DOWNTOWN — Ald. Edward Burke (14th) — the longest serving alderman in the history of the Chicago City Council and the chairman of the powerful Finance Committee — has been charged with one count of attempted extortion, according to a criminal complaint filed Wednesday and unsealed Thursday.
Burke, 75, has served on the City Council for 50 years and is running for another term.
The complaint comes five weeks after FBI agents raided Burke’s City Hall and 14th Ward offices and campaign offices, papering over the windows while they searched for hours before hauling away boxes and computers.
“The transaction described in the complaint does not make out an extortion or an attempt to extort,” Burke’s attorney Charles Sklarsky told reporters. He is also represented by Anton Valukas. “We look forward to a prompt day in court to prove the innocence of Alderman Burke.”
Burke, 75, allegedly tried to steer real estate tax work to his law firm by holding up remodeling permits and a driveway permit for a Burger King in his Southwest Side ward. His back and forth with workers at the company was captured on tape by the feds, who also conducted physical surveillance and got help from the fast food company workers, according to the federal complaint.
The complaint also alleges Burke urged the Burger King executives to donate campaign cash to Toni Preckwinkle, who was running for another term as Cook County Board President at the time.
Burke stepped down as chairman of the City Council’s Finance Committee Friday morning, according to a statement from Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office.
“I have spoken with Alderman Ed Burke, who agreed that the best course of action is for him to resign as Chairman of the Committee on Finance,” Emanuel said in a statement. “Because of his affection for the city, deep respect for the institution of City Council and the needs of his constituents, Alderman Burke took the appropriate step to put the interests of the city above all else.”
Burke will be replaced by Finance Committee Vice Chairman Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), who also chairs the Committee on Workforce Development and Audit, until a permanent leader is selected.
Burke’s departure could threaten Emanuel’s plans for the end of his term — Ald. John Arena (45th) said Thursday night he would push for City Council’s caucuses to select their own choice for Finance Committee chairman, and that Emanuel should halt the push for new major tax increment financing districts and a potential pension obligation bond ordinance until a trustworthy chair can be installed. Arena’s choice is Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd).
“The decision on who chairs the committees is made by the aldermen. It should be made by the aldermen, it shouldn’t be at the advice and consent of the mayor,” Arena said. “We are our own legislative body and we control our own destiny and we should represent ourselves in this.”
Burke did not enter a plea during a court appearance Thursday afternoon. Wearing his trademark pinstripe suit with a red and white pocket square, Burke was released after posting an $10,000 unsecured bond. Among the requirements of his release is that he must dispose of the 23 firearms kept in his offices.
Burke’s travel is also limited to the Northern District of Illinois, and to and from another residence in Powers Lake, Wisconsin.
A preliminary hearing is scheduled for 2 p.m. on Jan. 18. If Burke is indicted by a grand jury, that hearing will be canceled. Amarjeet Bhachu, who also worked on the case of Burke’s convicted colleague former 10th Ward Ald. Ed Vrdolyak, is the lead prosecuting attorney for the federal government. He was joined in the filing by Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Streicker and FBI Special Agent Edward McNamara.
The charges revolve around an effort to remodel a fast-food restaurant in Burke’s Southwest Side ward, according to the 37-page criminal complaint. The Burger King at 4060 S. Pulaski Road in Archer Heights was renovated during the period detailed by the criminal complaint, according to city records.
Laquan McDonald was fatally shot 16 times by Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke in 2014 near that Burger King.
The restaurant was not identified in the complaint, which notes that the two owners of the eatery are considered by federal officials to have been victims in the incident, and are not targets of the investigation. The eatery is part of a chain with more than 100 locations in Illinois, according to the complaint.
Burke is accused of using his power as an alderman to block permits for the work until the owners hired his private law firm, Klafter & Burke, to represent them in tax matters.
Burke’s cell phone was tapped during the course of the investigation and the alderman — who is married to Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke — was placed under surveillance, according to the complaint.
The complaint alleges that Burke was explicit, telling the owners during a phone conversation on June 27, 2017, “we’re 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.”
The owners of the restaurant were well aware of Burke’s immense power at City Hall.
“I know these guys are very powerful and they can make life very difficult for all of our Chicago stores,” one of the restaurant owners is quoted as saying in the complaint.
However, owners did not hire Klafter & Burke, prompting the alderman to tell a staffer in his office — identified as only Ward Employee 1 — to interfere with the renovation by playing “hard ball” with the restaurant owners.
That delay — which started in October 2017 and ended in January 2018 — had a “major effect on sales and cash flow” to the restaurant, the complaint said.
The complaint, filed in federal court with U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheila Finnegan, alleges that Burke and his office halted the renovation by claiming that the restaurant needed a driveway permit, although the renovations did not involve the eatery’s driveway or drive-thru window and the proper permits had been issued in 2012.
The issue of the driveway permit was used as a “pretext” to hold up the renovation and force the restaurant’s owners to hire Burke’s law firm, according to the complaint.
One of the items seized during the raid on Burke’s City Hall office was a hard copy of an email dated Nov. 28, 2017, between Ward Employee 1 and an employee of the Department of Buildings about the driveway permit — which Burke’s office insisted they get, but was preventing from being issued, according to the complaint.
One of the restaurant owners said they believed Burke was doing something “very shady and inappropriate,” according to the complaint.
