CHICAGO (CBS) — Ald. Edward Burke (14th) is now facing federal criminal charges, accused of trying to shake down a fast food company seeking to remodel a restaurant in his ward, seeking to force them to hire his private law firm in exchange. The powerful alderman allegedly threatened to play “hard ball” with company executives when they didn’t hire his firm right away.
Burke has been charged with with one count attempted extortion, and turned himself in Thursday afternoon at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse. He was later released on a $10,000 unsecured bond, meaning he would only have to pay bail if he misses a required court hearing. Under conditions of his release, he can only travel within northern Illinois and to his Wisconsin vacation home. Burke faces a possible sentence of 20 years in federal prison.
According to the charges, Burke used his position as alderman to shake down two executives for a company that owns more than 160 fast food restaurants in the Chicago area. In June 2017, the company was seeking his support for a building permit and driveway permit for a remodeling project at a restaurant in his ward, and Burke allegedly sought to convince them to retain his private law firm in exchange for his support for the project.
Sources confirmed the restaurant involved was a Burger King restaurant at 40th and Pulaski, the same one where 17-year-old Laquan McDonald ran through the parking lot in October 2014 moments before he was shot and killed by Chicago Police Officer Laquan McDonald. That Burger King is a franchise restaurant, not owned by the Burger King chain.
After meeting with the executives in June 2017, the company did not retain Burke’s firm, Klafter & Burke, which specializes in property tax appeals, according to the criminal complaint. Burke and a ward employee then planned to play “hard ball” with the company and its executives, and force them to hire Burke’s firm for property tax cases.
In October 2017, the ward employee halted the company’s remodeling project, claiming they did not have the proper permits, and blocked the company’s efforts to get a driveway permit from the Chicago Department of Transportation.
Burke then met with two company executives in December 2017, to discuss awarding property tax work to his law firm. After the meeting, he dropped his opposition to the driveway permit for the company’s remodeling project. A week later, Burke “confirmed that his law firm was to receive property tax work for multiple properties” owned by the company, and later solicited a campaign contribution from one of the executives, to be given to another politician, who was not named in court documents.
After completing the driveway project, the company did not hire Burke’s firm, according to the charges.
The evidence against Burke includes emails with company executives, recorded cell phone conversations, and other evidence recovered from his City Hall and ward offices — including memos and computer hard drives.
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After learning Burke had been charged, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office said the mayor will seek to remove him as chairman of the City Council Finance Committee.
“Based on what we see in the federal complaint, we believe it is inappropriate for Ald. Burke to continue to serve as Finance Committee Chair,” an Emanuel aide stated in an email.
In late November, FBI agents raided Burke’s office at City Hall, along with his ward office in Gage Park, removing a number of computer hard drives, and several boxes of evidence. Two weeks later, they conducted a second raid of his City Hall office.
During an initial hearing on the case Thursday afternoon, federal prosecutors revealed FBI agents found 23 guns in Burke’s offices during their raids. Burke must surrender those guns as a condition of his bond.
Burke also waived his right to a preliminary hearing, which was scheduled for Jan. 18, but it’s possible federal prosecutors could move forward with an indictment before then.
The November raids on Burke’s offices happened the same day his wife, Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke, was sworn in for a new 10-year term on the state’s highest court. A spokesman for the Supreme Court said Burke had no comment, as Illinois judges are barred from speaking publicly about pending criminal cases.
Edward Burke is the longest-serving alderman in Chicago history, and is the most powerful and influential member of the City Council. He has spent 50 years representing the 14th Ward on the Southwest Side, most of that time serving as chairman of the Finance Committee, holding a tight grip on spending legislation.
Burke has won re-election a record 13 times, but is facing perhaps his toughest battle ever this year, with four Latino challengers who have filed to run against him in the largely Hispanic ward. One of his challengers is Tanya Patino, the girlfriend of newly elected State Rep. Aaron Ortiz, who defeated Burke’s brother in the 2018 Democratic primary. Newly-elected Congressman Jesus “Chuy” Garcia has backed Patino against Alderman Burke.
An attorney whose law firm specializes in property tax appeals, whose clients often do business with the city, Burke has recused himself from more City Council votes than any other alderman.
Burke’s half-century on the City Council has been plagued with ethical questions surrounding clients he represents through his law practice, and the business they do with the city.
After the federal raids of his offices last year, Burke’s relationship with President Donald Trump started trending online.
They were seen shaking hands at the City Club of Chicago in 2015. Burke’s law firm represented Trump for more than a decade.
And according to a Chicago Sun-Times investigation, Burke’s firm worked to persuade Cook County officials to cut the property taxes on the Trump Tower by more than $14 million.
Burke stopped doing tax work for Trump in June citing “irreconcilable differences.” It is not known if Thursday’s raid had anything to do with Burke’s ties to the White House.
Last year, the city’s Board of Ethics investigations Burke violated conflict of interest rules by blocking a proposal that would have led to two of his clients paying more in property taxes, but he was cleared of wrongdoing in March.