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Lights out at suburban gambling den linked to failed Bridgeport bank

The feds want to know if bank’s top debtor opened the bar under the name of his 80-year-old mother.

DaVinci’s Gaming Bar in Chicago Ridge.
DaVinci’s Gaming Bar in Chicago Ridge.
Brian Ernst / Sun-Times

The plug has been pulled on a Chicago Ridge gambling parlor recently opened by an elderly woman whose son declared bankruptcy as he owed millions of dollars to a Bridgeport bank.

Washington Federal Bank for Savings was shut down by federal regulators after the president was found hanged in another customer’s master bedroom.

The landlord is suing to evict DaVinci’s Gaming Bar, claiming 80-year-old Rosemary Kowalski owes nearly $24,000 in rent on the storefront down the street from Chicago Ridge’s village hall.

A court-appointed lawyer has taken control, hoping to find out if the bar had been bankrolled by the woman’s son, Robert M. Kowalski, an attorney currently in custody at the Metropolitan Correctional Center. He’s been charged with conspiracy to embezzle from Washington Federal Bank as well as fraud for allegedly hiding assets from a bankruptcy court judge. Robert Kowalski denies any wrongdoing.

At the receiver’s request, the Illinois Gaming Board has disconnected DaVinci’s six video gambling machines, which received more than $84,000 in wagers since they began operating in August.

Authorities are trying to figure out whether Robert Kowalski bankrolled this Chicago Ridge bar.
Authorities are trying to figure out whether Robert Kowalski bankrolled this Chicago Ridge bar.
Brian Ernst / Sun-Times

It’s all part of the latest wrinkle in the collapse of Washington Federal Bank, founded by the grandfather of John Gembara, the bank president who was found dead on Dec. 3, 2017, sitting in a chair with a rope around his neck in the master bedroom of a Park Ridge home. The home’s owner, Marek Matczuk, owed the bank more than $3 million.

Gembara’s death has been ruled a suicide by Park Ridge police and the Cook County medical examiner. But his widow and others, including Robert Kowalski, suspect he may have been murdered less than two weeks before federal regulators seized control of the bank.

Robert Kowalski.
Robert Kowalski
Provided

A federal grand jury has indicted Kowalski, his sister, Jan Kowalski, and four top bank officials. Many others are expected to face charges, including several customers who got loans they weren’t expected to repay. The bank’s board of directors has retained criminal defense attorneys.

Many of the bank customers hailed from the Bridgeport neighborhood, including the Daley family’s 11th Ward Regular Democratic Organization, which got an $80,000 loan from the bank a few weeks before Gembara’s death.

Robert Kowalski, whose father once lived next door to Gembara’s parents, reportedly owed the bank $29 million, making him the largest debtor, according to federal authorities. He and his sister have been charged with hiding more than $567,200 from his creditors, primarily the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which is trying to recover millions of dollars in bad loans from Washington Federal.

Kowalski’s mother filed five claims against her son’s estate last December, claiming he owned her $565,000 from the sale of five properties. Her claims were eventually tossed out.

Washington Federal Bank for Savings, 2869 S. Archer Ave., was shut down in December 2017 for “unsafe or unsound practices” days after its president and chief executive officer, John F. Gembara, was found dead at a bank customer’s home. A federal audit uncovered an $82.6 million fraud at the bank.
Washington Federal Bank for Savings, 2869 S. Archer Ave., was shut down in December 2017 for “unsafe or unsound practices” days after its president, John F. Gembara, was found dead at a bank customer’s home. A federal audit uncovered $82.6 million in fraud at the bank.
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Two days after Rosemary Kowalski filed those claims, her daughter, Jan Kowalski, filed paperwork with the Illinois secretary of state to set up Nosy Rosie’s LLC. They signed a lease for two storefronts at 10721-23 Ridgeland Ave., and the village issued three licenses to operate DaVinci’s. The state issued Rosemary Kowalski a gambling license in the summer.

Rosemary Kowalski failed to pay rent for 10 months, according to a lawsuit filed Oct. 23 by Sona Chicago Ridge Realty, which seeks to evict the bar.

Click here to read the initial Sun-Times investigation of fraud-ridden Washington Federal Bank for Savings.
The Chicago Sun-Times has reported that John F. Gembara gave four customers of his fraud-ridden Washington Federal Bank for Savings unsecured “loan advances” totaling $14.5 million.

Four days later, a Cook County judge presiding over a long-running divorce battle between Robert Kowalski and Martha Padilla gave a court-appointed receiver permission to seize DaVinci’s, including cash, gaming devices, electronics, artwork and financial records.

The receiver, attorney Neal Levin, is trying to determine if Robert Kowalski bankrolled his mother’s bar, which could not only impact his settlement with his ex-wife but also the bankruptcy case as well as the federal investigation of the bank’s collapse.

Levin’s investigator visited the LaGrange Park home where all of the Kowalskis live and left a business card. The investigator said he later received a call from Jan Kowalski’s daughter, Stella, according to an affidavit filed in the divorce case.

In his sworn statement, the investigator says he asked if her uncle Robert Kowalski owned the bar, and Stella Kowalski replied, “Well, technically, Grandma is the owner.”