Chicago Ald. Ed Burke | Youtube screenshot
Federal prosecutors have added more charges against Chicago Ald. Ed Burke, accusing the once-powerful Chicago alderman of attempting to use his position as then-chairman of the city’s Finance Committee to push the developer of the Old Post Office redevelopment project to sign on as a client at Burke’s property tax appeal law firm.
On May 30, prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago announced a federal grand jury had indicted Burke, 75, on racketeering and bribery charges in connection with the alleged attempted extortion of the Old Main Post Office developer, as well as charges previously announced for his alleged attempted shakedown of the owner of Burger King restaurant on Chicago’s southwest side.
According to the indictment, Burke threatened to bottle up tax incentives sought by the Post Office developer in the Finance Committee he chaired, unless the developer agreed to pay sign a contingency agreement with his law firm, worth $45,000 over three years.
The Finance Committee advanced the tax incentive proposal to the full City Council in September 2018, a few weeks after the developer signed the contingency agreement with the firm of Klafter & Burke.
Further, the indictment said Burke attempted to ease permitting and obtain tax increment financing for a development on the city’s northwest side undertaken by Chicago real estate developer Charles Cui. Cui, 48, of Lake Forest, was also charged in the indictment for allegedly pledging to hire Burke’s firm in exchange for Burke’s help with Chicago City Hall.
Also charged by the grand jury was Peter J. Andrews, who worked as a Burke aide in the alderman’s 14th Ward office. Andrews, 69, of Chicago, was charged with counts of attempted extortion and conspiracy for his role in allegedly helping Burke tighten the screws on would-be marks, like Cui, the Post Office developer and the Burger King owners.
The new charges come about five months since federal prosecutors first announced their intent to charge Burke for attempting to use his aldermanic office and political power to shakedown and squeeze business owners needing city permits and seeking tax incentives from City Hall.
At the center of all of the accusations stand Burke’s law firm, Klafter & Burke, and the huge business the firm has developed over decades representing business people and others who use the firm, with its politically-influential and deeply connected head, to win reductions in their property tax bills.
Initial charges against Burke also centered on his efforts to allegedly squeeze the owners of a Burger King restaurant to bring their legal business to his firm.
In addition to serving as the chairman of the Chicago City Council’s Finance Committee for five decades, Burke also heads influential Democratic political action organizations, which rake in millions of dollars in donations.
Burke’s wife, Anne M. Burke, also serves as a justice on the Illinois Supreme Court.
However, Burke’s power has largely crumbled since the federal charges were first announced.
He was stripped of his chairmanship on the Finance Committee. And in the wake of the recent charges, new Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has already called on Burke to resign.
Other major figures within the Chicago and Illinois Democratic Party, including Comptroller Susana Mendoza and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, called for Burke to resign in January, as they both sought to win the Chicago mayor’s race.
In addition to his political problems, the indictments spell yet more trouble for Burke’s law firm, which has represented tens of thousands of clients seeking to reduce their property tax liability through appeals to the Cook County Assessor’s Office and the Cook County Board of Review.
Other attorneys who have worked with Klafter & Burke in recent years include Kelly Keeling, James Dooley, Christopher Caira and Jennifer Burke.
Cook County Board of Review records indicate Burke’s firm has handled primarily property tax appeals for commercial property owners, including the owners of apartment buildings, high rise towers, factories, restaurants bank buildings, utility facilities and shopping centers, among many others.
The business model pursued by the Burke firm is not unique in Illinois politics, however. Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan and his firm, Madigan & Getzendanner, reportedly earned close to $10 million in tax reductions for clients from 2013-2014, according to an analysis from the Illinois News Network, now known as Center Square.
Illinois state Senate President John Cullerton also is a member of a large law firm involved in property tax appeals.
The indictments do not accuse any other politicians or their law practices of criminal wrongdoing.