COVID-19 dogs Burke trial, but no plans to halt rest of week’s testimony

COVID-19 is arguably one of the reasons it took so long for the feds to take former Ald. Ed Burke to trial in the first place.

Ed Burke and supporters walk into courthouse
Flanked by attorneys and supporters, former Ald. Edward Burke (14th) walks into the Dirksen Federal Courthouse on Nov. 6. Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times
Ed Burke and supporters walk into courthouse
Flanked by attorneys and supporters, former Ald. Edward Burke (14th) walks into the Dirksen Federal Courthouse on Nov. 6. Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times

COVID-19 dogs Burke trial, but no plans to halt rest of week’s testimony

COVID-19 is arguably one of the reasons it took so long for the feds to take former Ald. Ed Burke to trial in the first place.

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COVID-19 wreaked more havoc in the corruption trial of former Ald. Ed Burke on Monday, after it was revealed that another attorney in the case had tested positive for the virus following the long Thanksgiving holiday.

It’s the second time the virus has caused trouble for the high-profile trial. When an attorney tested positive for the virus earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall put Burke’s trial on hold for an entire week.

This time, Kendall has found a potential workaround to keep the trial largely moving forward with the loss of just a few hours — though prosecutors are now scrambling to reschedule a full week of witnesses. The attorney who tested positive did not report to the courtroom Monday.

So the case remains on track, for now, as the five-year anniversary of Burke’s prosecution nears. Jurors in the case heard testimony Monday from Pam Smith, a former employee of the company that owned a Burger King in Burke’s 14th Ward. Burke is accused of shaking down the restaurant’s owners for business for his private property tax appeals law firm.

Burke is also accused of similar shakedowns involving Chicago’s Old Post Office and a Binny’s Beverage Depot on the Northwest Side. In a fourth alleged scheme involving the Field Museum, Burke is accused of threatening to block an admission fee increase because he hadn’t heard from the museum about an internship for his goddaughter.

On trial with Burke are his political aide, Peter Andrews, and developer Charles Cui.

COVID-19 is arguably one of the reasons it took so long for the feds to take Burke to trial in the first place. The FBI famously raided Burke’s City Hall and ward offices five years ago this week. Criminal charges followed in 2019, and time had been set aside for Burke’s trial in the spring of 2021. The pandemic helped scuttle those plans, though.

Burke’s trial finally began Nov. 6. But four days in, attorneys showed up to court wearing facemasks. They had been expected to pick a jury and give opening statements that day — activities that concern all parties. Instead, they wound up heading home after a brief appearance before the judge.

Then, a similar scene began to play out Monday. The lawyers returned to Kendall’s courtroom and again donned their masks. But this time, the judge summoned them to her chambers, apparently to discuss the situation.

Kendall returned to the bench about an hour later, and jurors followed. She explained to them — and the public — that one of Andrews’ defense attorneys had tested positive for COVID-19 but was not present in the courtroom.

Andrews is accused of being involved in just one alleged scheme at issue in the trial. Unfortunately, prosecutors happened to be in the midst of laying out evidence of that scheme — the one involving the Burger King.

So Kendall explained that jurors would finish hearing Monday from Smith, an out-of-town witness who had information about that scheme. Then they’d head home, losing about half a trial day. And on Tuesday, prosecutors are expected to begin laying out evidence of the alleged Old Post Office scheme earlier than planned.

That one does not involve either of Burke’s co-defendants.

Peter Andrews
Peter Andrews, a co-defendant of former Ald. Edward Burke (14th), walks with attorneys into the Dirksen Federal Courthouse on Nov. 6. Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times

It means prosecutors must reschedule their witnesses, making sure they are available to take the stand when their turn comes. The feds told the judge Monday they were working to “keep as many of these days full” as they can.

But the jury did hear Monday from Smith, who was once senior director of operations for Tri City Foods. The company owned several Burger Kings in the Chicago area. Among them was a Burger King near 41st and Pulaski, in Burke’s ward, where remodeling was purportedly shut down by Burke’s office late in 2017 on the grounds that it didn’t have a driveway permit.

The feds say Burke, through Andrews, really had the restaurant shut down because Burke wanted its owners to steer business to his private law firm.

Smith testified Monday that the remodeling work came to a halt for nearly four months after Andrews called in October 2017 to complain that Burke’s office hadn’t signed off on it. Andrews’ attorney, Patrick Blegen, pointed out that Burke’s office dropped its objection to the remodeling in December 2017, about a month-and-a-half after work was shut down.

Still, Smith said work did not get back underway until February 2018.

“This was a high-volume restaurant for the company,” Smith explained to the jury. She said the longer the delay, “the more it affects the restaurant in terms of sales and profits.”

While being questioned by Blegen, though, Smith also testified that she didn’t believe Burke’s office was “messing around” by insisting on the driveway permit.

Rather, she agreed it was something the Burger King “legitimately needed to get.”