CITY HALL — Ald. Edward Burke (14th) allegedly had a question for Ald. Danny Solis (25th) regarding their plan to force the long vacant Old Post Office developer to hire Burke’s private law firm.
Burke had already allegedly pledged to kick back a portion of the spoils to Solis in return for his approval of an $18 million subsidy and an $100 million tax break.
“So, did we, uh, land the tuna?” Burke asked in a May 2017 exchange, not realizing Solis was cooperating with the FBI.
As detailed by a 14-count indictment unveiled Thursday afternoon by the Department of Justice, Burke repeatedly — and brazenly — used his powerful position at City Hall to force those doing business with the city to hire his private law firm, the feds said.
In a statement, Burke’s attorneys said that he was not guilty, and the 50-year alderman would be “vindicated” at trial.
“Any suggestion that Alderman Burke abused his position as a public official for personal gain is simply not true. The charges are unfounded and not based on actual evidence.”
Mayor Lori Lightfoot called on Burke to resign late Thursday.
“The allegations in this superseding indictment are alarming,” Lightfoot said in a statement. “The indictment alleges that Ald. Burke used his position and the tools of government to facilitate a criminal enterprise to enrich himself and cheat the residents of this city. No official in this city — elected or appointed — should ever profit from his or her office. Given the serious criminal liability he faces, Alderman Burke can no longer continue to do his job honorably or effectively. It is in the best interests of all that he step aside so that the residents of the 14th ward can be properly represented.”
Racketeering charges — usually brought against members of the mob or street gangs — allege a pattern of corruption unknown to its victims.
The sweeping indictment lays out a conspiracy between Burke and Solis dating back to August 2016, when Burke asked Solis to encourage New York-based 601W Companies to hire his private law firm, Klafter & Burke.
601W purchased the massive building in May 2016 with promises to spend $292 million, create thousands of jobs, and rehabilitate the massive structure in Solis’ ward. Mayor Rahm Emanuel frequently touted the Old Post Office renovation as one of his proudest achievements.
The company owns AON Center, Prudential Plaza and the former Montgomery Ward warehouse at 600 W. Chicago Ave., among other properties. The Old Post Office is one of the largest buildings in Chicago. In a press release celebrating 601W’s purchase, Solis described the building as having “a brand new future as one of the city’s most desirable business addresses.”
In return for firm’s property tax appeal business, Burke told Solis he was a “believer in sharing the wealth” and would share his profit from the deal “indirectly through a lawyer” or by paying Solis as a “marketing representative,” according to the indictment.
However, by December 2016, Solis was working as an informant for the federal government after being confronted with evidence that he received sex acts, Viagra, free weekend use of an Indiana farm once owned by Oprah Winfrey and a steady stream of campaign contributions for City Council actions.
At the direction of law enforcement, Solis told Burke 601W Companies would hire Burke’s law firm in return for help with permits and financing, according to the indictment.
Officials with 601W Companies said they were cooperating with the government, and their firm “was the victim of a corrupt solicitation by Alderman Burke, who the indictment alleges engaged in a persistent, two-year effort to obtain private legal business from the company for his law firm,” according to a statement released by spokesman Randall Samborn.
Burke told 601W Companies officials he believed they would hire him only if he could help them, “otherwise [they would] only work with Jewish lawyers to the exclusion of everyone else,” according to the indictment.
By January 2017, Burke’s law firm had still not been retained by 601W Companies, and Burke was annoyed, telling Solis he would not act on their requests for help dealing with Amtrak, which controls the tracks beneath the building, according to the indictment.
Burke told Solis that “the cash register has not yet rung.”
When 601W Companies went to Burke in March 2017 for help in trying to get water service restored to the long-vacant building, Burke asked then-Water Commissioner Barrett Murphy to intervene, which he did. Murphy is not named in the indictment, but was commissioner at the time. In May 2017, former Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired Murphy amid a scandal over racist, sexist and Islamophobic emails.
In May 2017, at the direction of law enforcement officials, Solis told Burke that 601W Companies had agreed to hire Klafter & Burke, according to the indictment.
