DaVinci’s Gaming Bar, 10721 Ridgeland Ave., Chicago Ridge.

DaVinci’s Gaming Bar, 10721 Ridgeland Ave., Chicago Ridge.

Brian Ernst / Sun-Times

Probe of failed Bridgeport bank now involves suburban gambling parlor

DaVinci’s Gaming Bar in Chicago Ridge is owned by the mother of Robert Kowalski, who’s charged with embezzling millions from clout-heavy Washington Federal Bank for Savings.

Nearly three years since a clout-heavy Bridgeport bank was shut down after authorities uncovered massive fraud and the bank president was found hanged in the home of a customer, the federal investigation into Washington Federal Bank for Savings has taken a new turn involving a southwest suburban video gambling bar.

First some background: Robert Kowalski — a Chicago lawyer, major customer of the bank and longtime friend of its late president John Gembara — has been indicted, among the first of “many” prosecutors have said they expect to charge in the case.

Accused of working with Washington Federal insiders to embezzle at least $29 million before federal authorities closed the bank in December 2017, Kowalski has proclaimed his innocence, blamed bad recordkeeping on the bank’s part and filed for bankruptcy.

Federal prosecutors don’t buy that. They charged him and his sister Jan Kowalski, who is also an attorney, with hiding more than $567,200 from his creditors — primarily the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. The FDIC has been trying to recover the millions of dollars of bad loans the bank made to Robert Kowalski and others. An attorney has been assigned by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court and the judge in Robert Kowalski’s 6-year-old divorce case to try to find assets that could be seized by the U.S. government or turned over to his ex-wife.

Here’s where the bar comes in. Now, as part of their investigation, federal authorities have been scrutinizing a storefront video gambling parlor in Chicago Ridge that opened a few months ago.

Though investigators haven’t spelled out why they’re looking at DaVinci’s Gaming Bar, it’s operated by Nosy Rosie’s LLC — which is owned by Rosemary Kowalski, a 79-year-old widow who is Robert and Jan Kowalski’s mother.

Robert M. Kowalski.

Robert M. Kowalski.

Provided

Records show the mother filed five claims against her son’s bankruptcy estate last Dec. 2, saying he owed her $565,500 from the sale of five properties. At the time of her filing, her son and daughter already had been charged with bankruptcy fraud. And it had been decades since the family owned the five properties. Her claims on her son’s estate were later rejected.

Two days after Rosemary Kowalski filed those claims, Jan Kowalski filed papers with the Illinois secretary of state to set up Nosy Rosie’s. She listed the company’s address as the single-family home in LaGrange Park where she lives with her mother and brother.

On Dec. 13, Chicago Ridge village officials approved three licenses for Nosy Rosie’s to operate DaVinci’s bar and to have legal gambling in two side-by-side storefronts three blocks south of the suburb’s village hall.

Nosy Rosie’s — which also is licensed by the Illinois Gaming Board — has six video gaming machines on which nearly $45,000 has been wagered since those machines went into operation in August, according to state records.

Rosemary Kowalski, who hasn’t been charged with any crime, couldn’t be reached.

Chicago Ridge Mayor Chuck Tokar says the village was unaware of the Kowalskis’ involvement in the bank investigation, saying that didn’t come up in the background check his police department did.

“We didn’t know any of this, or we wouldn’t have given them a license,” Tokar says. “I think we should hold a hearing to revoke their license immediately.”

DaVinci’s was the scene of an incident earlier this month involving Robert Kowalski’s girlfriend Natalie Lira, with whom he has a toddler son. Lira was arrested over a confrontation at the bar Oct. 5 with Jan Kowalski that resumed later that day when the Kowalskis went to Lira’s apartment in Oak Lawn. That’s according to testimony that was presented as prosecutors got a judge to send Robert Kowalski back to jail for violating the terms of his release on bail.

At a hearing Oct. 16, U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall said the incident between Kowalski’s sister and his girlfriend took place in a bar “owned by the Kowalskis.”

Aware that federal authorities are looking to seize his assets, Robert Kowalski didn’t let the judge’s comment go unchallenged. “I don’t have an interest in that bar,” he told Kendall.

