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Former Ald. Danny Solis walks towards a waiting vehicle outside the Dirksen Federal Building Monday.

Former Ald. Danny Solis walks towards a waiting vehicle outside the Dirksen Federal Building Monday.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere

100 secret recordings, 36 witnesses later, feds winding up case against Burke — but will defense call Solis as ‘hostile’ witness?

Five years after the raid that revealed the blockbuster investigation into one of Chicago’s most powerful politicians, federal prosecutors have all but finished making their case that longtime Ald. Edward M. Burke was “a bribe taker” and “an extortionist.”

The feds have called 36 witnesses over 15 days, and they’ve played roughly 100 recordings. Many of those recordings were made by former Ald. Danny Solis, the colleague who turned on Burke after being confronted by the FBI with evidence of his own alleged wrongdoing.

After testimony in the trial wrapped for the day Monday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Chapman told the judge he had another 10 minutes of questions for FBI Special Agent Jennifer Avila, who will likely be the last witness called by prosecutors.

Jurors will return to hear her remaining testimony Tuesday afternoon. At that point, prosecutors are expected to formally rest their case.

Then, as the trial shifts into a new phase, Burke’s defense team has promised to summon Solis to the witness stand — finally giving Burke the chance to confront the former 25th Ward ally who famously turned on him while wearing an FBI wire.

They’ve predicted they will spend hours questioning Solis about the recordings he made, labeling the famous government mole a potentially “hostile” witness. Solis could take the stand as soon as Tuesday afternoon.

Solis, who went underground after the Chicago Sun-Times revealed his cooperation with the FBI in January 2019, appeared at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse Monday in anticipation of that testimony.

He left around 5:30 p.m., stonefaced, without taking the stand.

Solis also helped the FBI build its massive case against former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, who faces trial on a separate indictment next year.

Judge, prosecutors keep trial on track

It’s been a bumpy road in Burke’s trial ever since jury selection began Nov. 6. The trial was put on hold for a week after an attorney in the case tested positive for COVID-19. A second attorney tested positive more than two weeks later, on Nov. 27. U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall managed to keep the trial on track that time, but prosecutors were forced to pivot and present their evidence in a different order than they’d planned.

Two days later, Burke’s attorneys moved for a mistrial over a witness’ comment. The judge seemed to take their request seriously but ultimately denied it. In doing so, she cited the diligence of the jurors, the integrity of one of the prosecutors — and the COVID-19-prompted pivot.

Now, a jury of nine women and three men have heard the evidence of four schemes alleged in Burke’s indictment on racketeering, bribery and extortion charges. Prosecutors say Burke used his City Council seat to strong-arm private business out of developers working on Chicago’s massive Old Post Office, a Burger King in Burke’s 14th Ward and a Binny’s Beverage Depot on the Northwest Side.

The feds also say Burke threatened to block an admission fee increase at the Field Museum because it failed to respond when he recommended the daughter of former Ald. Terry Gabinski for an internship. Gabinski’s daughter has also been described in court as Burke’s goddaughter.

Burke left office in May. On trial with him are political aide Peter Andrews and developer Charles Cui.

To secure a racketeering conviction, the feds will likely need to convince the jury that Burke committed two “acts” as part of a larger pattern. There are five umbrella “acts” listed in Burke’s indictment, but each one contains multiple allegations that jurors will likely be allowed to choose from.

Feds allege a ‘threat’ and a shakedown

Prosecutors began presenting their evidence by launching first into the alleged Field Museum episode. They called former museum employee Deborah Bekken and former President Richard Lariviere to the witness stand.

Bekken, who served as a government liaison, explained how she reached out to Burke in September 2017. The museum planned to soon seek a fee increase from the Chicago Park Board, and it wanted to get ahead of any opposition from Burke, the City Council’s longtime finance chair.

Burke’s lawyers say Bekken caught him at a bad time. And Burke quickly explained to Bekken how he’d never heard back about the internship for Gabinski’s daughter.

“So now, you’re going to make a request of me?” Burke asked on Sept. 8, 2017.

