Longtime Chicago Ald. Edward M. Burke doesn’t have much to show for the alleged scheming outlined in his federal racketeering indictment.
But that may be due, in part, to a Texas executive who testified Monday that he dragged his feet after his boss told him to hire the powerful politician’s law firm in 2017.
Jimmy Wachaa worked for Shoukat Dhanani, whose company owned hundreds of Burger King restaurants — including one in Burke’s 14th Ward. Wachaa said Dhanani told him to give property tax appeal work to Burke’s law firm in late 2017 or early 2018. But by May 2018, Wachaa still hadn’t done so.
Wachaa finally emailed his boss to ask, “Are we done with whatever we needed from Alderman Burke? I prefer not to give them our portfolio.”
Burke’s firm, he wrote, “seemed very disorganized.”
During Wachaa’s cross-examination Monday, Burke attorney Joseph Duffy got right to the point. Duffy asked, “You were kind of stringing them along, isn’t that fair?”
“You could say so,” Wachaa replied.
Jurors heard from Wachaa as prosecutors returned to evidence revolving around the Burger King near 41st and Pulaski. Burke is accused of trying to shake business for his private law firm out of Dhanani’s company as it sought to remodel the restaurant.
The jury also wound up hearing from a longtime employee of Burke’s firm, who explained how a process meant to shield Burke from conflicts of interest apparently failed to do so in 2018.
A federal grand jury indicted Burke in 2019, charging him with racketeering, bribery and extortion. He is also accused of using his seat on the City Council to steer business to his law firm at the time, Klafter & Burke, through schemes involving the Old Post Office and a Binny’s Beverage Depot on the Northwest Side.
He is also accused of threatening to block an admission fee increase at the Field Museum because it failed to respond when he recommended his goddaughter for an internship.
Burke left the City Council earlier this year after serving a record 54 years.
Dhanani took the stand about two weeks ago, telling jurors he had a “gut feeling” when the remodeling of his Burger King was shut down in 2017 that he should have hired Burke’s firm. Dhanani testified that he spoke to Wachaa after a meeting with Burke late that year.
Burke’s assistant, Meaghan Synowiecki, quickly got in touch with Wachaa by email. Jurors on Monday again saw the back-and-forth that followed between Synowiecki and Wachaa about Dhanani’s Burger King locations in Illinois, for which Burke apparently hoped to land tax work.
At one point, Wachaa asked Synowiecki, “Can you please confirm that I am sending all IL locations or only Cook County locations.”
She replied, “It would be all IL locations.”
But Wachaa confirmed on Monday for Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Streicker that he made the decision not to hire Burke’s firm — even though Dhanani told him to give Burke business for 10 or 20 sites.
Wachaa said “it seemed like we weren’t going to get the type of service” he wanted from Burke’s firm. Specifically, “speed, accuracy and organization.”
Shoukat Dhanani’s son, Zohaib Dhanani, began to testify near the end of the day Monday.
In one unusual moment in the trial, prosecutors agreed to let Burke’s defense attorneys call to the stand one of their own witnesses, even though prosecutors are still putting on their case. That’s because the witness, a longtime employee of Burke’s law firm, had a medical scheduling issue that would make her unavailable later in the trial.
That employee, Gabriella Garcia-Martinez, told jurors about a process at the firm designed to catch any conflicts of interest for Burke before he cast a problematic vote in the City Council.
She tried to explain to jurors why the firm apparently did not flag a conflict involving the developer of Chicago’s Old Post Office. The jury heard last week that the developers wound up hiring Burke’s law firm to do property tax appeal work for the Sullivan Center Offices at State and Madison. However, jurors also learned that the paperwork for that deal initially misidentified the client.
Burke voted in favor of a tax-increment financing proposal for the Old Post Office developers, 601W Companies, after securing their business, prosecutors allege. However, Garcia-Martinez testified that, at the time of the vote, 601W Companies did not appear in the Klafter & Burke database because of the initial misidentification.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Diane MacArthur later asked her whether Burke could have identified the conflict on his own.
“Mr. Burke was not tied or bound in any way by the findings of his staff members within Klafter & Burke?” MacArthur said.
“No,” Garcia-Martinez said. “I mean, no.”