Two weeks after Ald. Edward M. Burke took Zohaib Dhanani and his father out for a swanky lunch at the Beverly Country Club in 2017 — and told them all about his law firm’s work for a “high profile individual” — Dhanani wound up back on the phone with the powerful politician.
Dhanani was then the vice president of development and construction for Tri City Foods, and he had been overseeing the remodeling of a Burger King in Burke’s 14th Ward. Burke had concerns about the property and followed up with Dhanani on June 27, 2017. Dhanani explained how his colleagues had been responding to Burke.
“Good,”Burke said.“And um, we were going to talk about the real estate tax representation and you were going to have somebody get in touch with me so we can expedite your permits.”
Dhanani paused. Eventually, he said, “I’m sorry Mr. Burke. What was that last part?”
And in a federal courtroom Tuesday, Dhanani explained that he had been “taken aback” by the abrupt comment from the longtime City Council member.
“It seems like the two were being linked together,” Dhanani testified. “The property taxes and the permits.”
Later, Dhanani acknowledged that he only realized Burke made that link “in retrospect” — while being interviewed by the FBI in November 2018.
Burke left office in May and is now on trial for racketeering, bribery and extortion. Prosecutors say he used his City Council seat to steer business to his private property tax appeal firm amid schemes involving the Burger King in his ward, as well as Chicago’s massive Old Post Office and a Binny’s Beverage Depot on the Northwest Side.
Burke is also accused of threatening to block an admission fee increase at the Field Museum because it didn’t respond when he recommended his goddaughter for an internship.
Dhanani’s father, Shoukat Dhanani, testified two weeks ago. He told jurors he had a “gut feeling” after a remodeling of the Burger King was shut down that he should have hired Burke’s law firm.
Zohaib Dhanani spent much of his day Tuesday corroborating his father’s earlier testimony. He also told jurors that, during the June 14, 2017, lunch at the Beverly Country Club, Burke gave him a newspaper article about his law firm’s work for a “high profile individual.”
Burke’s attorneys have acknowledged that Burke handed out copies of a Chicago Sun-Times article about Burke’s work for then-President Donald Trump to the Dhananis. Prosecutors agreed not to mention Trump’s name during the trial, though.
The phone call in which Zohaib Dhanani said Burke “linked” his firm to approvals for the Burger King remodeling came nearly two weeks later, on June 27, 2017. Burke had raised concerns about overnight truck parking and prostitution at the Burger King.
Zohaib Dhanani informed Burke that they had ordered enforcement signs and would monitor the lot overnight.
Burke responded positively but then made his comment about “real estate tax representation.” Zohaib Dhanani testified he felt “a little unusual, felt a little weird” after the phone call.
On cross-examination, defense attorney Chris Gair noted that the witness made that link only after being questioned by the FBI about it in his home in November 2018.
“You didn’t make the link at the time of the events?” Gair asked. “You didn’t believe that before the agents’ questions, correct?”
“Correct,” Dhanani responded.
Defense attorneys also questioned Zohaib Dhanani about an apparent meeting he’d had with current Ald. David Moore (17th), who wanted Dhanani to hire local residents at a forthcoming Burger King in his ward, Dhanani testified.
The attorneys mentioned the meeting to undermine an earlier claim by ZohaibÂ Dhanani that dealing with a City Council member was “uncharted territory” for him.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Streicker shot back with her own questions about Moore, who is a full-time City Council member with no other employment. She asked, “Did he ask you to hire him? … Did he talk to you about any private businesses that he had? … Have you ever had any alderman other than Ald. Burke ask you for business?”
Zohaib Dhanani answered “no” to each of those questions.
Finally, Streicker asked, “Did Ald. Moore take you out to lunch at his private country club after that meeting?”
“No,” Dhanani replied.