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Ald. Ed Burke attends a Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall in 2022.

Then-Ald. Ed Burke attends a Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall in 2022.

Ashlee Rezin

Defense: ‘Computer mistake,’ not pressure from Ed Burke, caused delays in Burger King work

When then-Ald. Edward M. Burke saw remodeling work was underway at a 14th Ward Burger King without his approval, he called a longtime aide to ask, “What did they need from me?”

“They needed driveway permits and everything signed off on,” Peter Andrews told him Oct. 24, 2017.

Federal prosecutors have accused Burke and Andrews of extortion in that moment, alleging that the men then agreed to shut down the Burger King project for Burke’s benefit “on the ground that the restaurant did not have a driveway permit.”

But Thursday, attorneys for Burke and Andrews grilled the Palatine architect who handled the project — and who apparently benefitted from a City Hall computer glitch that helped him land a building permit without the necessary driveway permit.

“If you would have addressed the driveway permit, then none of this would have happened, correct?” Joseph Duffy, one of Burke’s defense attorneys, asked architect Warren Johnson.

“Incorrect,” Johnson insisted. “I had the building permit.”

City Hall bureaucracy took center stage in Burke’s trial Thursday as one of the finer disputed points in the case came to a head. Prosecutors have long alleged that Burke used the driveway permit issue to shut down remodeling of a Burger King owned by a company he hoped to land as a client for his property tax appeals firm at the time, Klafter & Burke.

The project was shut down at Andrews’ request on Oct. 24, 2017. A City Hall inspector cited the Burger King over the issue on Oct. 27, 2017. Andrews told Johnson the remodeling work could continue on Dec. 13, 2017. That was one day after Burger King owner Shoukat Dhanani told Burke he would talk to an employee about steering legal work to Burke’s firm.

The remodeling work did not resume until February 2018. Net sales at the restaurant dropped by more than half between October 2017 and April 2018, when the work was finally finished, jurors have heard.

Defense attorneys sought Thursday to hang that all on Johnson. The architect acknowledged that “a computer mistake” helped him land a building permit for the project in June 2017. He admitted that, even though questions about the driveway permit were first raised that same month, he took no “affirmative steps” on the matter until November.

“Can we get some agreement that you never went to the ninth floor at City Hall — you did not — between those dates?” Todd Pugh, a defense attorney for Andrews, asked Johnson.

Johnson repeatedly stated he thought that, because he received a building permit for the remodeling work in June, the property was good to go. He testified he was also confused about what type of permit Burke’s office was looking for — a driveway permit or a so-called special use permit for a drive-thru.

“There was confusion on what was needed and what was being questioned by the alderman’s office,” Johnson told the jury. “That made no sense to me.”

Pugh fired back that Johnson had Andrews’ direct phone number, and he could have called for clarification. He noted that Johnson even received an email from the Burger King owners in July “telling you please contact Pete [Andrews], and the alderman keeps asking us for the permits.”

“What did you do to solve that problem?” Pugh pressed. “Wouldn’t it have been easier to just take the survey [of the property] and your files, go to City Hall, go to the driveway desk and ask one of your friends, ‘Do I need a permit?’”

Johnson said he was “probably doing other things to prepare” a permit application. That, he said, included figuring out who was responsible for paying the permit fees — Burger King or the shopping center it was a part of.

“Even if you did that document a thousand times you could finish it” in four months, Pugh contended, noting that Johnson’s eventual permit application was two pages long.

Burke and Andrews are each charged with extortion. Burke, who left office in May, is also charged with racketeering and bribery. On trial along with them is developer Charles Cui.

Prosecutors told U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall they will likely rest their case Monday. Defense attorneys are set to then begin calling witnesses. Burke’s team has promised they will call former Ald. Danny Solis, who wore a wire on Burke, to the stand.

But there are also concerns about whether the trial will end before Christmas. Kendall said Thursday that “we’re looking at a solid two days of arguments” when it comes time for the lawyers to make their final pitches to the jury.

Burke attorney Chris Gair asked the judge Thursday to instruct the jury “that they can take as long as they need for deliberations, and that you don’t need to be finished by Christmas.”

Kendall told him they’re not there yet.

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