“So, did we, uh, land the tuna?” Burke asked Solis.
Once the deal was done, Burke promised a “day of accounting” for Solis.
But 601W Companies had yet to actually hire Burke’s firm, complicating its request for a $100 million tax break and $18 million subsidy from the Congress/Canal Tax Increment Financing District.
By October 2017, Burke was angry, according to the indictment.
“As far as I am concerned, they can go f— themselves,” Burke said, according to the indictment.
When Solis said the firm would persist in their request for a TIF subsidy, Burke was dismissive, noting that as chairman, he controlled the Finance Committee’s actions.
“Well, good luck getting it on the agenda,” Burke said to Solis, according to the indictment.
In August 2018, 601W Companies agreed to hire Klafter & Burke, paying no less than $15,000 annually for three years.
In September, the City Council voted to approve the TIF subsidy for the project. Burke did not recuse himself as required by the city’s ethics ordinance, despite his financial interest in the property, according to the indictment.
During the brief debate, Solis urged his fellow aldermen to approve the measure, which 601W Companies said was needed to renovate a city-owned plaza that is part of the Old Main Post Office.
The plaza, built in 1914, consists of a 50-foot wide elevated structure on Canal Street between Van Buren and Harrison streets. A portion of the plaza is under the Eisenhower Expressway, which splits it in two, according to the proposal.
In February 2018, the City Council approved a $100 million tax break for 601W Companies during the next 12 years.
Solis said the tax break would benefit not only his ward, but the entire city.
Burke voted for the tax break, also in violation of the city’s ethics ordinance, officials said.
“As to the retention of Mr. Burke’s firm, at the very beginning of two years of aggressive action by Burke and Alderman Solis, Mr. Solis made false assertions that Alderman Burke would invoke City Council Rule 14, recusing himself from voting on any matters involving 601W’s interests if his firm was ever retained,” Samborn said on behalf of 601W Companies. “601W had no desire to retain Mr. Burke’s firm voluntarily, and at no time throughout this matter, did 601W ever pay any money or legal fees to Alderman Burke or his law firm for anything.”
The sweeping indictment released Thursday also includes a charge of attempted extortion first lodged against Burke in January. The alderman is accused of blocking a renovation of a Burger King in his ward until its owners agreed to hire Klafter & Burke.
Peter J. Andrews, an aide to Burke, was charged Thursday in connection with the attempted extortion of the Burger King owners. Andrews, 69, faces charges of attempted extortion and making a false statement to the FBI.
Burke, 75, and Andrews, 69, are scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday by U.S. District Judge Robert Dow, according to a statement from the Department of Justice.
Also charged in the indictment is Portage Park businessman Charles Cui, who was first indicted in April on charges of bribery for hiring Burke’s law firm in the hopes that Burke could get city officials to approve a large pole sign, which was not permitted under the zoning rules that cover that portion of Irving Park Road in the 45th Ward.
Cui has pleaded not guilty.
Before that permit was finally denied in November 2017, Burke agreed to help Cui, who was now a client of his law firm, according to the indictment.
Burke asked Department of Buildings Commissioner Judy Fryland, as well as another unidentified administrator, to “figure out a way” to approve the permit, according to the indictment. Fryland was not identified by name in the indictment, but she was commissioner at the time.
Lightfoot said she had “directed the City’s Corporation Counsel to investigate whether any current city employees or vendors were complicit in facilitating the crimes alleged in the superseding indictment.”
“If so, we will not hesitate to take decisive actions against anyone whose conduct violated any laws or ethical rules,” Lightfoot said.
The indictment also alleged that Burke threatened to derail a proposed $2-per-person increase in admission fees sought by Field Museum in September 2017 because they would not hire the daughter of a friend as an intern.
The Field Museum was not named in the indictment, but the details included by federal officials make it clear that it is the museum in question.
In response to Burke’s threats, the applicant was offered an opportunity to apply for full time job at the Field Museum, which she declined. Both the Sun-Times and the Tribune identified Ald. Terry Gabinski as the friend of Burke’s who was involved.