Longtime Ald. Ed Burke was a “stickler for the rules.”
His political aide, “Part Time” Pete Andrews, was “just a lunch pail guy” who worked in Burke’s 14th Ward.
And if developer Charles Cui couldn’t hire Burke’s law firm to help him with property tax appeals and a coveted pole sign for Binny’s Beverage Depot, he believed “someone should tell him that.”
Defense attorneys made those and other arguments as they concluded opening statements in Burke’s trial on Friday, aiming to turn one of the feds’ biggest corruption cases in years on its head.
Andrews and Cui are Burke’s co-defendants.
The trial has finally begun to pick up steam after a lengthy jury selection and a one-week delay after a lawyer in the case tested positive for COVID-19.
Prosecutors then began calling witnesses after a lunch break Friday. They kicked off their case with Elmhurst University political science professor Constance Mixon, who explained Chicago city government — and Burke’s role in it — to the jury.
“He’s a fixture in Chicago politics for over 50 years,” Mixon said of Burke. “As mayors came and went, Ald. Burke was the one constant on the Chicago City Council.”
Burke again took in the scene from his seat at the defense table.
At one point, defense attorney Chris Gair asked Mixon to confirm that former Mayor Rahm Emanuel was a “force of nature” who “presided over a very compliant, rubber-stamp City Council.”
Burke smiled and stroked his chin as Mixon confirmed that, “he did.”
Co-defendants addressed in opening statements
The day began with the conclusion of opening statements from Gair. Burke is accused of using his seat on the City Council to steer business to his private law firm amid schemes that involved the Old Post Office, a Burger King at 41st and Pulaski, and a Binny’s Beverage Depot on the Northwest Side.
He is also accused of threatening to block a fee increase at the Field Museum because it didn’t respond when he recommended his goddaughter as an intern.
Gair spent the morning discussing the Burger King, the Binny’s and the Field Museum. Some of his arguments were later echoed by Todd Pugh whose client, Andrews, is also charged with wrongdoing connected to the Burger King.
Burke and Andrews are accused of working to block the Burger King owners from securing a driveway permit at the property until the restaurant’s owners hired Burke’s property tax appeals law firm. At one point, Andrews allegedly told Burke he’d “play as hardball as I can” with the owners.
But Gair and Pugh each argued that the “hardball” was not about extortion.
Gair said it was “to make sure they get their darn driveway permit.”
During Pugh’s commentary, he showed jurors a surveillance photo of Burke meeting with some of the eatery’s owners inside the restaurant.
“Here we are at the Home of the Whopper,” Pugh said. “Nobody’s eating. No comment on that.”
Pugh also referred to his client as “part-time Pete” and told the jury that Andrews never benefited economically from Burke’s law firm.
Defense argues Burger King was the problem
Pugh said Andrews understood that the Burger King in question had become a “bad neighbor” in the community and was being used as “basically a truck stop.” There had been allegations of drug activity and prostitution, as well as truck drivers parking there overnight.
Burke, as a “steward” of the ward, asked the owners of the restaurant to contribute to the nearby Greater Chicago Food Depository and to hire people recommended by the local neighborhood council. He also explained to its owners that they needed a driveway permit.
That’s when Gair called Burke “a stickler for the rules.”
Gair acknowledged that Burke took the owners of the Burger King to lunch at the Beverly Country Club, where he allegedly told them about the work that was done by his property tax law firm. But Gair insisted there was “no tie — no tie — between his tax appeal work and any city decision and any city business. None.”
Binny’s and Field Museum schemes discussed
Gair and defense attorney Tinos Diamantatos also discussed the alleged scheme involving the Binny’s Beverage Depot in Portage Park.
Diamantatos is representing Cui, who is accused of hiring Burke’s law firm as he sought the City Council member’s help at City Hall to get a permit for a pole sign there.
Diamantatos said there is no evidence of a secret deal between Cui and Burke. He said that Cui, “reached out to anyone and everyone” that he could think of to try to help Binny’s after he landed the company as a tenant.
Prosecutors have also told jurors that Cui at one point sent City Hall a doctored photo of the pole sign, though he does not face criminal charges for having done so. That prompted a colorful scene in the courtroom Friday when Diamantatos wrote “Emotion” on a white posterboard, walked to the back of the courtroom, opened the door and dropped the posterboard into the hall.
“I’ve taken emotion outside of the courtroom,” he said, arguing that prosecutors have mentioned the doctored photo in order to stir the jury’s emotions.
For Burke’s part, Gair told the jury: “Here’s the crime. He calls the building commissioner, and he says to the building commissioner, ‘Hey, this guy has a pole sign. Can you look into it?’”
Finally, Gair turned to Burke’s alleged threat to the Field Museum. He said a museum employee who sought Burke’s support for the fee increase caught Burke “at a bad time. He’s in a bad mood. You’ll hear that. And he reads them the riot act.”
“It’s not a crime to be in a bad mood,” Gair said.
Burke, the longtime chairman of the Council’s finance committee, allegedly told that person, “if the chairman of the Committee on Finance calls the president of the park board, your proposal is going to go nowhere.”
But Gair insisted that Burke “never asked for anything.”
And when Burke was later asked what the museum could do to fix the situation, Burke allegedly said, “that ship has already left the dock.”