The FBI knocked on Danny Solis’ door just before 8 a.m.
It was June 1, 2016. By then, Solis had represented Chicago’s 25th Ward on the City Council for 20 years. But suddenly, two special agents in suits were asking to speak with him at his home on Delano Court. They came inside. They took a seat near his kitchen.
And they told him to listen, not speak.
Then, over the next 45 minutes or so, the agents began to share with Solis audio and video recordings.
Or as one of the agents described it, they “presented Mr. Solis with some evidence we had acquired.”
But before they could get around to asking Solis to wear a wire, he said he wanted to speak to a lawyer.
FBI Special Agent Ryan McDonald painted that scene for jurors Tuesday as he testified in the corruption trial of another once-powerful former City Council member, Edward M. Burke. The confrontation McDonald described turned out to be a pivotal moment in Chicago history, even if the public wouldn’t realize it until years later.
In fact, McDonald said the FBI chose not to execute search warrants at Solis’ offices because if it had, the probe “would be known to the public.”
Instead, Solis eventually agreed to work for the FBI. The jury then saw and heard the recordings that Solis made, which helped lead to a sweeping racketeering indictment handed up against Burke in 2019.
Among them was an Aug. 26, 2016,call in which Burke asked Solisto “recommend the good firm of Klafter & Burke” to the group trying to redevelop Chicago’s Old Post Office.
Burke is accused of trying to strong-arm business for his private property tax appeal firm at the time, Klafter & Burke, from Old Post Office developer 601W Companies LLC. And in that same call, Burke offered to come up with a “marketing arrangement” for Solis.
Jurors also saw video of a Sept. 26, 2016, meeting between Burke and Solis inside Burke’s office at City Hall. Solis told Burke there “may be an opportunity” with the Old Post Office. Burke can be seen in the video wearing a pinstriped suit with an American flag lapel pin, standing in front of what appears to be a picture of the Great Chicago Fire.
The look-back at the origins of the Burke probe came on the eve of the five-year anniversary of the FBI raid that eventually went down on Burke’s offices Nov. 29, 2018. But McDonald also made clear that Burke was not the target the feds originally had in their sights when they flipped Solis in June 2016.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Diane MacArthur asked McDonald if there was “any expectation at the outset of [Solis’] cooperation that it would have anything to do with Edward Burke?” McDonald answered, “no.”
Rather, a search warrant application filed days before the confrontation with Solis tied him to then-Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. Solis also helped the feds build their separate racketeering case against Madigan, who faces his own trial in April.
Burke is currently on trial for racketeering, bribery and extortion charges. And despite Solis’ prominent role in the case, prosecutors say they do not intend to call him to the witness stand. Defense attorneys say they will when it’s their turn, though they haven’t made that promise to the jury.
The 2016 search warrant application alleged that Solis, who chaired the City Council’s Zoning Committee, received “a steady flow of personal benefits” from people for whom he had taken or offered official action. Burke’s defense attorneys have called Solis “Exhibit A” for corruption.
The Chicago Sun-Times revealed Solis’ cooperation in January 2019. He left office later that year. And though the feds have since charged him with bribery, he struck a deal with prosecutors that could help him avoid a conviction.
Meanwhile, the testimony about Solis has become so legally sensitive that it prompted several private sidebar discussions Tuesday between the lawyers and U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall.
The day also featured lots of name-dropping of City Hall figures and other politicos. David Reifman, the city’s former commissioner of planning and development, took the stand.
Also mentioned throughout the day — but not accused of wrongdoing — were former Chief Financial Officer Carole Brown, ex-Buildings Commissioner Judy Frydland, Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) and former state Sen. Tony Munoz. Also getting prominent mention: ex-Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
At one point, jurors heard a recorded conversation between Burke and Solis apparently recorded on the floor of the City Council. A roll call vote can be heard in the background.
Two jurors exchanged smiles during McDonald’s testimony when he said he didn’t consider 8 a.m. an “extremely early” hour to confront Solis.
Visits like the one Solis received from the FBI tend to occur closer to 6 a.m.
Later, when Reifman’s testimony turned to tax incentives for the Old Post Office project, the jury seemed to struggle to stay engaged.
Reifman served under Emanuel from 2015 to 2019, the period during which Burke’s alleged schemes took place. Reifman also had a direct hand in overseeing the development of the Old Post Office, helping developers gain landmark status and millions of dollars in tax incentives.
Jurors heard a call in which Burke questioned Reifman about a tax incentive that Reifman supported for the Old Post Office projected to save its developer $100 million over 12 years.
Burke and Reifman agreed it was a lot of money before Burke asked, “and you’re proposing that, huh?”
Chris Gair, Burke’s defense attorney, took the opportunity to question Reifman about Emanuel’s power — a defense strategy that became apparent in pretrial hearings as they try to paint Emanuel, not Burke, as the city’s most powerful politician at the time. Gair asked Reifman whether Emanuel was a “very persuasive fellow.”
“He’s a lot of things,” Reifman said through a smile. “But he’s persuasive, yes.”
MacArthur later tried to turn the attention back to Burke, asking if Reifman found that Burke would “readily lay down with a decision before considering it himself.”
“Did you find him to be a pushover?” she asked.
“No, he’s not a pushover,” Reifman answered.
Later, after court ended for the day, Burke and Reifman were seen exchanging a handshake, a few words and a warm glance in the hallway as Burke dashed to the bathroom.