Your NPR news source
Ald. Ed Burke (14th) attends a Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall, Monday, Nov. 7, 2022.

Former Ald. Ed Burke (14th) attends a Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall, Monday, Nov. 7, 2022.

Ashlee Rezin

‘Do you have memory issues?’ Defense hammers at credibility of witness at Burke corruption trial

Ald. Edward M. Burke didn’t have much to say about remodeling plans for a Burger King in his 14th Ward back in March 2017, jurors heard Wednesday.

He had a couple of issues with its owners, though. Not only had he heard about overnight parking by truck drivers and prostitution there, but he wanted the owners to be more charitable. Burke told one of their employees two or three times that he wanted to meet them.

And he allegedly asked who handled their property tax appeals.

However, jurors also heard during Burke’s trial Wednesday that the employee, Jeffrey MacDonald, didn’t mention that last part to the FBI until late October — two weeks before Burke’s trial got underway. So the jury watched Wednesday as defense attorneys hammered away at MacDonald’s credibility.

“Do you have memory issues?” Burke attorney Chris Gair eventually asked MacDonald.

Prosecutors successfully objected to that question. But defense attorneys made their point in another day of testimony about Burke’s alleged efforts to strong-arm business for his private property tax law firm out of Shoukat Dhanani — whose company owned more than 100 Burger Kings in Illinois — and his son, Zohaib Dhanani.

Burke, who left office in May, faces racketeering, bribery and extortion charges. He is also accused of similar schemes involving Chicago’s massive Old Post Office and a Binny’s Beverage Depot on the Northwest Side.

Also on trial are Burke political aide Peter Andrews and developer Charles Cui.

MacDonald worked for Shoukat Dhanani’s Tri City Foods as an executive director of development. He said he went to meet with Burke on March 30, 2017, hoping to get Burke to sign off on a remodeling of the Burger King near 41st and Pulaski. MacDonald testified Wednesday that Andrews was also there but didn’t say much, if anything.

MacDonald said Burke “didn’t have much response” to the remodeling plans. But he brought up the truck parking and suggested the owners make donations to nearby charities like the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

In an email later that day, MacDonald called the request for donations “the shake down.”

Burke asked who did property tax appeal work for Dhanani’s company as the meeting was wrapping up, according to MacDonald.

MacDonald’s account of the meeting was soon challenged by Andrews’ attorney Patrick Blegen, though. Blegen began his cross-examination of MacDonald on Wednesday by asking if MacDonald had “read newspaper articles” and “listened to news stories” about the case against Burke.

Then Blegen pointed out that MacDonald met with two FBI agents at an expressway oasis on April 19, 2019. However, it wasn’t until Oct. 24 — more than four years later — that MacDonald first told the FBI that Burke had asked about Dhanani’s property taxes.

When asked by agents in the October meeting why he hadn’t mentioned it earlier, MacDonald apparently told them that “nobody asked me that question” before.

Blegen suggested there was another reason. He said, “You knew what the case was about in October 2023.”

“Yes,” MacDonald said.

“You didn’t know what it was about in April 2019, right?” Blegen asked.

“No,” MacDonald replied.

Burke already faced criminal charges over the alleged Burger King scheme in April 2019. But MacDonald acknowledged Wednesday that he hadn’t remembered Andrews’ name when he met with the FBI in April 2019. Afterward, he said, “I Googled it.”

Later, when asked by Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Streicker, MacDonald denied that he’d been influenced by anything he’d read in the news. He said he’d tried to answer every question posed either by the feds or defense attorneys — including when a private investigator working for Burke showed up on his driveway.

After MacDonald left the witness stand, testimony turned Wednesday to questions about whether Dhanani’s Burger King needed a driveway permit. Burke and Andrews allegedly shut down remodeling work at the restaurant over the issue on Oct. 24, 2017, even though a separate building permit had been secured.

Hal Hutchinson, a former assistant and now deputy commissioner for the Department of Buildings, testified Wednesday that City Council members do not have the authority to stop construction work.

“Is the Department of Buildings the only city department with the authority to shut down construction?” Streicker asked.

Hutchinson said yes, and he testified further that he had never seen a building permit revoked because of a driveway permit. Nor would an out-of-date driveway permit invalidate an already-issued building permit, he said.

Former Buildings Commissioner Judith Frydland also took the witness stand and corroborated Hutchinson’s testimony. She said authority to stop a construction job rests solely with the Department of Buildings.

Defense attorneys have previously noted that Andrews simply asked for work to be stopped.

The Latest
Also facing several criminal charges is Sameer Suhail, owner of a medical supply company, who’s accused of participating in the fraud along with ex-CFO Anosh Ahmed and Loretto’s then-chief transformation officer, Heather Bergdahl.
Newly released records provide the clearest picture of last month’s attack on the Cook County state’s attorney. They also show that her office was closely involved in the investigation and the decision to bring serious charges in the case.
Chicago slightly grew a youth jobs program this summer, including hiring 100 people to learn conflict resolution and relationship building.
Inspector General Deborah Witzburg said officers tied to extremist groups “are dishonoring the badge.”
The common message of Thursday’s parade and a remembrance ceremony was one of strength, resilience and unity.