CHICAGO (CN) — Attorneys began their opening arguments Thursday in the federal corruption trial of ex-Chicago alderman Ed Burke, the longest serving city councilor in Chicago's history. The openings began following four days of jury selection and an additional weeklong delay after a defense attorney tested positive for Covid-19 last Thursday.
The U.S. Attorney's Office accuses Burke, 79, of 14 bribery, racketeering and extortion charges, to which he has pleaded not guilty. In the courtroom, federal prosecutor Timothy Chapman claimed each represented an example of Burke's abuse of power.
It's undisputed that Burke was, for many years, one of the most influential members of Chicago's city council. He held the 14th Ward aldermanic chair continuously from 1969 to 2023 when he chose not to run for re-election, and he was head of the city's powerful committee on finance for over 30 years.
"For decades, he was one of the most powerful members, if not the most powerful member of the Chicago city council," Chapman said.
The government accused Burke of using these positions to "line his pockets," with Chapman painting him as an unscrupulous bully and opportunist.
"He was a bribe taker, and he was an extortionist," Chapman said.
Burke's defense attorney Chris Gair, on the other hand, painted Burke as an "old school" Chicago public servant and a "colorful" character whose only crime was speaking too bluntly about his business and legal interests. He said Burke had never taken any cash or inappropriate favors during his tenure on city council.
"Mr. Burke never asked for anything from anyone in this case ... This is a bribery case without bribes and an extortion case without extortion," Gair said.
Chapman admitted the jury wouldn't hear evidence of Burke ever taking any money directly. This wasn't because Burke wasn't corrupt, Chapman said, but only because the former alderman was "too sophisticated" for that.
"This is not a case where the bribes consist of people passing envelopes full of cash back and forth," Chapman said.
Instead the charges Burke now faces stem from four distinct incidents that took place between 2016 and 2018, during which he allegedly leveraged his clout to try and drive business to his private law firm Klafter & Burke, now rebranded as KBC Law Group. Chapman also said Burke used his political weight to try getting a job for his family friend at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History.
That incident occurred in the late summer of 2017, when Burke got word that the museum had denied an internship to the daughter of his friend and political ally, former Chicago 32nd Ward alderman Terry Gabinski. Chapman said Burke threatened to oppose the museum's plan to increase visitor fees unless it offered the young woman a position, which it did that September.
"When you use your public position to threaten a museum unless they give your family friend a paid position, that is a crime," Chapman said.
The fee increase went ahead as planned, though Gabinski's daughter ended up turning down the job offer.
The other three incidents named in the 2019 indictment paint Burke just as ruthlessly. One involves Burke and his former aide — now co-defendant — Peter Andrews holding up renovations to a Burger King franchise in his ward until the franchise owners made overtures of hiring Klafter & Burke for their tax work. In another, Chapman said Burke accepted an offer from city property owner Charles Cui, Burke's other co-defendant in the case, to hire Klafter & Burke for a property tax appeal. in exchange, Burke would, unsuccessfully, try to help Cui get a permit for a pole sign at his tenant's business in Burke's ward.
And in the most convoluted of the purported scandals, Chapman claimed Burke spent 2016 to 2018 working with Danny Solis, former 25th Ward alderman and head of the city zoning committee — and unbeknownst to Burke, an FBI informant at the time — to try and secure a number of favors for a real estate company known as 601W Companies. 601W bought up Chicago's Old Post Office in 2016 but had difficulties with water service, carrying out renovations with the Amtrak rail yard located beneath the building, and in securing a "Class L" historical landmark tax classification for the property.
Chapman said Solis urged Burke to help resolve these issues in exchange for work for his law firm. When 601W had not hired Klafter & Burke by late 2017, he told Solis that he wasn't "fond of the way they've conducted themselves up until this point, and as far as I'm concerned, they can go fuck themselves."
601W did secure Class L status for the Old Post Office in February 2018 with Burke's support in the city council, but according to Burke's indictment, an affiliate of the company entered into a contingent fee agreement with Burke's firm that August. A month later, the city council voted to direct tax increment financing funds to the Old Post Office renovation project.
"Ed Burke engaged in a pattern of racketeering activity ... he engaged in that racketeering in part with the help of defendant Andrews and at the invitation of defendant Cui," Chapman said as he concluded his openings.
Gair — who was not able to finish his opening arguments before presiding U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall dismissed the jury for the evening — instead laid blame for these incidents on misinterpretations of Burke's communication style, as well as Burke's associates.
"In each and every one of these episodes, Burke is making phone calls to try and help people," Gair said.
He laid particular blame at Solis' feet. In 2016 the former alderman agreed to aid the feds' investigation into Burke and other politicians in exchange for a sweetheart deferred prosecution agreement on his own corruption charges. To save his skin, Gair argued, Solis "wired up" and betrayed his friend and colleague by recording conversations that would seem incriminating in the wrong light.
"He lied, he squirmed, he weaseled," Gair said, adding Solis "recorded everyone and their sister — and I mean literally, he recorded his sister — for the government."
A jury of nine women and three men will now decide whether Chapman or Gair's narrative of events is more truthful, over the course of a trial that Kendall expects to last at least six weeks. Gair will conclude his openings on Friday morning, after which the government will begin presenting its witnesses. Though local press have speculated that prosecutors would call Solis to testify to his role in events, Chapman said he and his team had no plans to do so.
Solis and Burke were both high-profile targets of the sweeping anti-corruption investigations the Northern Illinois District Attorney's Office launched almost eight years ago. A former ally of both men and perhaps the most high-profile target of them all, ex-Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, is awaiting his own federal corruption trial on 23 racketeering and bribery charges next April.Follow @djbyrnes1
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