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Attorney charged in massive fraud scheme at Bridgeport bank released from federal detention to prepare for trial

Robert M. Kowalski will not be allowed to leave his sister’s west suburban home as he prepares to represent himself at trial.

Robert M. Kowalski
Robert M. Kowalski

Robert M. Kowalski will be released from federal detention to prepare to defend himself against charges he took part in a massive fraud scheme involving loans from clout-heavy Washington Federal Bank for Savings in Bridgeport that were never repaid.

U.S. District Judge Virginia M. Kendall, during a virtual hearing Wednesday, ordered Kowalski released and advised him against acting as his own counsel in the case, but Kowalski refused.

“I’ve been an attorney for 30 years, Judge, and I think I’ve been a competent attorney and nobody knows this case like I do. And, no disrespect to anybody, but there wouldn’t be anybody that could possibly represent me with the same fervor and the zealousness that I could bring,” he said. “This is my life at stake here.”

In the coming days Kowalski will be allowed to leave the Metropolitan Correctional Center downtown and live with his sister, Jan Kowalski, who used the value of her LaGrange home to secure his release on bail.

Kowalski will not be allowed to leave his sister’s home without special permission or to have contact with any witnesses, which is what landed him in federal detention in the first place.

Kowalski was charged in August but ordered locked up by Kendall in October because he allegedly reached out to the bank president’s widow about a lawsuit Kowalski filed seeking to have the president’s body exhumed.

John Gembara, who headed the bank, was found hanged Dec. 3, 2017, in the Park Ridge home of Marek Matczuk, one of his customers. Twelve days later, federal regulators shut down the bank. Gembara’s death was ruled a suicide.

Kendall previously said Kowalski tried to get the widow, Theresa Gembara, to side with him “in order to investigate the death as a murder as opposed to as a suicide.”

Kowalski is accused of embezzling as much as $29 million in loans that weren’t repaid. He has proclaimed his innocence, blamed bad record-keeping on the bank’s part and filed for bankruptcy.

The move to allow Kowalski to live with his sister comes despite her being charged alongside her brother 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 Washington Federal made to Kowalski and others.

Federal regulators ultimately found more than $82 million in suspicious loans, some made without collateral or even any paperwork.

Kowalski and four former top bank employees have been charged with fraud.

Kowalski, a longtime customer of the bank has said he was a lifelong friend of Gembara.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago continues to investigate the failure of the bank, which also had ties to the 11th Ward Regular Democratic Organization controlled by the Daley family for 70 years.