Attorney James J. Banks, a zoning lawyer, founder of Chicago’s Belmont Bank & Trust and a former Illinois State Toll Highway Authority board member.

Attorney James J. Banks, a zoning lawyer, founder of Chicago’s Belmont Bank & Trust and a former Illinois State Toll Highway Authority board member.

Alex Wroblewski / Sun-Times file

Clout-heavy lawyer James J. Banks makes a push in video gaming

The former Illinois Tollway board member is new to the industry. But his Belmont Bank has been lending money for years to Rick Heidner, a giant in the business.

Overseeing a video gaming empire that’s pulled in $3 billion in bets over the past year and encompasses 732 gambling locations, Rick Heidner is one of Illinois’ biggest video gaming entrepreneurs, an established figure in the business since 2012.

In contrast, James J. Banks — a zoning lawyer, founder of Chicago’s Belmont Bank & Trust and a former Illinois State Toll Highway Authority board member — just got into the industry, with his gaming company reporting just two bars use his machines.

But they have something in common: Both were able to overcome the Illinois Gaming Board’s concerns over licensing them. In 2021, Heidner avoided having his license revoked. And Banks’ Gaming Productions, LLC, was awarded what’s called a terminal operator license in December after the agency previously had rejected him because of concerns over Banks’ “associations.”

Now, the long-timer in the business and the newcomer are jockeying behind the scenes for their share of Illinois gambling dollars at a time the industry appears headed for a major boost. That’s likely to come from the city of Chicago’s expected move to legalize video gaming. The two candidates who’ll go head to head in the April 4 mayoral runoff — Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas — have both said they’ll push to do so.

Rick Heidner

Rick Heidner.

Mitchell Armentrout / Sun-Times file

With Heidner and Banks both now in the gaming business, there’s been a shift of alliances involving attorney Mark G. Vanecko — a nephew of former Mayor Richard M. Daley, the mayor who appointed Vallas to head the Chicago Public Schools. Vanecko, who has an office inside Banks’ law firm, had been working with Heidner’s Gold Rush Gaming, prospecting for bars, restaurants and other establishments in places that allow or might someday allow video gaming. Heidner says Vanecko never brought him any business and was never paid. Now, Vanecko is working with Banks.

Heidner says he and Banks are competitors. In a written statement with no further explanation, Heidner says, “Recent actions prove it.”

But records show their business interests have been aligned for years.

Belmont Bank has given Heidner companies nine loans for a total of $3.8 million on Cook County properties in recent years, including seven mortgages for establishments that offer video gaming.

The first deal involved the Underpass Lounge, a bar that River Grove Mayor David Guerin operates at 9400 Grand Ave. in Franklin Park. Guerin also has a deal to use six video gambling machines from Gold Rush.

Underpass Lounge, 9400 Grand Ave., Franklin Park.

Underpass Lounge, 9400 Grand Ave., Franklin Park.

Apple Maps

Heidner bought the building and the surrounding property for $600,000 on Dec. 30, 2015, according to records filed with the Cook County clerk.

On Feb. 17, 2016, Heidner got a $360,000 mortgage on the property from Belmont Bank. That loan was repaid in March 2022, when he got a mortgage from Marquette Bank.

Illinois Gaming Board records show the Underpass gambling machines had a net income of more than $380,000 over the past 12 months — profits that Heidner is required under state law to split 50-50 with Guerin.

Heidner also has gambling machines at bars in River Grove, the west suburb where Guerin is mayor and also the liquor commissioner. Guerin says he has no control over the deals his suburb’s liquor establishments strike with Heidner or any other company licensed by the state to have video gambling machines.

On Oct. 19, 2017, Belmont Bank gave Heidner two mortgages, each for $385,000, covering four properties in the 5700 block of South Archer Road in Summit that Heidner owned, county records show. Both loans were due Nov. 7, the records show. Heidner’s attorney says Belmont has extended the repayment of the loans until May 7.

Heidner tenants in those buildings include two bars — Lucky John’s and The Works Hideout Bar & Grill — that both have video gaming machines from Heidner.

The Works, in the 5700 block of South Archer Road in Summit.

The Works, in the 5700 block of South Archer Road in Summit.

Brian Ernst / Sun-Times

Over the past year, state records show, Heidner’s six machines at The Works had a net income of $348,000, and his five machines at Lucky John’s had a net income of $156,000 — again, money that’s split with Heidner’s tenants.

