CHICAGO — Testimony continued on Tuesday as the trial of former Chicago Alderman Ed Burke shifted focus to an alleged scheme to pressure the owners of a Burger King restaurant in his ward.
Prosecutors say Burke tried to pressure the owners into hiring his private law firm, in exchange for city construction permits.
Burke, who is charged with 14 counts of racketeering, bribery and extortion, arrived at the Dirksen Federal Building on Tuesday morning in his signature fedora and raincoat. Burke, Chicago’s longest-serving alderman, was the powerful chairman of the finance committee, controlling the city’s purse strings for decades.
The federal case rests on four incidents of alleged wrongdoing — dealing with a Burger King, a Binny’s, the old main Post Office and the Field Museum.
Burke and his former aldermanic aid Peter Andrews were front and center on Tuesday as prosecutors presented evidence that they say showed a “pressure campaign” meant to steer business toward Burke’s law firm.
Taking the witness stand was Shoukat Dhanani, the CEO of the Dhanani Group, Incorporated, a Texas-based company that owns nearly 800 fast food restaurants across the country, including 150 Burger Kings in the Chicago area and one at 4060 South Pulaski in the 14th Ward, where Burke was the alderman.
In 2017, Dhanani wanted to remodel the Burger King as part of Burger King’s company-wide plan to update the branding and style of its restaurants.
Dhanani testified that he was advised by Texas politician Rodney Ellis to meet with Burke because the alderman was “one of the most powerful individual politicians, after the mayor, in Chicago.”
In a phone call secretly recorded by the FBI, Dhanani told Burke: “We have an application that’s been made for a remodel, and it’s stuck at your office or something.”
Burke allegedly told Dhanani that there was a problem with the Burger King because semi trucks were using part of the property as a sort of all-night truck stop.
Burke wanted to meet in person with Dhanani and had his assistant set up a meeting.
Burke later talked with Ellis and, in a recorded phone call, said: “I’d also like to get some of his law business. He’s an important businessman here in Chicago. I hear he’s got 300 Burger Kings.”
Dhanani testified that he met with the alderman at his Burger King property and then went to the alderman’s country club for lunch. From the witness stand, Dhanani said that Burke told him: “He has his law firm that fights for the property taxes to keep them low, I thought maybe he’s wanting us to give him the property tax business.”
Two months later, Dhanani had not hired Burke’s private firm and began construction at the restaurant.
When Burke saw the construction happening he called his aide Peter Andrews and said: “Why was I able to hold it up?”
Andrews told Burke that they needed the driveway permits signed off on. Burke replied and said he did not remember signing off on any driveway permits.
In another phone call, Andrews said: “I’ll play as hardball as I can.”
Construction was shut down and on Tuesday, Dhanani testified: “My gut feeling was because I had not responded about the property tax business that maybe it had been shut down.”
The Burger King episode will again be the focus on Wednesday as the trial continues for a half-day of testimony before the Thanksgiving break.