• APR 12, 2019

    Portage Park businessman bribed Ald. Ed Burke to get large sign, feds say

    The former Bank of America building at 4901 W. Irving Park Road was vacant between 2011 and 2015. [Heather Cherone/DNAinfo]
    A Portage Park businessman who transformed a long-vacant Six Corners bank building into a Binny's Beverage Depot, Culver's and gym was charged Friday with bribing Ald. Edward Burke (14).

    Charles Cui, 48, an immigration lawyer whose law office is based in the former bank building at 4901 W. Irving Park Road, was charged in a four-count indictment made public Friday with federal program bribery, using interstate commerce to facilitate bribery and official misconduct.

    Read the full indictment here.

    According to federal prosecutors, Cui went to Burke when the city’s Department of Buildings and Ald. John Arena (45) denied his request for a large pole sign, which was not permitted under the zoning rules that cover that portion of Irving Park Road in the 45th Ward. 

    The sign would be used to advertise for Company B, "a retailer with multiple retail outlets in the Chicagoland area," according to the indictment, referring to Binny's. That request was denied in May 2017, according to the indictment.

    Cui hired Burke’s private law firm, Klafter & Burke, to represent him in property tax matters in September 2017, according to the indictment, which did not say how much Cui paid the firm.

    "He is a powerful broker in City Hall, and I need him now," the indictment quotes Cui as writing to his existing property tax attorney in August 2017.

    Cui's attorney, Vadim A. Glozman, said the charges are "baseless" and Cui intends to prove his innocence.

    "Hard to imagine how you could have a quid pro quo without anyone talking about a quid pro quo," Glozman said, noting that the indictment does not quote Burke.

    Cui told the FBI in November 2018 that he hired Burke’s firm “just because he is a good tax appeal lawyer,” according to the indictment.

    Cui never got the sign — which the indictment said cost him $750,000 under the terms of his firm's lease with Binny's.

    Cui did not immediately return a phone message left at his office Friday.

    Burke is not named in the indictment. However, the indictment refers to "Alderman A," who is identified as the 14th Ward alderman and the chairman of the Finance Committee.

    Arena is not named in the indictment, nor has he been charged with wrongdoing.

    "Charles [Cui] never talked to me about Ed Burke or any relationship there," Arena said.

    Arena said Cui never offered him a bribe.

    Arena said he refused Cui's request to change the area's pedestrian street designation, which under the city's zoning code prohibits pole signs like the one Cui wanted.

    "I denied him very forcefully every time he asked," Arena said.

    At Arena's request, the City Council approved stricter rules for signs and driveways for the Six Corners Shopping District, which Arena worked to revitalize during his two terms in office.

    "We found a different solution for signage," Arena said, adding that the sign was approved by the tenant. "It is a successful development."

    The nearly 50-year-old building, which once housed a Bank of America branch, became vacant in 2011.

    In March 2016, the City Council agreed to use $2 million in funds from the area’s Tax Increment Financing District to turn the building into a Binny's Beverage Depot and gym while saving a historic 300-seat theater and creating space for nonprofit arts organizations.

    However, the project has received no city money because the theater has not reopened, city officials said.

    The development also included a Culver's.

    The indictment levels no additional charges against Burke, who was re-elected in February after being charged in January with attempted extortion. Burke has said he is innocent be reached immediately for comment Friday.

    Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot said in a statement that the "charges add more definition to the utterly corrupt way in which Alderman Ed Burke has exploited his position and power."

    "I was elected 10 days ago to build a government where you don’t have to give to get—where Chicagoans can receive basic City services, and where being business owners can get signs and permits without bribes and delays," Lightfoot said. "We’re going to build a transparent and accountable city government that Chicagoans can trust to put their needs first."

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