A real estate developer has been indicted on federal bribery charges for allegedly steering private legal work to Chicago Ald. Ed Burke (14th Ward) in an effort to influence and reward the alderman in connection with a permit and tax increment financing for a Northwest Side redevelopment project.
Charles Cui, 48, of Lake Forest, is charged with one count of federal program bribery, one count of making a false statement to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and two counts of using interstate commerce to facilitate bribery and official misconduct. The indictment was returned April 11 in U.S. District Court in Chicago. His arraignment had not been scheduled as of press time.
According to the indictment, Cui was the managing member of a company that owned property in the 4900 block of West Irving Park Road in the Portage Park neighborhood of Chicago. In 2016, the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance that approved a redevelopment plan for the property and provided Cui’s company with $2 million in tax increment financing money. The City Council’s Finance Committee, which was chaired by the 14th Ward alderman, had recommended passage of the ordinance. The property was located outside of the 14th Ward, U.S. attorneys noted.
The following year, Cui, who is also an immigration lawyer, submitted an application for a permit to use an existing sign at the property. The sign would be used to advertise a retailer that contracted with Cui’s company to operate a store at the site. After the Department of Planning and Development denied the application, Cui emailed the 14th Ward alderman, asking the alderman to “look into the matter,” the indictment states. Cui’s email stated that the retailer “really needs it, otherwise they will either cancel the lease, or ask for significant rent reduction,” according to the indictment. Cui, on behalf of his company, had previously entered into an agreement with the retailer that provided for the rent reduction if Cui’s company was unable to obtain the permit, according to the charges. Cui estimated that the reduction would cost his company a total of $750,000, the indictment states.
According to the indictment, in August 2017, Cui sent an email to a real estate attorney who had represented Cui with respect to the property. In the email, Cui asked the attorney if Burke, who in addition to his City Council position also operated a private law firm specializing in contesting real estate tax assessments, could take over the property tax work for the property, stating, “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.”
Less than two weeks later, Cui signed a contingent fee agreement with the alderman’s law firm that provided for Cui to retain the firm to perform real estate tax work, the indictment states.
According to the indictment, the false statement charge pertains to Cui’s November interview with the FBI, during which he falsely stated that he hired the alderman’s law firm “just because he is a good tax appeal lawyer.”
Federal program bribery is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. The false statement charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. Using interstate commerce to facilitate bribery and official misconduct is punishable by up to five years in prison. If convicted, the court must impose a reasonable sentence under federal sentencing statutes and the advisory U.S. Sentencing Guidelines.
No action has taken place in the Burke case since January when he was indicted and arraigned on bribery charges.
The Cui indictment was announced by John R. Lausch, Jr., U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, and Jeffrey S. Sallet, special agent-in-charge of the Chicago office of the FBI. The City of Chicago Inspector General’s Office provided valuable assistance, according to Lausch.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Amarjeet Bhachu, Diane MacArthur, Matthew Kutcher, Sarah Streicker and Timothy Chapman are representing the government.