When the trial of former Ald. Ed Burke finally kicked off in earnest Thursday, a federal prosecutor wasted no time leaning forward, pointing his finger at the veteran politician and calling him perhaps the “most powerful member of the Chicago City Council.”
Then, Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Chapman told the jury that Burke was more than that: “He was a bribe taker. And he was an extortionist.”
For the next 90 minutes, Burke listened with a poker face as Chapman outlined the case the feds first unveiled nearly five years ago, helping end Burke’s 54-year career.
At one point, Burke could be heard across the courtroom clicking a pen as he listened to the prosecutor lay out the allegations against him.
Then, Burke’s defense attorney got his turn. The former City Council dean finally began to smile as lawyer Chris Gair stood behind his chair and called it the “greatest honor of my career to represent this good man.”
And the smile lingered on Burke’s face as Gair went on to tell the jury, “I’d like to introduce you to Exhibit A in the world of people who are corrupt and who are untruthful.”
Gair then displayed a photo on a screen and explained, “This is Danny Solis.”
With that, a jury of nine women and three men got a taste of what they’re in for over the next six weeks or so as the corruption trial of Chicago’s longest-serving City Council member truly gets underway.
Only two jurors from Chicago
U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall and lawyers in the case settled on the panel around 2 p.m. That paved the way for opening statements that began Thursday but are expected to wrap up on Friday.
Only two of the jurors identified themselves as Chicago residents.
Burke is charged with racketeering, bribery and extortion.
He 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 for an internship.
On trial with Burke are political aide Peter Andrews and developer Charles Cui.
Danny Solis to figure in trial
But Solis, who represented the Near Southwest Side’s 25th Ward on the City Council for more than 20 years, will also play a central role in the trial — whether he takes the witness stand or not.
The FBI confronted Solis in June 2016 with evidence of his own alleged wrongdoing. And then, in an apparent bid to avoid prison, Solis agreed to wear a wire for the FBI against powerful politicians like Burke and now-indicted former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.
Prosecutors have said they don’t intend to call Solis to the witness stand. Chapman said as much to the jury, and he explained that the comments they’ll hear Solis make on recordings are to be used “solely for the purpose of providing context for what Ed Burke says.”
But Gair got his chance to tear into Solis on Thursday, at one point telling jurors to imagine “Danny Solis with a wire chasing Ed Burke around City Hall” in a bid to save himself.
Defense attorneys say they do intend to call Solis to testify. But they’ve told the judge they won’t make the promise in opening statements in front of the jury — and they haven’t so far.
It’s all taking place on the 25th floor of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in Chicago’s Loop, the building where seven other people have been convicted at trial as a result of public corruption investigations this year. Jurors in those cases have yet to side against the feds on a single count.
The openings in Burke’s trial played out in typical fashion, in a courtroom packed with lawyers, reporters and members of Burke’s family, including retired Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne Burke.
Chapman had the task of walking jurors through what threatened to be a dizzying amount of detail in the indictment, including the outline of each alleged scheme.
Jurors to hear ‘unvarnished version of Ed Burke’
The prosecutor told jurors that throughout the course of the trial they would “get to go behind” the closed doors where, through bribery, Burke planned to use the “corruption of public office for private gain.”
He promised that, on the secretly recorded conversations, they will hear the “unvarnished version of Ed Burke.”
“You will hear him speak bluntly — often angrily — as he carried out the offense conduct in this case,” Chapman said.
But it’s not a case where jurors will see “envelopes stuffed with cash,” because it’s “more sophisticated than that,” Chapman said. He used a presentation on screen to lay out top-level details of the complicated case as well as to explain the inner workings of the Chicago City Council.
As Finance Committee chairman, Burke got to set the committee’s agenda and control which legislation came up for a vote, Chapman explained, and “that procedural fact gave him immense leverage.”
People interested in specific legislation “had no ability to get that put on the agenda unless Ed Burke agreed to put it on the agenda” and that’s how “Ed Burke sought to enrich himself through his official position.”
Chapman displayed a photo of the Chicago City Council as he explained Burke’s long political career in the city. Still, he said Burke’s trial was “not about politics” or whether Burke is a “good politician or a bad politician.”
“It is about solicitation of bribes,” Chapman said. “It is about the acceptance of bribes. Attempted extortion and the corruption of public office for private gain. Those are criminal acts.”
Defense argues Burke tried to help others, not himself
Kendall almost sent the jury home after Chapman finished his presentation. But Gair told the judge he’d prefer to get started and finish his opening statement Friday. So Kendall called the jury back into the courtroom to hear from Burke’s defense attorney.
“The story that you just heard — and that’s what it is, a story — is not what the facts are going to show,” Gair told the jury when they returned.
Gair insisted that Burke “never asked for anything from anyone in this case,” “never got anything” and “never threatened anyone.”
He said “there is no doubt that Ed Burke was interested in getting legal work” from 601W Companies LLC, the company that redeveloped Chicago’s Depression-era Old Post Office straddling the Eisenhower Expressway. But Gair insisted that wasn’t illegal and there was no quid pro quo involved.
Burke’s firm wound up being hired to help with a different property as a result of that scheme, according to the indictment.
Gair also told the jury that the four schemes alleged in Burke’s indictment all had two things in common. First, he said, “what Ed Burke is doing is making phone calls to try to help people.”
And, he said, “there’s an awful lot of witnesses who are trying to make what Ed Burke did sound sinister or wrong.”
That brought him to Solis. Gair said that Burke’s former City Council colleague recorded his own sister, his lawyer, his friends, and “some of the most honored City Hall administrators.” And while prosecutors will explain that Solis sometimes used a “ruse” at the direction of law enforcement, Gair had another phrase for it.
“I think the rest of us call it a whole pack of lies,” Gair said.
The attorney also followed through on potential defenses he’d hinted at in pretrial hearings, suggesting that Burke was often distracted and that then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel “played the leading role” when it came to making sure the Old Post Office was redeveloped.
Jurors know little of Burke
The jury sat passively and took it all in until Kendall finally told them they could head home for the day. The majority of them do not live in Chicago. Instead, they hail from Geneva, Antioch, Montgomery and other Illinois towns that mark some of the “longest distances I’ve ever had on a jury,” Kendall told the group.
One Chicagoan said she lives in Ravenswood. The other said he lives around Fulton Market.
The panel represents a diverse mix of employment backgrounds, including a marketing professional, a DCFS child welfare specialist, a mortgage loan processor and a clinical social worker. One man, a graphic designer, said his sister has worked at the Field Museum for two years.
Few jurors reported knowing who Burke is at all — with one simply saying “I know the name” as she was questioned about her knowledge of the case last week.