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Chicago City Council member loses bid to toss corruption charges

A federal judge denied motions by Chicago’s longest-serving alderman to dismiss over a dozen criminal corruption charges against him.

CHICAGO (CN) — In 2019, federal prosecutors indicted Chicago Alderman Ed Burke, the longest-serving City Council member in the city's history, on over a dozen charges of criminal extortion and bribery. On Monday morning, a federal judge denied Burke's motions to dismiss those charges.

In his 194-page decision, U.S. District Judge Robert Dow Jr. opined that Burke and his co-defendants – his long-time aide Peter Andrews and Chicagoland attorney and real estate developer Charles Cui – had not sufficiently addressed the legality of their indictment in their dismissal motions. Instead, Dow said the defendants tried to challenge the strength of the evidence federal prosecutors brought against them - something better left for a jury to decide.

"It is a fact-finder’s role to assess whether the government has proven the allegations beyond a reasonable doubt at trial, not this court’s at the pleadings stage," wrote Dow, a George W. Bush appointee.

The case against Burke and his associates is tied up with a larger anti-corruption sweep Northern Illinois U.S. Attorney John Lausch's office has carried out against several Chicago and Illinois politicians since 2018. The federal prosecutors accuse Burke – a City Council member since 1969 and chairman of the finance committee from 1983 to 1987 and again from 1989 to 2019 – of using his powerful position in city government to drive business toward his private law firm Klafter & Burke. The firm helped former President Donald Trump shave almost $12 million off his property taxes for the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Chicago.

Burke is no longer a partner with Klaftner & Burke, which rebranded as KBC Law Group after Burke was indicted in 2019. A representative of KBC declined to comment, denying that Burke was ever associated with the firm.

Burke allegedly offered various boons to developers and businesses in the city who hired Klafter & Burke, such as securing permits for the $800 million renovation of Chicago's Old Post Office in 2016. Alternatively, he also allegedly sabotaged the efforts of businesses who wouldn't play ball to obtain renovation permits for their properties. Most infamously, he was accused of stopping the owners of a Burger King franchise on Chicago's South Side from obtaining a driveway permit in 2017, when it didn't hire his firm for tax work. The restaurant was located adjacent to where Black teen Laquan McDonald was shot by white police officer Jason Van Dyke in 2014.

Prosecutors say Burke worked with former Chicago Alderman Danny Solis, who served as chairman of the zoning committee from 2009 to 2019, to make these carrot-and-stick deals happen. Solis also faced federal charges over his alleged corruption, up to and including accepting paid sex trips to massage parlors from local business lobbyists, but managed to secure a deferred prosecution agreement on a single bribery charge in exchange for helping the FBI build a case against Burke and former Illinois Speaker of the House Mike Madigan. Madigan currently faces even more charges than Burke – 22 criminal bribery and racketeering charges for allegedly helping energy corporation Commonwealth Edison pass legislation in Illinois that benefitted its bottom line.

Between 2016 and 2017, Solis worked with the FBI to secretly record conversations he had with Burke and Madigan, and in May 2017 the FBI also tapped Burke's phone directly.

Burke moved to suppress evidence the FBI obtained via wiretap in May and June of 2017, arguing the federal agents lacked probable cause. But Dow denied those motions as well on Monday, writing that he believed the agents acted reasonably in monitoring Burke's phone calls, given the complexity of the case they were building against the alderman.

"This type of crime limited the utility of physical surveillance, pen registers, and trash pulls, and the high-profile and ongoing nature of the alleged criminal conduct meant the risk that search warrants, interviews, and grand jury subpoenas would thwart the investigation," Dow wrote.

Lausch's office did not respond to a request for comment on the issue.

The ruling means Burke is likely headed to trial. Of the 19 charges against the three defendants, Burke was personally hit with 14. No trial date has yet been set for the alderman, who still retains his seat on the City Council, but Dow's opinion suggested that Burke should prepare to argue his case in front of a jury.

The trio also moved to have separate trials, another motion which Dow shot down.

"At trial and again on a motion for vacatur in the event of an adverse verdict, Ald. Burke will have an opportunity to convince a properly-instructed jury (or this court), with all the evidence amassed, that the government has not carried its burden of proving that Ald. Burke attempted or did commit [bribery] beyond a reasonable doubt," the judge wrote. (Parentheses in original).

Burke, Andrews and Cui have pleaded not guilty to all charges.

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