A federal prosecutor kicked off opening statements in the corruption trial of ex-Chicago Ald. Edward M. Burke by pointing directly at Burke and telling a jury Burke was once “one of the very most powerful, if not the most powerful, member of the Chicago City Council.”
And then, Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Chapman insisted that Burke was something more.
“He was a bribe taker, and he was an extortionist,” Chapman said as Burke listened nearby.
Opening statements in Burke’s corruption trial began Thursday afternoon, five years after an FBI raid signaled by brown butcher paper over his office doors changed the course of Chicago history.
U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall, prosecutors and defense attorneys chose the 12 jurors at The Dirksen Federal Courthouse earlier Thursday. The panel includes three men and nine women. Two have been identified as Chicagoans.
They will hear the evidence that was used in 2019 to level criminal charges against Burke in a push against old-school, Chicago-style corruption.
But the downfall of Chicago’s most powerful and longest-serving City Council member began with the raid the year before, upending a campaign for mayor.
Though Burke kept his 14th Ward Council seat for another term after initially being charged, his power was severely damaged. In May, he ended the 54-year political career that he began when City Hall was run by the late Mayor Richard J. Daley.
Burke’s prosecution led to the revelation that longtime Ald. Danny Solis (25th) had secretly recorded Burke and other powerful politicians for the FBI — including now-indicted former House Speaker Michael Madigan — to avoid prison for his own alleged wrongdoing.
It also gave Lori Lightfoot an issue that propelled her to the mayor’s office.
Burke ruled with favor and fear
Burke is charged with racketeering, bribery and extortion. And while more than three dozen Chicago City Council members have been convicted of crimes since the early 1970s, Burke stands out among his peers. He wielded power through an army of allies that he placed in city jobs, he controlled judicial slate-making and he knew where the bodies were buried.
Officials at City Hall feared him.
Federal Trial of Ed Burke: The latest developments
- Jury of three men and nine women is chosen Thursday afternoon.
- Opening statements begin
- Prosecution labels Burke ‘bribe taker … extortionist’
Now he finds himself in a 25th-floor courtroom near the top of Chicago’s downtown Dirksen courthouse, targeted by prosecutors who have yet to lose on a single count in a series of public corruption trials already this year. Burke attended three-and-a-half days of jury selection over the last two weeks, watching from a table populated by lawyers and a jury consultant.
His wife, retired Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne Burke, has looked on from the front row of the courtroom gallery.
The trial was postponed for one week after an attorney in the case tested positive for COVID-19.
Burke has pleaded not guilty and has enlisted a fiery defense team sure to fight for every legal inch. And they are expected to place Solis squarely in their crosshairs as Burke’s trial begins in earnest.
Ex-Ald. Solis key to trial — but will he testify?
Solis went underground after the Chicago Sun-Times revealed his cooperation with the FBI in January 2019. If he testifies, his public appearance could amount to one of the most dramatic moments at the Dirksen courthouse in years. Prosecutors have called him one of Chicago’s “most significant cooperators in the last several decades.”
But it’s not clear if that will happen. Prosecutors say they won’t put him on the stand, preferring instead to introduce his recordings through the testimony of FBI agents.
Hearing that, Burke’s lawyers insisted they would call Solis to the stand themselves. But they also told Kendall they would not make that promise in front of the jury during opening statements.
Defense attorney Chris Gair simply told Kendall his plan to summon Solis was “the truth.”
Burke’s defense team has referred to Solis as “singularly corrupt and untruthful.” They’ve said he spent two years trying to “manufacture” an alleged quid pro quo that became key to the case against Burke. And they’ve suggested they will question the true extent of Burke’s power at City Hall.
City Council members’ power on trial
At the heart of the case is the practice of aldermanic privilege, an entrenched, off-the-books power that gives Council members unquestioned say over a broad range of decisions within their wards — from zoning matters to parking permits.
The sweeping 59-page racketeering indictment handed up against Burke in May 2019 alleges four criminal schemes involving two Chicago landmarks. One is Chicago’s Old Post Office, straddling the Eisenhower Expressway. The other is the Field Museum.
The indictment contained quotes that quickly became part of Chicago’s political lexicon. During one scheme, a frustrated Burke allegedly told Solis, “the cash register has not rung yet.”
Later, Burke became eager and asked, “Did we land … the tuna?”
Smaller fish on trial with Burke
On trial with Burke are two co-defendants, political aide Peter Andrews and developer Charles Cui.
Burke is accused of trying to take advantage of redevelopment projects — including at the massive Old Post Office and at a Burger King in his ward — to strongarm businesses into hiring his private tax appeals law firm at the time, Klafter & Burke.
Andrews allegedly played a role in the Burger King scheme. Meanwhile, a third scheme involves Cui, who allegedly hired Burke’s firm in a failed bid to ensure approval for a pole sign for a Binny’s Beverage Depot in the 4900 block of West Irving Park Road.
Finally, Burke is also accused of trying to extort the Field Museum as it sought his support for an admission fee increase in 2017. Gair has acknowledged that Burke read the museum the “riot act” because it didn’t respond when he recommended his goddaughter — the daughter of former Ald. Terry Gabinski — for an internship.
The feds say Burke, the longtime chairman of the Council’s finance committee, threatened to block the fee increase over the matter.
“If the chairman of the Committee on Finance calls the president of the park board, your proposal is going to go nowhere,” Burke allegedly told a museum employee.
The park board wound up approving the fee increase anyway.