Five years after federal agents raided then-Ald. Ed Burke’s City Hall office, jurors at his corruption trial last week got to hear what’s fast becoming known simply as the “tuna” call.
In one of the trial’s most highly anticipated moments, federal prosecutors played the secret recording of Burke allegedly asking then-colleague, Ald. Daniel Solis, if the developers of the massive Old Post Office had agreed to hire Burke’s private law firm.
“So did we land the, uh, the tuna?” Burke asked.
Burke made the now-infamous May 2017 inquiry as he was allegedly using his clout as Chicago’s longest-serving alderman to intervene on the developer’s behalf on a host of issues with the $600 million project, including fights with Amtrak, restoring water service and two massive tax incentives that would have to go before the city Finance Committee that Burke chaired.
By the time Burke made his “tuna” remark, Solis, the 25th Ward alderman and Zoning Committee chairman, had been working undercover for the FBI for nearly a year, helping the feds build the racketeering case that ended Burke’s record 54-year run as 14th Ward alderman in May.
The behind-the-scenes intrigue surrounding the Old Post Office renovation is the centerpiece of the high-profile trial and was the focus of the third week of testimony, where prosecutors unleashed a memorable string of dozens of secret audio and video recordings of Burke playing the dual role of City Hall powerhouse and private lawyer prowling for legal work.
Prosecutors said Friday they have about a week of evidence left to present in their case in chief.
The recordings showed Burke welcoming the post office developer, Harry Skydell, and his son at one City Hall meeting, then sliding two Klafter & Burke business cards toward them. Later, he was caught on camera smirking as he told Solis he was reluctant to help Skydell because “the cash register has not rung yet.”
And, after months of being stonewalled, Burke was captured sitting in Solis’ office with his legs crossed, calmly remarking he’d had it with the Skydells, and “as far as I’m concerned they can go (expletive) themselves.”
Before the Old Post Office became the focus of the trial, jurors heard evidence of how Burke, with the help of longtime 14th Ward aide Peter Andrews Jr., allegedly shook down the Texas-based owners of a Burger King on South Pulaski Road, also in an effort to win business for Klafter & Burke.
Prosecutors on Friday began presenting evidence related to claims that another developer, Charles Cui, hired Burke’s law firm in exchange for the alderman’s help in a permit fight over a pole sign for a Binny’s Beverage Depot in Portage Park, miles away from Burke’s power base.
The jury has also heard details of a fourth alleged scheme centered on Burke’s alleged threats to block a fee increase at the Field Museum after top officials there failed to hire the daughter of his longtime ally, former Ald. Terry Gabinski, 34th, for a paid internship.
Lawyers for Burke, who turns 80 later this month, have said there was nothing wrong with Burke soliciting business for his law firm and painted Solis, who only began cooperating after he was confronted with his own wrongdoing, as “Exhibit A” of corrupt elected official.
“Mr. Burke never asked for anything from anyone in this case. Not for money, not for legal business, not for anything — never,” defense attorney Chris Gair told the jury in his opening statement last month, claiming Burke saw “not one dime” from the alleged schemes.
In the coming days, prosecutors are expected to expand on the Burger King and Binny’s chapters as they aim toward wrapping up their case in chief by Dec. 11, when Burke’s defense team will then make a final decision on whether to bring in Solis to testify.
Meanwhile, the recordings played so far in the case seem to reinforce the old school, cynical view of Chicago as a city that works — as long as powerful politician can get a piece of the action.
Videos of the white-haired Burke, with his trademark pinstriped suits, finely tucked pocket square and American flag lapel pins, speaking candidly with Solis gave jurors a fly-on-the-wall view of two elected officials, far removed from news cameras or public speeches.
The recordings also painted the picture of how the intersection of big bureaucracy and big money can make a massive project such as the Old Post Office rejuvenation ripe for corruption.
When Skydell and his company, 601W, bought the dilapidated building straddling the Eisenhower Expressway in 2016, it had been neglected for years. Jurors heard testimony that concrete was falling onto the railroad tracks running below the building into Union Station, and train fumes were leaking inside.
In an effort to get the building updated and back on the tax rolls, then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel helped broker the deal wresting control from a previous owner. In a statement announcing the sale to Skydell’s company in April 2016, Emanuel said the agreement called for “a strict timeline” for the redevelopment that would turn the site “into an economic driver for the city.”
From the get-go, however, the need for Skydell to cut red tape and seek taxpayer assistance for a project of that magnitude played directly into City Hall’s Bermuda Triangle of confusion, one that often necessitates seeking help from an alderman with clout.