The owners met with Burke in person in December 2017 to resolve the impasse, and agreed to hire Klafter & Burke. Soon after, the remodeling project was allowed to restart, according to the complaint.
Ultimately, the restaurant’s owners “strung the process out over several months and did not end up giving Burke’s law firm any tax business,” according to the complaint.
In addition, one of the restaurant’s owners told federal agents that he made a $10,000 contribution to another Chicago politician at Burke’s request in order to ensure there were not additional problems with the alderman. That contribution was later reduced to $5,600 —the limit on contributions — but was never reported to the Illinois State Board of Elections, according to the complaint.
That contribution was made to Preckwinkle, who was running for re-election at the time and is now a candidate for mayor of Chicago.
Preckwinkle said Ald. Burke and Judge Burke as well as mayoral candidate and former Burke aide Gery Chico volunteered to host a fundraiser for her Cook County board campaign.
“As event hosts, they were solely responsible for organizing and fundraising of this event,” Preckwinkle said in a statement. “Today, it has come to my attention that at that time an individual attempted to contribute through my website. This contribution was not accepted. My campaign has never been contacted by the authorities, and I am confident that my staff followed proper protocol.”
Scott Cisek, Preckwinkle’s campaign manager, said on Twitter late Thursday that “the contribution in question exceeded the state limit for an individual and was never accepted by the campaign. It was promptly returned in full.”
However, the restaurant owners told federal officials they made the contribution and provided correspondence that “reflects that the committee confirmed the contribution was made,” according to the complaint.
Preckwinkle filed an amended report with the Illinois State Board of Elections late Thursday that reported a $10,000 donation from Shoukat Dhanani, who is identified in the criminal complaint as Individual A, on Jan. 12, 2018.
The contribution was “rejected” 10 days later on Jan. 22, according to the filing. There is no evidence in Preckwinkle’s amended filing that Dhanani’s contribution was ever reduced to $5,600, as detailed in the criminal complaint.
The amended form was filed in the interest of “transparency,” Preckwinkle’s spokeswoman Monica Trevino said.
Preckwinkle called for Burke to resign as alderman and said as mayor she would strip Burke of the chairmanship of the Finance Committee and remove the worker’s compensation program from his control if he is re-elected alderman in February.
Chico was not a host of the event, but attended the event and made a $750 contribution, his spokeswoman Kelley Quinn said.
“In typical fashion, Toni Preckwinkle is being dishonest about her role outlined in a criminal complaint and deflecting responsibility,” Chico said in a statement. “Let me be clear, I have no knowledge whatsoever about the $5,600 contribution that she accepted and is referred to in the criminal complaint.”
In a separate statement, Quinn said Chico was “extremely disappointed” in Burke, whom he has known for three decades. Burke endorsed Chico in the race to replace Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
“No one is above the law,” Quinn said. “While we will closely watch the case as it plays out in the court system, Gery obviously will not accept support from Ed Burke in the upcoming mayoral race.”
Mayoral candidate Lori Lightfoot also blasted Preckwinkle’s role in the scandal.
“At a minimum, in light of allegations in the federal criminal complaint, Toni Preckwinkle must explain what Ed Burke has received in exchange for contributions. Ed Burke does not make contributions out of the goodness of his heart,” Lightfoot said. “Additionally, Toni Preckwinkle must disgorge all contributions made or raised by Ed Burke and make good on her promise to strip Ed Burke of his power to slate judges for the Cook County Democratic Party.”
Trevino did not respond when asked whether Preckwinkle would move to strip Burke of his position as 14th Ward Democratic Committeeman or as chairman of the party’s judicial slating committee.
The municipal election is 54 days away. Burke faces four challengers — Tanya Patiño, Irene Corral, Jose Torrez and Jaime Guzman.
Patiño called for Burke to resign and withdraw from the race in order to “do what’s best for the residents of the 14th Ward.”
Torrez also called for Burke to resign, saying, “We can no longer allow our neighborhoods and communities to be run and affected by corrupt machine politics.”
In a federal courtroom on the 17th floor of the Dirksen Building, Burke only spoke three times, including to simply tell the judge he understood the charges against him. “Yes, your honor.”
Burke did not speak after his court appearance on Thursday, but was defiant after the FBI raids in late November, promising to cooperate fully — but noting that he had been under FBI investigation before and never faced an indictment or charges.
“I am completely confident that at the end of the day nothing will be found amiss in this instance either,” Burke said on Nov. 29.
Mayoral candidates have since scrambled to distance themselves from Burke, who rejected calls for him to step down as chairman of the Finance Committee after the raids. The committee controls the city’s $100 million workers compensation fund.
In a Thursday release, mayoral candidate Bill Daley said, “From the start of this campaign I have said that the 14th Ward needs new leadership. Today’s charges just confirm it. We must all work together on obvious reforms to our local government.”
Comptroller Susana Mendoza and Preckwinkle returned contributions from Burke earlier this month.
After Burke appeared in court, Mendoza issued a statement calling on Burke to resign as Finance Committee chairman.
“Furthermore, the time has come for new leadership in the 14th Ward,” said Mendoza, who was married at Burke’s Gage Park home. “While due process should be afforded to everyone, should he choose to continue as alderman in light of this formal federal investigation, voters will have an opportunity to voice their concerns in February.”
Read the full complaint here.