Chicago Ald. Burke Faces 14 New Corruption Charges In Growing Scandal | WBEZ
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Chicago Ald. Burke Faces 14 New Corruption Charges In Growing Scandal

Updated: 7:41 p.m.

Nearly six months after filing a single criminal count against Chicago Ald. Edward Burke, federal prosecutors indicted the longtime Democratic powerbroker Thursday on 14 more corruption charges, including bribery and racketeering.

The allegations prompted newly sworn-in Mayor Lori Lightfoot to immediately call for the veteran alderman to step down.

“Given the serious criminal liability he faces, Alderman Burke can no longer continue to do his job honorably or effectively,” the mayor was quoted as saying in a statement Thursday evening. “It is in the best interests of all that he step aside so that the residents of the 14th ward can be properly represented.”

The additional allegations had been expected since January, when Burke was accused of trying to shake down the owners of a Burger King in his ward to hire his private law firm to file property-tax appeals.

But the newly unsealed grand-jury documents show Burke’s alleged abuses of his once-immense influence at City Hall extended far beyond one fast-food outlet and the boundaries of his power base on the Southwest Side.

And like so many documents filed in federal corruption cases here, the fresh indictment contains a slew of boldly greedy statements Burke is accused of uttering while unaware that agents were secretly recording his conversations.

In one instance, Burke allegedly would not agree to help the developers renovating the city’s Old Main Post Office building, in downtown Chicago, because they had not hired his Klafter & Burke law firm.

Burke allegedly told another alderman about the project, “The cash register has not rung yet.”

Burke also is accused now of “abusing his position as alderman” by “threatening” to take official action against an unnamed Chicago museum.

In that case, prosecutors say, Burke threatened to object to the museum’s request for approval of an admission fee increase. That was after the museum did not respond to his inquiry about an internship there for the child of a personal acquaintance.

In a statement, Burke’s attorneys at the Jenner & Block law firm said, “Any suggestion that Alderman Burke abused his position as a public official for personal gain is simply not true.”

“The charges are unfounded and not based on actual evidence,” the statement reads. “We welcome the opportunity to present the complete picture and all the facts to a jury. We are confident that when that happens, Ed Burke will be vindicated.”

Burke’s attorneys include former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas and former federal prosecutor Charles Sklarsky, who spearheaded Cook County’s infamous Operation Greylord judicial corruption investigation.

Despite the criminal case against him, Burke was reelected in February. He has been an alderman for a record 50 years and attended Wednesday’s City Council meeting, where he clashed with Lightfoot in a floor debate.

But the corruption case caused him to relinquish the powerful chairmanship of the council’s Finance Committee, which he held for decades.

And the scandal radically altered the dynamic in this year’s mayor’s race, aiding political neophyte Lightfoot in her successful, outsider bid to fill the vacancy left by Rahm Emanuel’s retirement.

On Thursday, Lightfoot announced she has directed the city’s top lawyer to investigate whether any current city workers or vendors were “complicit in facilitating” Burke’s alleged crimes.

“If so, we will not hesitate to take decisive actions against anyone whose conduct violated any laws or ethical rules,” the mayor said.

'They can go f--- themselves'

The most detailed allegations of corruption in the new indictment involved the Old Main Post Office, the cavernous shell that has frustrated a long list of real-estate interests and city officials for more than a decade.

According to court records, here’s what happened in that case:

In 2016, Burke asked then-Ald. Danny Solis — whose 25th Ward included the Post Office site — to recommend to the project’s developers that they hire Burke’s firm “to do tax work.”

Little did Burke know that Solis was secretly cooperating with the FBI in their investigation of Burke.

If Solis could help secure the developer as a client, then Burke promised to later share the spoils with Solis through a “marketing arrangement.” Burke told Solis he would do so because he was a “believer in sharing the wealth.”

When the executive overseeing the Post Office project met with Burke and raised some concerns, Burke assured that person there were not “too many people around town that we don’t know.”

Later in 2016, Burke told Solis he had not landed the developer’s legal work and did not think he would unless he could exert his influence on behalf of the company, which is based in New York.

“Burke believed that they would otherwise only work with Jewish lawyers to the exclusion of everybody else,” the indictment reads.

A few months later, Burke apparently asked Solis if the developer had agreed to hire his firm: “So, did we land the, uh, the tuna?”

But by October 2017, Burke outwardly “expressed anger” at the developer for not hiring him. He told Solis he was not “fond of the way they’ve conducted themselves up until this point, and as far as I’m concerned, they can go f--- themselves.”

Solis informed Burke that he had told the Post Office project executive that his company would need to request support from Burke’s Finance Committee to win taxpayer subsidies, known as TIF funding.

Burke replied, “Well, good luck getting it on the agenda.”

An affiliate of the Post Office development company finally hired Burke’s firm in August 2018. The fee to Klafter & Burke “was to be no less than $15,000” a year for three years, depending on how much the firm could lower their property tax bill.

At Burke’s prompting, the Finance Committee and the full council approved the TIF package for the Post Office deal soon after that agreement was signed.

“Burke did not publicly disclose his repeated efforts to obtain work for his private firm … nor did Burke disclose that his firm had entered into a contingent fee agreement with [the developer’s] affiliate several weeks prior,” according to the new charges.

A spokesman for the Post Office developer, 601W Companies, said in a statement Thursday that the company “was the victim of a corrupt solicitation by Alderman Burke.”

“The government has informed 601W and its representatives that it was victimized,” said the spokesman, Randall Samborn. “601W and its representatives have and will continue to voluntarily provide information to the government on this matter.”

‘Attempted extortion’ of the Field Museum

The new indictment also provides a blow-by-blow account of Burke’s alleged efforts to mess with a museum’s request for an admission fee increase on behalf of a friend’s kid.

The museum is not named in the court records unsealed Thursday. But details included in the court filing indicate that the museum Burke attempted to extort was the Field Museum.

The feds say the Chicago Park District’s board approved the fee increase for the museum on Sept. 13, 2017 — soon after Burke threatened to call the parks board president to lodge an objection to the measure.

A museum executive responded to the threat by offering that the child of the Burke acquaintance “could apply for a full-time job” there, according to court records.

On Thursday, a spokeswoman for the museum said, “The Field Museum doesn't wish to comment on any ongoing investigation.”

The new indictment also leveled criminal charges against Burke’s longtime political loyalist Pete Andrews.

Andrews described himself in a 1989 article in the New York Times as the precinct captain for the 14th Ward Democrats in the ward’s 5th precinct. He said at the time that he performed 20 hours a week of political work in the ward in addition to spot on the public payroll.

According to the Better Government Association, Andrews retired from the park district in 2002, after spending 36 years as a plumber, and he’s paid an annual pension of more than $80,000.

Burke and Andrews are scheduled to be arraigned at 10 a.m. Tuesday in the courtroom of U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeffrey Cole.

Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter at WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter at 

@dmihalopoulosClaudia Morell covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her @claudiamorell.

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