How real estate factors into Ed Burke corruption trial

Ties include alleged pursuit of business from $600M Old Post Office renovation and shakedown of Burger King owners

How Real Estate Overlaps With Ed Burke Corruption Trial
Defense lawyer Chris Gair and Ex-Alderman Edward Burke (LinkedIn, Wikipedia/Kate Gardiner)

The spotlight on Edward Burke’s property tax law business is shining bright as the former 14th Ward Chicago alderman enters the thick of his corruption trial.  

The federal trial that kicked off Nov. 16 centers on Burke’s alleged misuse of political power to steer business toward his law firm, Klafter & Burke, which specializes in cases related to property tax appeals before the Cook County Assessor’s Office and Board of Review. 

Burke, who served as alderman from 1969 to 2023, faces 14 charges of racketeering, bribery and extortion. His more than 50-year run as a public official came crashing down in 2018, when the FBI raided his City Hall and ward offices. Daniel Solis, another ex-alderman, was instrumental in the indictment, acting as a government mole and wearing a wire to record a number of incriminating conversations with Burke.

Throughout his career, Burke’s law business raised questions about potential conflicts of interest. He allegedly benefited large property owners, potentially causing small businesses to pay more in property taxes.

The trial’s ties to real estate were apparent on Tuesday, as Burke’s alleged attempt to extort the owners of a Burger King in his ward came to light. After the owners reached out to establish a relationship with the ex-alderman, acknowledging his status as “one of the most powerful regional politicians,” Burke allegedly tried to shake them down to send their property tax work to his firm, the Chicago Tribune reported.

Shoukat Dhahani, the CEO of the Texas-based company that owned the Burger King at 4060 South Pulaksi Road, testified that he approached Burke in 2017 to discuss issues related to remodeling the restaurant. Unbeknownst to Dhahani, Burke was simultaneously looking into the company’s tax appeal work. Phone recordings played in court revealed Burke’s instructions to check who handled real estate tax work for Dhahani’s company. Burke later contacted a political friend in Texas, expressing interest in obtaining legal business from Dhahani, who owned hundreds of Burger Kings.

The prosecution showed photos of Burke meeting Dhahani at the Burger King site, taken under FBI surveillance. Dhahani said he learned about Burke’s influence in Chicago from another contact, a county commissioner in Texas named Rodney Ellis.

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Another one of the four “episodes” that are key to Burke’s indictment involves the $600 million redevelopment of the Old Post Office. In his opening statement, U.S. prosecutor Timothy Chapman claimed that Burke “fixated” on getting tax business from 601W Cos., the New York-based developer behind the renovation, as the size of the project represented the potential for a huge pay for his firm, the newspaper reported.

Using Solis as a middleman and promising him a kickback in return, Burke allegedly withheld assistance on a tax-increment financing request until the developers hired his law firm for another project. Jurors heard incriminating quotes, including Burke’s remarks about ringing the “cash register” and landing the “tuna.”  He expressed contempt after the developers rejected him, saying they “can go f***k themselves,” in a secretly recorded conversation in 2017.

The defense, led by attorney Chris Gair, argued that Solis orchestrated the scheme. Video clips from Solis’ body camera show Burke calmly deferring to Solis, emphasizing his willingness to comply.

Lake Forest real estate developer and fellow defendant Charles Cui has also been accused of bribing Burke in exchange for help with a sign permit and financing deal for a project on Chicago’s Northwest Side. The stakes were high, with a potential loss of $750,000 through a lease amendment with Binny’s Beverage Depot hinging on the permit. This financial threat jeopardized the entire project, possibly leading to the loss of millions in tax-increment financing dollars, prosecutors claim.

Cui allegedly shifted some of his business to Burke’s firm with the primary goal of leveraging his influence. Chapman claims that Burke utilized his connections to try to secure the desired permit for Cui, despite the ultimate failure to obtain it.

While prosecutors have opted not to put Solis on the stand, the defense team plans to call him as a witness. Burke’s lawyers have called the allegations “unrooted” and depicted Burke as a devoted public servant who simply tried to help people.

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