On Wednesday, the judge revoked Kowalski’s bail, sending him to the Metropolitan Correctional Center.

John F. Gembara, who was chief executive officer, president and chief shareholder of Washington Federal Bank for Savings in Bridgeport.

John Gembara.

Provided

Prosecutors had asked her to jail him over possible witness-tampering for contacting Theresa Gembara, the widow of the failed bank’s president, about a lawsuit he filed Oct. 14 that accuses the Park Ridge police of withholding information on her husband’s death. His lawsuit also seeks the exhumation of John Gembara’s body for further investigation into his death, which was ruled a suicide — a finding Kowalski has said he thinks is unlikely.

Kowalski told the judge he contacted the widow to seek her assistance for his lawsuit.

Gembara, 56 — who was chairman, chief executive officer, president and the largest shareholder of the bank his grandfather founded more than a century ago — was found dead on Dec. 3, 2017, at the home of his friend Marek Matczuk, a contractor and Washington Federal customer who had five outstanding loans from the bank totaling nearly $1.8 million.

Matczuk’s million-dollar home had gone into foreclosure about five months before Gembara was found dead there in the second-floor master bedroom — fully clothed, sitting in a chair, a rope around his neck, the other end of the rope wrapped around the railing of a spiral staircase.

Not quite two weeks after Gembara’s death, federal banking regulators took the unusual step of shutting down Washington Federal. They turned over its assets to another Chicago bank, Royal Savings Bank, which continues to operate Washington Federal’s two former locations — the main office in Bridgeport at 2869 S. Archer Ave. and a branch at 1410 W. Taylor St. in Little Italy.

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

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.

Kevin Tanaka / Sun-Times file

The Park Ridge police and Cook County medical examiner’s office decided that Gembara killed himself.

It isn’t only Kowalski who has questioned that finding. Gembara’s widow also thinks someone killed him, according to her lawyer. The death remains under investigation by federal authorities.

Besides Robert Kowalski and Jan Kowalski, a federal grand jury also has indicted four of Gembara’s former employees. Rosallie C. Corvitte, 45, of Chicago, who was Washington Federal’s chief financial officer and treasurer, Jane V. Iriondo, 39, of Boise, Idaho, who was corporate secretary, Alicia Mandujano, 49, of Chicago, a loan servicer, and Cathy M. Torres, 39, of Chicago, a loan officer. They’ve been charged with running an embezzlement scheme — which officials have said federal auditors failed to discover during a series of routine audits.

The newspaper cover featuring 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.

In addition to Gembara, the shuttered bank’s other board members for years also included his sister Janice Weston, who also was Washington Federal’s vice president, George Kozdemba, a retired electrician for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, Lester Stepien, comptroller of a Chicago meat-packing company, and William M. Mahon, a political ally of the Daley family who is a deputy commissioner for the Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation.

Mahon — a longtime precinct captain for the 11th Ward Regular Democratic Organization controlled by the family of former Mayor Richard M. Daley — was on the bank’s board for about 20 years. For a time, he also was involved in loan approvals as chairman of the bank’s loan committee.

Mahon, who hasn’t been charged with any crime, is identified in the indictment against the four former bank employees as “Individual C,” According to the indictment, two of the former bank employees who’ve been charged inflated appraisals on two properties that Mahon used as collateral for mortgages he got from the bank.

In February 2019, a federal grand jury subpoenaed records from City Hall regarding building permits for Mahon’s Bridgeport three-flat, for which Washington Federal gave him three loans totaling more than $1 million.

The grand jury has also subpoenaed property records of Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th), the former mayor’s nephew. Thompson, who hasn’t been charged with any crime, got an $80,000 loan from the bank about two months before Gembara’s death — around the time regulators were uncovering financial irregularities at the bank. The loan — for repairs to the party’s ward office at 3659 S. Halsted St. — wasn’t secured by collateral and was deposited in the ward’s campaign fund.

Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson says he opposes removing parts of Canaryville from his 11th ward as part of an effort to create city’s first Asian American ward.

Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th).

Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times file

Contributing: Robert Herguth, Jon Seidel

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