Jury in Ed Burke trial hears from 601W’s Harry Skydell on secret recordings

Recordings reveal Burke’s infamous quote about landing “the tuna”

Jury in Ed Burke Trial Hears from 601W’s Harry Skydell
Former Chicago Alderman Edward Burke (Photo Illustration by Steven Dilakian for The Real Deal with Getty and Kate Gardiner, CC BY 2.0 - via Wikimedia Commons)

Harry Skydell of major office landlord 601W Cos., a tight-lipped developer behind the $600 million renovation of the Old Post Office, entered unfamiliar territory as his private discussions with indicted former Chicago alderman Ed Burke spilled into a public courtroom this week.

Jurors in Burke’s federal corruption trial heard secret recordings of talks between Skydell and Burke, whose case is now in the thick of witness testimony.

It revealed that Burke tried to sway Skydell — who rarely speaks to media  — into hiring the then-alderman’s law business, Klafter & Burke, to handle property tax work for the massive transformation of the Old Post Office into a nearly fully leased workspace, the Chicago Tribune reported.

“I can’t pull the rug out from under them, it’s, it’s like immoral,” Skydell said on one recording, referring to other law firms he had already hired to do tax work on the Old Post Office.

Jurors also heard Burke’s infamous quote about landing “the tuna” in reference to the Old Post Office renovation’s tax work.

The project represented a huge financial opportunity for Burke, and he allegedly pursued 601W’s property tax work relentlessly, according to the recordings that were secretly made by Daniel Solis, another ex-alderman who acted as a government mole and played a crucial role in the indictment of Burke. Skydell’s conversations with Burke were also recorded and played for the jury, the newspaper reported.

Burke, who served as alderman for 54 years until this spring, faces 14 charges of racketeering, federal program bribery, attempted extortion and conspiracy to commit extortion. Prosecutors allege that Burke used his influential position as an alderman and chair of the Chicago City Council’s Finance Committee to benefit Klafter & Burke, which specializes in property tax appeals.

“He will handle the tax work. … You can assure him of that,” Skydell said to Solis, referring to hiring Burke to work on the Sullivan Center skyscraper’s taxes. “It will come from the horse’s mouth.”

By spring 2017, Burke believed he had demonstrated his value to Skydell by intervening on behalf of 601W with train network Amtrak and the city’s Department of Water to address issues slowing the Old Post Office renovation. Despite these efforts, Skydell ultimately chose not to hire Klafter for the Old Post Office renovation but said he would offer Burke work on other properties.

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Throughout 2018, Burke continued pressing Solis to inquire about property tax work from Skydell. The recordings revealed Skydell assuring Solis that they would have work for Burke, but commitments were not materializing. Burke expressed frustration, especially when Skydell sought $20 million in tax-increment financing for the Old Post Office project.

“And as far as I’m concerned, they can go f**k themselves,” Burke said in the recordings.

Solis conveyed Burke’s feelings to Skydell, and while aiming to secure TIF funding for Skydell’s project, the developer seemed to promise tax work on the Sullivan Center on East Madison Street to Burke. The prosecution claims Burke offered a consulting fee to Solis in exchange for helping secure business from 601W.

The trial also touched on Burke’s involvement in subsidies for 601W, with jurors learning about his resistance to the $20 million TIF request.

The trial, now in its third week, presented nearly two dozen recorded meetings and wiretapped calls detailing Burke’s pursuit of legal business from 601W. The recordings captured Burke’s increasing frustration over the developer’s lack of commitment to his law firm.

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The proceedings took an unexpected turn when U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall ended the day early after noticing a juror had fallen asleep, Crain’s reported.

The defense’s request for a mistrial was also rejected by Judge Kendall, who expressed trust in the jury’s ability to follow instructions to disregard a witness who said that Burke’s law firm’s involvement with a property seemed “corrupt.” The trial will continue with more witnesses and weeks ahead.

— Quinn Donoghue