While Chicago was trying to make sense of the FBI’s raid on the offices of the city’s most powerful and longest-serving City Council member, it turns out the feds were also knocking on the door of a businessman down south in Texas.
Shoukat Dhanani testified Wednesday that four FBI agents came to his home around 8 a.m. on Nov. 29, 2018. They told him he wasn’t in any trouble. And they said they were investigating then-Chicago Ald. Edward M. Burke.
That same day, agents had descended on Burke’s City Hall and 14th Ward offices, publicly signaling for the first time that an aggressive public corruption investigation was underway. Burke would be criminally charged a little more than a month later, accused of attempted extortion for allegedly shaking down Dhanani, who owned a Burger King in Burke’s ward.
Five years later, Burke is on trial on racketeering, bribery and extortion charges contained in a more expansive indictment handed up in May 2019. And Dhanani, who said he lives outside of Houston, again took the witness stand Wednesday as lawyers tried to fit in more testimony ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday.
On trial with Burke are political aide Peter Andrews and developer Charles Cui.
Dhanani testified Tuesday that he had a “gut feeling” that a remodeling project for his Burger King at 41st and Pulaski was shut down because he had not hired Burke’s private law firm at the time, Klafter & Burke, to do property tax appeals work for him.
But Burke defense attorney Joseph Duffy asked him Wednesday whether anyone had ever told him that’s why the Burger King work had been shut down. Dhanani acknowledged that no one had.
The testimony about the FBI visit to Dhanani’s home — a nerve-wracking moment for anyone — actually provided some light-hearted moments in the courtroom Wednesday. For example, Duffy said, “I’m sure the fact that the FBI came to your home and knocked on the door got your attention?”
“Sure did,” Dhanani replied.
Later, regarding the conversation inside his home with the four agents, Duffy asked whether Dhanani was relieved to learn he was not in trouble.
“I was relieved when they said it before they got in the house that I’m not in trouble,” Dhanani said. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have let them in.”
That prompted lots of laughter in the courtroom, including from Burke, who turned cherry red and coughed from laughing so hard.
Dhanani testified that the agents showed him photographs. Duffy tried to confirm that Dhanani failed to recognize the people in them, but Dhanani told him he didn’t remember that. Dhanani later acknowledged that he hadn’t recognized Andrews in a photo when asked about it by Andrews’ attorney, Todd Pugh.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Streicker, who questioned Dhanani on Tuesday, had another chance to do so Wednesday. She used part of her examination to stress the unusual nature of Dhanani’s interactions with Burke in Chicago.
Dhanani had traveled here to meet with Burke in June 2017, when his company was seeking a building permit to remodel the Burger King. Dhanani and his son then had lunch with Burke at the Beverly Country Club, where Burke purportedly pitched them on the services of his private law firm.
Burke again met with the Dhananis, who own fast-food restaurants all over the country, at the Union League Club in Chicago in December 2017.
“Prior to your June 2017 meeting with Ald. Burke, had a local councilman from anywhere in the United States asked to personally meet with you before approving a building permit?” Streicker asked Wednesday.
“I don’t think so,” Dhanani replied.
Then Streicker went on to ask whether Dhanani had ever been asked to hire a public official’s private business after Dhanani had “sought his approval for a permit?”
Dhanani said he had not.