $5,600 because of limits on contributions.
Preckwinkle, who was not accused of wrongdoing, said in a statement Thursday afternoon that her campaign returned the donation and that she was confident her staff "followed proper protocol."
The case against Burke was jaw-dropping even for a city with a long history of public corruption. For decades, the Southwest Side alderman has used his iron grip on the City Council's Finance Committee and key role in slating Cook County judges to build a massive amount of political capital.
Burke, who recently marked a record 50th year in office, often decides whether Chicago's most important legislation will move forward. He controls millions of dollars in campaign funds. He is the sole steward of the city's $100 million workers' compensation program. And he plays a crucial role in redrawing the city's ward maps -- a key in maintaining political power amid shifting demographics.
He's also married to Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke, who was quietly sworn in to a second 10-year term on Nov. 29, the same day her husband's City Hall and 14th Ward offices were raided. The FBI carried out a second search of Burke's City Hall office on Dec. 13.
After the complaint was made public Thursday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel concluded it would be "unacceptable" for Burke to continue as chairman of the Finance Committee, according to one top mayoral aide who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. How soon such a move might happen remains unclear.
Burke himself could choose to step down or Emanuel could force a vote on the matter at the City Council's next meeting Jan. 23.
Known for his bold pinstripe suits, throwback style and a love of Chicago lore, Burke was first elected as the ward's Democratic committeeman in July 1968 after his father, Ald. Joseph P. Burke, died of lung cancer while in office. The following year, the onetime Chicago police officer won election as alderman. He has held the post ever since, rising from a young ward heeler to one of the most influential council members the city has seen over the last half century.
In his rise to political power, Burke also built a lucrative business as one of the city's most prominent property tax appeals attorneys, routinely saving some of Chicago's largest business interests millions of dollars on their tax bills. One of Burke's most high-profile clients was President Donald Trump, who used Burke's firm to save millions of dollars on taxes for his Chicago tower before Burke cut ties last year.
He was known in the 1980s as a key player in the racially heated Council Wars when a bloc of white aldermen led by him and Ald. Ed Vrdolyak feuded with Harold Washington, often blocking the initiatives of Chicago's first black mayor.
Now more than a quarter century later, Burke and Vrdolyak have been reunited in a strange sense: Both face pending criminal charges at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse. Vrdolyak, who was convicted of real estate fraud years after he left the City Council and served a year in prison, is scheduled to go on trial in April on tax-related charges stemming from the massive tobacco company settlement in the 1990s.
Meanwhile, the charges unveiled against Burke showed that despite all his strong-arming, the restaurant company executives never did hire the alderman's law firm. In fact, emails included in the complaint showed they were wary of playing ball.
"Are we done with whatever we needed from Alderman Burke?" one of the company's officials emailed to the executives in May 2018, according to the complaint. "I prefer not to give them our portfolio."
The official suggested they tell Burke they'd signed a three-year contract with a tax appeal agent who was nationally known and that they were "happy with their results."
"These guys (Burke's firm) seem very disorganized," the official wrote.
Chicago Tribune's Todd Lighty, Bill Ruthhart and Hal Dardick contributed.
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