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Former Ald. Ed Burke (14th) walks into the Everett M. Dirksen U.S. Courthouse in the Loop for his corruption trial, Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023.

Former Ald. Ed Burke (14th) walks into the Everett M. Dirksen U.S. Courthouse in the Loop for his corruption trial, Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023.

Pat Nabong

Mistrial in Burke case? Judge to rule on defense objection to ‘very corrupt’ remark during corruption trial

The federal judge presiding over ex-Ald. Edward M. Burke’s corruption trial is considering whether to grant a mistrial after prosecutors elicited a comment from a witness Wednesday about the “Chicago way of doing business” being “very corrupt.”

Mistrial motions are not uncommon — particularly in a high-stakes trial such as Burke’s. Most are denied. But U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall seems to be giving serious consideration to Wednesday’s request from Burke’s attorneys.

She told lawyers on both sides to file written briefs by early Thursday.

When Assistant U.S. Attorney Diane MacArthur explained that she did not expect Amtrak executive Ray Lang to make the comment at issue, Kendall quickly asked the veteran prosecutor, “What were you expecting him to say?”

The cliffhanger followed a day of testimony in which prosecutors painted a picture of Burke using his political clout to get the developers of Chicago’s massive Old Post Office to hire his property tax appeal law firm. The developers had become thoroughly frustrated with Amtrak.

Burke allegedly took advantage and was repeatedly recorded telling people he helped make an Amtrak board member’s daughter a judge.

Jurors also heard two of the most prominent Burke comments captured by FBI microphones and described in earlier court documents.

First, they heard Burke’s controversial remark that “Jews are Jews, and they’ll deal with Jews … unless there’s a reason for them to use a Christian.” And then they heard a frustrated Burke tell fellow Ald. Danny Solis (25th) that “the cash register has not rung yet.”

MacArthur played those comments for jurors with Lang on the witness stand. But she also asked Lang about a Dec. 14, 2016, email in which he informed a colleague that “the owners of the Old Post Office hired Ed Burke today.” He noted that Burke was a friend of Amtrak board member Jeff Moreland and wrote that it was “a very old school Chicago move to hire him.”

MacArthur asked Lang what he meant.

“A developer hiring an alderman to do property tax work … I thought was symbolic of the Chicago way of doing business,” Lang replied.

And then, the prosecutor asked him what he meant by that.

“I mean it’s very corrupt,” Lang said.

Burke attorney Chris Gair quickly rose from his seat in the courtroom, loudly objected and insisted that the answer be stricken from the record. It was. But Gair apparently also moved for a mistrial during a private sidebar with the judge. The motion only became publicly known in arguments after the jury left for the day.

During those public arguments, MacArthur explained that she’d told Lang not to make the comment. But Gair complained, “I knew he was going to say it was corrupt. I don’t know how the government didn’t know.”

‘We made his daughter a judge’

The evidence viewed by the jury Wednesday included the first meeting between Burke and the owner of the Old Post Office, Harry Skydell, in October of 2016. It was secretly videotaped by Solis, who agreed to record Burke for the FBI after agents confronted him with evidence of his own alleged wrongdoing.

Burke told Skydell about his tax appeals firm and, when Skydell mentioned their trouble with Amtrak, Burke told Skydell he was friends with Moreland, and “as far as Amtrak is concerned, put it in the back of your mind.”

“We made his daughter a judge here in Cook County,” Burke said, later identifying her for Solis as Kate Moreland. “You’ll find out that Chicago’s a very small town … everybody that’s anybody knows one another.”

Amtrak owned the railroad tracks that run under the Depression-era Old Post Office building that also straddles the Eisenhower Expressway. That meant the building’s developers had to work with Amtrak. But jurors heard the developers’ gripes Wednesday about how Amtrak would drag its feet and charge the developers exorbitant fees.

Lang testified that he met with Burke on Dec. 21, 2016. At the time, Lang said that the 14th Ward alderperson had indicated “that he was considering representing the Old Post Office with his law firm.” Then, in a separate meeting with Solis on Dec. 22, 2016, Burke explained the issues the Old Post Office developers were having with Amtrak.

Burke’s remark about Jews sparks grimace

It was then that Burke told Solis that, “Jews are Jews and they’ll deal with Jews to the exclusion of everybody else … unless there’s a reason for them to use a Christian.”

Skydell is Jewish. Burke is Roman Catholic.

At least one juror in Burke’s trial seemed to grimace after the comment was played in court.

Later in that conversation, Burke again mentioned that “we made” Moreland’s daughter a judge.

The next month, when Burke hadn’t “heard anything from those characters” — and they hadn’t yet hired his private law firm — he said he wasn’t sure he wanted to take Lang, the Amtrak official, up on an offer to tour Union Station, presumably to talk through the Old Post Office issues. He told Solis that if “we’re not signed up” then he’s not going to “do any lifting.”

“The cash register hasn’t rung yet,” Burke told Solis.

The two end up taking the tour anyway, bringing jurors through Union Station’s train tunnels via secretly recorded video Wednesday.

“I talked to Harry Skydell — he’s really happy we’re doing this,” Solis tells Burke on a car ride apparently on the way to the tour. “He’s definitely interested in giving you that law work.”

“Oh good,” Burke responds.

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