‘Many’ to be charged in clout-heavy Chicago bank’s failure after massive fraud

‘The number of defendants would be many more,’ a prosecutor says of the collapsed Washington Federal Bank for Savings in Bridgeport, where many customers had ties to the Daley family and the 11th Ward Democratic Party.

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Washington Federal Bank for Savings, 2869 S. Archer Ave., was shut down in December 2017 for “unsafe or unsound practices” days after its president was found dead in what was ruled a suicide. A federal audit later uncovered an $82.6 million fraud at the bank.

Washington Federal Bank for Savings, 2869 S. Archer, was shut down in December 2017 for “unsafe or unsound practices” days after its president was found dead in an apparent suicide. A federal audit later uncovered an $82.6 million fraud at the bank.

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A federal prosecutor says criminal charges are expected to be filed against “many” figures involved in the failure of a century-old Bridgeport bank that made tens of millions of dollars in bad loans — until it was shut down soon after the bank’s president was found hanged in a customer’s bedroom.

Many customers of the failed bank, Washington Federal Bank for Savings, had connections to the Daley family and the 11th Ward Regular Democratic Organization, run by Cook County Commissioner John Daley and his nephew, Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Netols disclosed the anticipated criminal charges over the collapsed bank during a hearing in a bankruptcy-fraud case against attorney Robert M. Kowalski.

Netols said Kowalski, who was among the bank’s biggest debtors, is going to face charges in connection with the failure, and so will other, unidentified people.

“This case is part of a larger investigation,” Netols told U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall on Tuesday. “We are working toward charging . . . other individuals with the failure of a financial institution. The number of defendants would be many more.”

The prosecutor didn’t identify other targets of the continuing investigation into the bank’s collapse.

Federal regulators found that the bank lost $82.6 million in what they described as a massive fraud scheme. They said the bank made loans without any documentation or collateral — or expectation they would be repaid.

They shut it down in December 2017 — 12 days after bank president John Gembara was found hanged in the home of a Park Ridge customer who had been Kowalski’s roofer.

The first story in the Sun-Times investigation of the failed Bridgeport bank Washington Federal Bank for Savings, published March 4, 2018.

The first story in the Sun-Times investigation of the failed Bridgeport bank Washington Federal Bank for Savings, published March 4, 2018.

Gembara also was chairman of the bank’s board of directors. The four remaining board members have retained criminal defense attorneys.

The other board members were: Gembara’s sister Janice Weston; George Kozdemba, a retired electrician for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago; Lester Stepien, the comptroller of a Chicago meat-packing company; and William M. Mahon, a high-ranking official in the city of Chicago’s Department of Streets and Sanitation who was once suspended for 45 days for helping rig test scores to favor politically connected job applicants under then-Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Mahon’s brother-in-law Michael Huels is an accountant who audited the bank when he worked for Bansley & Kiener, a clout-heavy auditing firm that gave the bank a clean bill of health months before federal regulators shut it down.

Huels is a first cousin of Patrick Huels, the former 11th Ward alderman who resigned in disgrace in 1997 after the Chicago Sun-Times revealed he’d gotten a $1.25 million loan from a city contractor.

William M. Mahon.

William M. Mahon.

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Mahon, 53, served on the bank’s board since 2001, according to records he filed with City Hall. Since 1993, he got 24 loans totaling more than $4.3 million from Gembara’s bank, including three unpaid mortgages totaling more than $1 million on his three-story Bridgeport home, according to records filed with the Cook County recorder of deeds.

Mahon has been questioned by federal banking regulators, according to his attorney Thomas M. Breen.

“It went smoothly,” Breen said last month. “There is a civil lawsuit filed against him and others.”

A search of court records didn’t turn up any lawsuit, though it’s possible a case has been ordered kept under seal.

Another recipient of questionable bank loans, the Sun-Times has reported, was the 11th Ward Regular Democratic Organization.It got an $80,000 loan for building repairs in October 2017, as federal regulators were unraveling the financial irregularities at Washington Federal. The loan wasn’t secured by any collateral and ended up in the 11th Ward campaign coffers.

The loan has since been refinanced through Royal Savings Bank, which took over the collateralized loans made by Washington Federal.

Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson.

Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson.

Colin Boyle / Sun-Times file

The Sun-Times has reported that investigators were scrutinizing Thompson, who says he hasn’t retained a criminal lawyer and has nothing to do with the investigation.

“That has nothing to do with me,” Thompson says. Whatever troubles are found related to the bank, he says, “It ain’t going to be me.”

The FDIC has filed a $14.5 million claim against Gembara’s estate in an effort to recover a series of unsecured loans.

Those include $2.8 million in loans to Marek Matczuk, who owns the Park Ridge home where Gembara was found hanged on Dec. 3, 2017. Kowalski has said he hired Matczuk to do roofing work on his developments.

The FDIC claim also includes loans to Kowalski — a developer and Gembara’s longtime friend, who once had a deal to sell a three-flat to Patrick Daley while his father was mayor.

Robert M. Kowalski.

Robert M. Kowalski.

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The FDIC says Kowalski owed Gembara’s bank more than $21.6 million.

Kowalski has said he repaid many of those loans.

He has filed for bankruptcy. But federal prosecutors say he failed to disclose all of his assets, and they’ve filed bankruptcy fraud charges against Kowalski and his sister Jan Kowalski, a former candidate for Cook County clerk. Their trial is set for early March.

The Park Ridge home of Marek Matczuk, a Washington Federal Bank for Savings customer, where bank president John F. Gembara was found dead on Dec. 3, 2017.

The Park Ridge home of a Washington Federal Bank for Savings customer where bank chief John F. Gembara was found dead. The homeowner told police in the northwest suburb that Gembara said he “needed to hide due to ‘troubles’ at the bank.” | Kevin Tanaka / Sun-Times

Kevin Tanaka / Sun-Times file

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