Updated at 1:40 p.m.
Federal authorities charged a businessman from the North Shore on Friday with bribing embattled Chicago Ald. Edward Burke.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago alleges Charles Cui, a 48-year-old real estate developer and lawyer from Lake Forest, hired Burke’s private law firm in exchange for the once-powerful alderman’s help in securing lucrative taxpayer subsidies and a permit from City Hall.
Authorities already had filed a single charge of attempted extortion against Burke three months ago. But the new case against Cui could foreshadow additional counts expected against the longtime Democratic powerbroker within a few weeks. John Lausch, the top federal prosecutor in Chicago, has until May 3 to get an indictment against Burke.
The case has caused Burke, 75, to relinquish his powerful role as the City Council’s Finance Committee chairman. Burke denies wrongdoing, though, and voters re-elected him in February, extending his record 50-year tenure as alderman of the 14th Ward, on the Southwest Side.
Now, the newly filed grand jury charges against Cui show that prosecutors believe Burke went far beyond his ward’s boundaries to enrich himself at the expense of the public’s trust.
The fresh allegations center on Cui’s property in the 4900 block of West Irving Park Road, on the city’s Northwest Side. According to court records, Burke helped Cui get $2 million in tax increment financing subsidies from the city in 2016 for the redevelopment of that property in the Portage Park neighborhood. Burke shepherded the subsidy through his Finance Committee and motioned for the full council to approve the measure for Cui, the feds say.
Then, the following year, Cui allegedly needed more help from Burke after the city denied a sign permit for a tenant of Cui’s property. Not getting the permit could has cost Cui $750,000 in lost rent from the tenant, according to court records.
Cui is accused of asking Burke for help with the permit problem and telling his property-tax appeal lawyer that he would have to replace him with Burke’s firm.
Referring to Burke as “Alderman A,” prosecutors say Cui told his lawyer, “Can I ask you for a favor? Can I have [Alderman A] handle 4901 W. Irving Park property tax appeal for me, at least for this year? I have TIF deal going with the City and he is the Chairman of the Finance Committee. He handled [sic] his tax appeal business card to me and I need his favor for my tif money. In addition, I need his help for my zoning etc for my project. He is a powerful broker in City Hall, and I need him now.”
Fourteen minutes later, Cui sent an email to Burke, saying he wanted to hire Burke’s firm to represent the Irving Park Road property on its tax appeals. And days later, Cui did indeed hire Burke’s firm, according to prosecutors.
WBEZ and the Better Government Association reported extensively in December on the ties between Burke’s firm and his actions as alderman. The investigation by WBEZ and the BGA found that Burke has recused himself from voting hundreds of times on measures before the council, often citing conflicts of interests with his private tax-appeal business.
After Burke was charged in January, the developers of the Lincoln Yards and The 78 real estate projects both fired Burke’s law firm. But the proposals won hundreds of millions in TIF subsidies from aldermen this week.
On Friday, prosecutors said Cui hired Burke and agreed to pay fees to his law firm “intending to influence and reward” the alderman.
Cui also is charged with lying to the FBI when agents interviewed him. The feds say Cui was fibbing when he told them he “had made no business offers to Alderman A during the pole signage matter” and that he had hired Burke’s firm “just because he is a good tax appeal lawyer.”
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter for WBEZ. Follow him at @dmihalopoulos.