Chicago Ald. Ed Burke lawyers argue over wiretaps
Defense attorneys and prosecutors in the explosive bribery case against Chicago’s most senior alderman politely confronted him in federal court Tuesday in arguments that centered on whether a jury should be in able to overhear federally tapped phone conversations about what constitutes a bribe in Chicago.
In 2019 Ald. Ed Burke, 14th Ward, was slapped with 14 counts of racketeering, bribery and attempted extortion for allegedly using his influence at City Hall to direct business to his private law firm, Klafter & Burke, and forcing developers to appeal their property taxes using his company. The stunning indictment came just months after federal authorities raided Burke’s city hall and neighborhood offices.
Tuesday’s hearing focused on hundreds of pages of preliminary motions filed by Burke’s attorneys and the US government. Those filings, along with the pandemic, have delayed a possible jury trial for Burke, 78, who was not present at Tuesday’s hearing.
U.S. District Judge Robert Dow said on Tuesday he had to impose two-hour hearing time limits because “the number of issues is quite overwhelming” and called the amount of pre-trial work “unprecedented.” “.
Feds accuse Burke of trying to shake up a Burger King, capitalizing on a massive renovation of the old Chicago post office and brokering a deal with his co-defendant, businessman Charles Cui, to trade property tax cases for help with a project in Portage Park.
Among the motions filed, Burke’s lawyers argued on Tuesday against the use of evidence believed to be at the heart of the government case – phone calls and conversations with the former Ald. Dany Solis. Through wiretapping, federal agents recorded nearly 10,000 phone calls in the case.
Solis, who until 2019 represented the 25th arrondissement and chaired the powerful zoning committee, wore a thread for the federal government after facing evidence of his own wrongdoing.
Burke’s defense team spoke out against the validity of the wiretap on Tuesday, saying the feds relied too heavily on Chicago’s alleged reputation for corruption and Solis’ own wrongdoing, in its request for that Solis wears a thread around Burke in the first place.
The feds went to the judge who signed that wiretap nine times, Burke’s attorney Andrew DeVooght said, giving the judge a “regular diet of hundreds of pages” of Solis offenses in an effort to justify wiretapping. The intent was to imply that Solis was back, but “this time with Ald.” Burke,” DeVooght said.
They argued that a well-trained and well-prepared “Ald. Solis” – whose prosecution was postponed as part of Burke’s recording agreementthey said – repeatedly tried to get Burke to accept or admit wrongdoing, but Burke never acted or implied that he would.
But prosecutors argued that Burke was not oblivious, referring to a conversation in which he allegedly told Solis to “get me some business with these guys.” This seemed to refer to a developer seeking council approval for a project that, as zoning chairman, Solis could influence.
Senior prosecutor Amarjeet Singh Bhachu added that through those conversations, it is “logical and fair” to believe that Burke was aware that he was using his and Solis’ positions on the board as leverage to direct cases to his company.
Tuesday’s hearing was also central to the discussion of whether Burke’s dealings with co-defendant Charles Cui and other actions were really bribes, or whether two corruption-related charges should rather be dismissed, as argued by the defence.
Cui is accused of hiring Burke’s law firm to appeal his property taxes in exchange for help obtaining a sign permit for a business venture in Chicago’s Portage Park neighborhood. Prosecutors argued there was “corrupt intent” behind the exchange.
“The work obtained through a bribe is not legitimate,” prosecutor Julia Schwartz said, adding that the work “was not necessary” because Cui already had a property tax company in his rolodex. – “a company he dumped because he needed Burke’s favor”. she said.
In its five-minute rebuttal, the defense team said Cui had a property tax firm for a previous year, but needed a new one.
At the start and end of Tuesday’s hearing, Dow warned of the amount of work that remains to be done before any potential trial date, saying this is a “big deal that requires a big opinion” and that Tuesday’s hearing – while a significant step forward – does not change that.
“I don’t think you agree too much,” he said facetiously to the defense and the prosecution. “So it’s not like I don’t have a ton of work to do yet.”
Burke was not required to appear at Tuesday’s hearing and has been largely silent on the case against him. In 2019, after an initial criminal complaint was filed, Burke said he had “done nothing wrong. And whatever Alderman Solis recorded, if he did, won’t make a difference.
Although Burke is still a sitting councilman, he has largely lost his power to influence the council. burk resigned from his role as head of the board’s finance committee and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has repeatedly called on him to resign his seat entirely amid the sprawling corruption investigation.
Burke isn’t the only Chicago alderman to have a case in federal court this week. The long-awaited hearing comes just a day after the start of Ald’s independent federal trial. Patrick Daley Thompson, grandson and nephew of the city’s two most senior mayors.
Thompson was indicted last April on tax evasion charges related to loans he received from a disgraced and now closed Bridgeport bank. Thompson pleaded not guilty and maintained that he was innocent.
Regardless of the outcome of their lawsuits, both aldermen have or will face challenges in retaining their positions on the council.
This is partly due to stretching and combative redistricting process underway at City Hall – where aldermen are re-mapping the city’s electoral precincts to ensure all 50 wards are of equal size amid a changing population.
In a map proposed by the council’s Latino caucus, Burke’s neighborhood would change significantly by bolstering the neighborhood’s Latino population and excluding certain blocks that have been a stronghold for Burke, potentially jeopardizing his re-election chances.
Under the two duel proposals, the Thompson ward would also face drastic changes, as both sides – the council’s Latino and black caucuses – agree that its 11th ward will be the one to become the first majority Asian ward in the city. Thompson opposes this change.
Mariah Woelfel covers Chicago city government at WBEZ. You can follow her @MariahWoelfel.