“I’m sure I know what you want to do,” Burke continued. “Because if the chairman of the Committee on Finance calls the president of the park board, your proposal is going to go nowhere.”

From the witness stand last month, Bekken said, “I perceived it as a threat.”

Lariviere spoke to Burke minutes later. Regarding Gabinski’s daughter, he asked, “Can I get in touch with her and see what we can do?”

Burke told him, “No. That, that ship has already left the dock.”

While being cross-examined by one of Burke’s defense attorneys, Lariviere testified that Burke did not threaten him or the Field Museum, and he said he did not believe the fee increase was in any danger.

But he eventually pushed back when the attorney tried to insist Burke never demanded a job for Gabinski’s daughter. Lariviere said that Burke “kept sending us information about her application.”

Prosecutors moved next to allegations that Burke shook down the owners of a Burger King near 41st and Pulaski, though they had to divide that presentation because of the COVID-19 pivot. Initially, they called its owner, Shoukat Dhanani of Texas, to the stand. Later, they summoned his son, Zohaib Dhanani.

Shoukat Dhanani visited Chicago in 2017. He and his son met with Burke in June 2017 at the Burger King to discuss a planned remodel. They also had a follow-up lunch with Burke at the Beverly Country Club. That’s where Burke told them all about his law firm.

Zohaib Dhanani testified about a call he had with Burke two weeks later in which Burke said, “We were going to talk about the real estate tax representation, and you were going to have somebody get in touch with me so we can expedite your permits.”

Zohaib Dhanani told jurors “it seems like the two were being linked together … the property taxes and the permits.”

The remodeling work at Dhanani’s Burger King was allegedly shut down by Andrews, on behalf of Burke’s office, in October 2017. Shoukat Dhanani testified that he had a “gut feeling” why Burke intervened.

“Maybe since I had not responded about the property tax business, maybe that’s why it would have been shut down,” Shoukat Dhanani testified. “I didn’t see any other reason why it would be shut down.”

The pole sign and the Post Office

Meanwhile in 2017, City Hall refused to allow Binny’s to use a pole sign at a property in the 4900 block of West Irving Park Road. Cui thought he stood to lose as much as $750,000 on his development there. Prosecutors say he stood to lose millions. Jurors heard that Cui reached out to Burke for help — but also hired Burke’s law firm.

Explaining his decision to hire Burke’s firm, Cui allegedly told an attorney in an email that Burke “is a powerful broker in City Hall, and I need him now.”

Burke had his assistant reach out to then-Buildings Commissioner Judy Frydland to ask her to look into Cui’s pole-sign issue the same day Burke’s firm began signing Cui up as a client.

Meanwhile, the heart of the feds’ case against Burke is really the alleged scheme involving the Old Post Office, which straddles the Eisenhower Expressway. Two of the five “racketeering acts” alleged in Burke’s indictment relate to that development.

The group that agreed to take on the complicated renovation of the Depression-era building, 601W Companies LLC of New York, quickly became frustrated with Amtrak as it embarked on its work. Amtrak owned the railroad tracks that run underneath the building, but jurors heard that it dragged its feet and charged the Post Office developers exorbitant fees.

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

He mentioned that bit of leverage in one key meeting that Solis secretly recorded. During that meeting, Burke explained 601W’s troubles with Amtrak and told his colleague, “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.”

The lead developer of the Old Post Office was Jewish. Burke is Roman Catholic.

Later, the developers discovered that City Hall planned to tear down the building’s broken-down western plaza, leaving a gaping hole in its place. So 601W sought to tap into $20 million in tax increment financing in 2017. However, the developers had not yet hired Burke’s law firm.

In a private meeting with Solis, Burke told his colleague the Post Office developers could “go f— themselves.”

However, nearly a year later, 601W hired Burke’s firm to perform property tax appeals work at the Sullivan Center Offices at State and Madison. The deal was dated Aug. 24, 2018.

On Sept. 20, 2018, Burke moved for the City Council to pass the developers’ TIF proposal. And then he voted in favor of it.

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