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Ald. Ed Burke walks into the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in January 2019.

Ald. Ed Burke walks into the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in January 2019.

Ashlee Rezin

Landing a ‘tuna,’ lobbing an F-bomb — Burke’s famous quotes played for jurors after defense mistrial denial

A year into the expensive, complicated renovation of Chicago’s massive Old Post Office, its developers realized they had a big problem on the horizon — a giant hole.

City Hall planned to tear down the building’s broken-down western plaza, leaving a gaping hole with train lines below, a jury heard Thursday. So the developers made a big ask: They sought to tap $20 million in tax-increment-financing dollars to rehab the plaza instead.

But an impatient Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) had also been trying for a year to persuade those developers to hire his private property tax law firm. And jurors heard Thursday what Burke, the longtime chairman of the Chicago City Council’s Finance Committee, had to say after the developers made their $20 million pitch.

“As far as I’m concerned, they can go f--- themselves,” Burke, the longest-serving City Council member in Chicago’s history, told Ald. Danny Solis (25th).

Testimony resumed Thursday in Burke’s trial on racketeering, bribery and extortion charges after U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall denied a motion for a mistrial sought by Burke’s lawyers over a comment made by a witness. The judge cited the diligence of the jury and the integrity of a veteran prosecutor in making her decision.

Landing the ‘tuna’

With that controversy behind them, prosecutors went on to play more secret FBI recordings of Burke.

Among them was the most famous quote from Burke’s 2019 indictment —“did we land … the tuna?” Turns out, that wasn’t Burke’s only mention of “the tuna” to Solis.

“If we land the tuna, there certainly will be a day of accounting, you can count on that,” Burke told Solis a short time later.

Burke is accused of trying to strongarm business for his law firm at the time, Klafter & Burke, out of the Old Post Office developer and others. His attorneys told jurors in opening statements, “There is no doubt that Ed Burke was interested” in landing developer 601W Companies as a client, but they’ve said it wasn’t illegal, and there was no quid pro quo.

However, prosecutors on Wednesday painted a picture of Burke trying to leverage his political clout in 2016 by helping 601W with problems it had been having with Amtrak. The feds followed up Thursday by showing jurors what happened when Burke’s alleged attempts to “land the tuna” stretched into 2017 and 2018.

The FBI built its case against Burke with the help of Solis, who agreed to wear a wire after agents confronted him with evidence of his own alleged wrongdoing. The Old Post Office was in Solis’ ward. Solis left office in 2019. Burke left four years later.

Burke’s “tuna” comment came after Solis spoke to Harry Skydell of 601W in May 2017 and told him that “Burke can help” with the developer’s Amtrak issues. Solis suggested Skydell hire Burke’s law firm, though, and Skydell agreed to give Burke a call.

Solis gave Burke the “good news” later that day, prompting Burke’s famous quip.

‘Tuna’ not day’s only four-letter word

Months later, in October 2017, 601W faced a new problem: The dilapidated West Plaza.

It turned out the plaza was owned by the city, which wanted to demolish it altogether. So 601W made its bid for TIF money, proposing improved public benefits such as a pedestrian overpass. Skydell, attorney Mariah DiGrino, Burke and others wound up in a seemingly cordial meeting to discuss the issue.

DiGrino took the witness stand in Burke’s trial Thursday while prosecutors played a recording of that meeting.

After the meeting, in a private debrief secretly recorded by Solis, Burke told him he’s not “very fond” of the Post Office owners, who still hadn’t hired his private law firm. That’s when he said that “As far as I’m concerned, they can go f--- themselves.”

That day, too, DiGrino received an email from a city official stating the Department of Transportation was “not supportive” of using tax financing for the project. DiGrino testified that she was “surprised” given the earlier meeting in which Solis expressed support for the project.

Days later, Solis called Skydell and said that, though Burke was “more restrained” in the meeting, Skydell should call Burke and remind him he’s “still thinking about him.” Solis added later that any TIF request will go through Burke’s committee.

Skydell responds, “I’m working on something.” Months later, he called Burke to tell him about a property, the Sullivan Center, he was about to close on. He indicated to Burke that the company would give tax work for their “maiden voyage” to Burke’s property tax appeals firm.

“Oh, good,” Burke responded. But days later, he was still skeptical about whether Skydell meant business.

“If ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ were candy and nuts, then every day would be Christmas,” he told Solis.

‘Very corrupt’ crack not enough for mistrial

Jurors heard all that evidence Thursday after Kendall ruled on Wednesday’s mistrial bid from Burke’s lawyers. It had been prompted by the testimony of Amtrak executive Ray Lang, who described the “Chicago way of doing business” as “very corrupt.”

The testimony had been elicited by Assistant U.S. Attorney Diane MacArthur, a veteran federal prosecutor.

Though Burke’s lawyers argued that Lang’s comment went to the very heart of Burke’s trial — and the question jurors will have to decide — Kendall said she saw jurors write down her instruction to disregard it. And as for MacArthur, Kendall said “there is very little to suggest there was an intentional act.”

“As an officer of the court and someone who has been in this building for 30 years … her integrity is not something to be questioned,” Kendall said.

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