In Skydell’s case, it was a perfect storm, as he wanted both a Class L tax incentive for the property, which at more than $100 million represented the largest such tax deal in state history, as well as $20 million in tax-increment financing to fund the reconstruction of the site’s west plaza along Canal Street.
He also desperately needed help dealing with Amtrak, which was making rehab expensive and time consuming due to archaic rules governing work at track level.
Prosecutors have painted a picture to show that conditions were nearly perfect for the then-mighty Burke, dean of the City Council, to make a move.
Testimony showed Burke bragged to Skydell at their initial meeting that he had a good friend on Amtrak’s board of directors, Jeff Moreland, and that “we made his daughter a judge here in Cook County.”
Burke also knew what levers to pull to get action at City Hall, where his Finance Committee could tighten the purse strings on any agency that failed to respond when he said jump.
Burke’s attorneys have repeatedly suggested in their cross-examinations that Burke was a responsible steward of the public’s money, including when it came to the revamp of the Old Post Office, a historic 1920s-era Art Deco building representing so much of the old Chicago that Burke held dear.
But prosecutors maintained Burke wouldn’t lend a hand to the Old Post Office for purely altruistic reasons. He allegedly would use his know-how and experience only if he could make it pay off for himself, a message that meant developers needed to show their gratitude by supplying his law firm with tax work.
In a May 2017 recorded call, Burke was updated by Solis about the frustrations Skydell kept having with hurdles thrown up by Amtrak and the city Water Department’s failure to open lines at the post office job site.
“You know, I’ve never heard anything from these people about getting hired to do the tax work, so, I’m not … I’m not motivated,” Burke said on the call.
When Burke first employed his tuna analogy, Solis had a ready response, saying he told the developers “we’re not very motivated, cause nothing has happened.”
“I said, ‘Look, I think you’ve got to help Ed out.’”
Prosecutors have said Burke illegally offered to pay Solis a consulting fee in exchange for his help in getting business from the post office’s New York-based developers.
Burke even allegedly returned to his favored fishing metaphor when he made sure in one call that Solis understood he too would benefit if Burke’s law firm reeled in a financial windfall.
“If we land the tuna, there certainly will be a day of accounting,” Burke said. “You can count on that.”
As the months dragged on, Burke allegedly grew more frustrated that 601W had not formally committed to hiring his firm despite his work with Amtrak, the Water Department and other city issues.
Recordings and testimony showed Skydell started considering how to give Burke’s firm property tax work on other projects, leading to a pivotal face-to-face meeting on Oct. 17, 2017, with Skydell and his son, Joseph, as well as a lawyer representing the Old Post Office project.
As they pitched their proposal for the TIF money, Burke, off camera, could be heard saying it “couldn’t be a worse time” to ask for a TIF break, especially with the Chicago Teachers Union then-President, Karen Lewis, complaining that TIF money siphons tax revenue from schools.
After Skydell and his team left the room, Burke and Solis spoke alone. “I told them that this will go up to your committee,” Solis said. Burke shot back, “Good luck getting it on the agenda,” and Solis laughed.
Eventually, though, both the TIF request and the Class L tax incentive sailed through Burke’s Finance Committee and the full City Council.
Along the way, Skydell allegedly told Burke a deal to buy the Sullivan Center, an 800,000-square-foot, Louis Sullivan-designed skyscraper on East Madison Street, was coming together and that Klafter & Burke would receive the property tax work.
“Well, very good,” Burke said. “I appreciate you thinking about our firm, and we’ll do a good job for you.”
The deal, signed by Burke on Aug. 28, 2018, called for a $15,000 flat annual retainer fee plus 20% of any refund “as a result of a reduction in assessed value” of the Sullivan Center property.
In wrapping up their evidence on the Post Office episode Friday, prosecutors played a final wiretapped recording made by Solis on Nov. 9, 2018, just 20 days before the FBI raid that thrust the investigation into the public spotlight.
As instructed by his FBI handlers, Solis told Burke during the in-person meeting that he was planning to retire midway through his next four-year term, and “go off into the sunset.” He also told Burke he had a line in on some big-time developers who were planning on a development near South Clark Street in Solis’ 25th Ward and would steer them to Klafter & Burke for a consulting fee.
“He says that’s gonna go, that would go really quick. And so I’m thinking within the next few months, or whatever, maybe he’s somebody else I can bring you and we can talk about a consulting situation for me,” Solis said on the recording played in court.
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“Sure. As long as you remember me, yeah,” Burke responded. “We come from the old school.”
Meanwhile, after pushing so hard to get the tax work, Burke stunned developers by returning “the tuna” on Dec. 20, 2018, in the form of a letter stating Klafter & Burke was pulling out of the deal before receiving a single payment.
That was three weeks after the feds raided Burke’s offices.