The name Daniel Solis never came up in court Friday during the fraud sentencing of Chinatown developer See Wong. Nor did the names Edward Burke or Michael Madigan, for that matter.
But it was Wong’s cooperation with federal authorities, including wearing a wire on Solis, then the powerful head of the city’s Zoning Committee, that helped ensnare all three political heavyweights in what has become one of the biggest public corruption cases ever brought in Chicago’s federal court.
On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Franklin Valderrama said he gave significant weight to Wong’s critical assistance to the fight against the “corrosive and toxic evil” of public corruption, sentencing him to 16 months in prison for a $1.65 million fraud scheme stemming from a South Side condominium project that collapsed amid the global financial crisis in the late 2000s.
The sentence was below the 25 months requested by prosecutors, who said they had already factored in Wong’s cooperation by knocking off about half the recommended federal sentencing guidelines.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Amarjeet Bhachu told Valderrama that Wong’s cooperation was a “catalyst toward the government’s efforts to hold folks accountable,” though it took years of investigation before any charges were brought.
“Many things had to follow, but credit is due in this case to Mr. Wong substantially assisting the government, agreeing to record conversations and the like,” Bhachu told the judge.
Wong, 64, pleaded guilty in 2020 to one count of wire fraud, admitting he lied to banks and buyers involved with his Canal Crossing building project, records show.
According to the charges, Wong promised to sell units at steep discounts if money was paid upfront without waiting for a building to be completed. He did so without the consent of the bank, and used some of the buyers’ funds to pay personal loans and other costs instead of depositing them into an escrow account as required, according to the charges.
When the lender, Cathay Bank, found out about the discounted sale prices, it invoked liens held on the properties to force the new homeowners to pay the remainder of the purchase price before they could close on the property, according to the document.
In all, the scheme cost Los Angeles-based Cathay Bank about $1.7 million and buyers a total of about $1 million, the charges alleged.
Meanwhile, Wong began cooperating with the FBI in May 2014 and agreed to secretly record Solis in hopes of receiving a reduced sentence once he was charged, according to a federal search warrant affidavit unsealed in 2019.
The paperwork revealed the FBI spent more than two years secretly listening in on thousands of phone calls as Solis solicited everything from campaign donations to erectile-dysfunction medication and sexual services at a massage parlor.
While Wong was not named in the affidavit, sources with knowledge of the probe have confirmed his identity to the Tribune.
Wong’s cooperation helped lead Solis in turn to wear a wire for the FBI for two years, recording numerous conversations with Burke, the then-powerful head of the city’s Finance Committee, according to sources and public records.
Burke, 78, has since been charged in a sweeping corruption indictment alleging he tried to shake down business owners seeking help at City Hall, a case that is set for trial in November. Burke recently announced he will not seek reelection to the City Council seat he’s held since 1969.
The search warrant affidavit, which was filed in 2016, revealed Wong also secretly recorded a meeting in August 2014 with Solis, then-House Speaker Madigan and representatives of a Chinatown hotel project at Madigan’s law firm, Madigan & Getzendanner, which specializes in real estate tax appeals.
“Well, our interest would be that we represent buildings like that on the real estate taxes … and we do quite a few hotels,” the affidavit quoted Madigan as saying. “And, uh, we have a little different approach to representation on hotels than the other law firms that do the work.”
Madigan said he was interested in representing the businessman in other projects as well.
“We’re not interested in a quick killing here,” Madigan allegedly said. “We’re interested in a long-term relationship.”
Madigan and his longtime confidant, Michael McClain were both charged in a separate indictment earlier this year with racketeering conspiracy alleging they participated in a range of corrupt schemes, including trying to steer the sale of a state-owned parcel of land in Chinatown to one of Wong’s associates. That alleged scheme was caught on a wire worn by Solis, court records show.
Solis abruptly retired from the City Council in January 2019 before the document became public.
Solis was charged in April with a single bribery count alleging he corruptly solicited campaign donations from an unidentified real estate developer in exchange for zoning changes in 2015. In exchange for Solis’ “substantial assistance,” however, prosecutors said they will dismiss the case against him in three years as long as he continues to cooperate in the ongoing investigations.