CHICAGO (CBS) — A real estate developer from Lake Forest pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges he bribed Ald. Edward Burke (14th) in exchange for assistance getting city permits he needed.
Charles Cui, 48, was charged last week with one count of federal program bribery, one count of making a false statement to the FBI, and two counts of interstate commerce to facilitate bribery.
He pleaded not guilty at his arraignment on Thursday. Burke is not charged in this case, but earlier this year was charged with extortion in another case.
Cui is a managing member of a company that owns property on the 4900 block of West Irving Park Road, and in 2016 was seeking to lease space to a retailer seeking to open shop on the site, as part of a Six Corners development project in the Portage Park neighborhood. The unnamed retailer also wanted to use an old pole sign on the site that had become a rusted eyesore.
The indictment does not specify which retailer was seeking the sign permit, but the property involved is now home to a Culver’s restaurant, a Retro Fitness gym, and a Binny’s Beverage Depot.
In 2016, the City Council Finance Committee, chaired by Burke, approved a $2 million tax increment financing deal for the development project. The City Council also approved the TIF money, which was payable only after Cui’s company met the conditions for the development agreement.
The sign the retailer wanted at the property proved to be a major sticking point, court documents indicate. According to the deal with Cui’s company, the retailer could cancel its lease or force Cui to reduce their rent, costing his company $750,000, if he could not get them the sign permit.
When Cui applied for get a permit for the sign in April 2017, city officials told him a month later the sign had been abandoned, was no longer legal, and had to be taken down, according to the indictment.
Cui then went to Burke for help on Aug. 23, 2017, after having met him a couple months earlier.
“Can you look into the matter, and advise how to proceed? [Company B] really needs it, otherwise they will either cancel the Iease, or ask for significant rent reduction. It is such a beautiful sign, it is becoming a landmark for the community and it costs lots of money to remove it,” he wrote in an email to the alderman.
According to the feds, Cui reached out the next day to an associate at a consulting firm, forwarding “Individual A” the email he’d sent to Burke.
“I’11 ask him to represent me for property tax appeal, which will be a big bite, comparing with this,” he wrote.
Cui also emailed a property tax attorney he’d worked with, saying he needed to have Burke take over his property tax appeal work for the property for at least one year.
“I have TIF deal going with the City, and he is the Chairman of Finance Committee. He handled [sic] his tax appeal business card to me, and I need his favor for my tif money. In addition, I need his help for my zoning etc for my project. He is a powerful broker in City Hall, and I need him now. I’ll transfer the case back to you after this year,” Cui wrote.
According to the indictment, Cui eventually sent Burke an email saying he needed the alderman’s representation on a property tax appeal. A couple weeks later, he signed an agreement to retain Burke’s law firm.
When the FBI later questioned Cui about the deal with Burke’s law firm, he allegedly told them he had made no business offers to Burke while trying to get the sign permit, and hired the alderman’s law firm “just because he is a good tax appeal lawyer.”
Earlier this year, Burke was charged with extortion, accused of shaking down the owners of a Burger King franchise seeking to renovate their restaurant in his ward. Burke was forced to resign as Finance Committee chair, but was re-elected in February.
Burke, 75, is accused of using his position as alderman to illegally pressure two executives with a fast food restaurant company to hire his law firm for property tax work. The criminal complaint against Burke also accuses the alderman of asking one of the executives to make a campaign contribution to another politician in exchange for his support for a restaurant renovation project. That unnamed politician was later revealed to be Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle
Federal prosecutors have until May 3 to return an indictment against Burke.