Belmont Bank gave Heidner four more mortgages in 2018:

  • Heidner got a $504,000 mortgage on Feb. 8, 2018, to buy a property at 8315 Ogden Ave. in Lyons, where one tenant operated a Mexican restaurant with four video gaming machines from Heidner. The machines had a net income of about $12,000 over the past year, state records show. Darla’s Deli and Cafe also has opened at that property and taken in $90,000 in net income from six machines over the past year. Heidner’s mortgage has been increased to $805,000 and comes due in October 2024.
An aerial view of Darla’s Deli & Café of Lyons, 8319 Ogden Ave.

An aerial view of Darla’s Deli & Café of Lyons, 8319 Ogden Ave.

Brian Ernst / Sun-Times

  • Heidner got a five-year mortgage for $300,000 on June 7, 2018, to buy a building and lot at 6518 Cermak Rd. in Berwyn. He has a tenant there operating the Flight 22 Wine Bar, which has six of Heidner’s video gaming machines. Over the past year, those machines had a net income of $567,000.
Flight 22 Wine Bar & Gaming Café, 6518 Cermak Rd., Berwyn.

Flight 22 Wine Bar & Gaming Café, 6518 Cermak Rd., Berwyn.

Brian Ernst / Sun-Times

  • Belmont Bank gave Heidner a $315,000 mortgage on Aug. 9, 2018, for a vacant lot at 8120 Archer Ave. in Willow Springs that he bought two days earlier for $433,000. The mortgage filed with the county shows it was due Aug. 9, 2020. Heidner’s attorney says Belmont Bank extended the loan, which now comes due on June 8.
A no-trespassing sign at the entrance of a vacant lot at 8120 Archer Ave., Willow Springs.

A no-trespassing sign at the entrance of a vacant lot at 8120 Archer Ave., Willow Springs.

Brian Ernst / Sun-Times

  • Heidner got a five-year mortgage for $280,000 from Belmont Bank on Dec. 14, 2018, three days after he bought five lots at 8406 Archer Rd. in Willow Springs. The property is home to Gigi’s Place, a bar operated by Kim Dellutri whose husband is a leasing agent for Heidner. Heidner has six gambling machines in the bar. The machines had a net income of $490,000 over the past year.
Gigi’s Place Gaming Cafe, 8406 Archer Ave., Willow Springs.

Gigi’s Place Gaming Cafe, 8406 Archer Ave., Willow Springs.

Brian Ernst / Sun-Times

In 2019, Heidner got two more loans from Belmont Bank:

  • On Dec. 5, 2019, Heidner got a $143,000 mortgage to buy a commercial building at 6607 Roosevelt Rd., Berwyn, which is home to Monse’s Tapas Bar. A year later, Heidner borrowed an additional $242,000 on the loan, which is due on Dec. 5, 2025.
Monse’s Breakfast Mexican Grill & Cantina, 6607 Roosevelt Rd., Berwyn.

Monse’s Breakfast Mexican Grill & Cantina, 6607 Roosevelt Rd., Berwyn.

Brian Ernst / Sun-Times

Heidner has six video gambling machines inside the bar. Over the past year, the machines had a net income of $348,000.

  • Heidner’s last loan from Belmont Bank was a five-year mortgage for $525,000 on Dec. 23, 2019, for a commercial property next to his gas station, Ricky Rockets Fuel Center, at Golf Road and Barrington Road in Hoffman Estates.

The gas station includes June’s, a video gaming business run by Heidner’s son Zachary. Gold Rush provides the machines, which had a net income of more than $400,000 over the past year.

In his written statement, Heidner says, “We will . . . state unequivocally that no Belmont Bank loan has been, or is, delinquent, and that the loans were issued at market rates, there was a standard bank process that Heidner Properties participated in, and, to the best of our knowledge, there was no preferential treatment.”

Heidner says his company “has a real estate portfolio of over 270 properties” and has “utilized over 20 banks to finance its real estate portfolio.”

In 2021, Banks’ gaming company was denied a coveted and potentially lucrative gaming license by the gaming board, which told him the state agency “finds that your business and social associations would adversely affect public confidence and trust in video gaming and would discredit or tend to discredit the Illinois gaming industry.”

It didn’t identify the associations.

Belmont Bank’s board has included Fred B. Barbara, who witnesses in the landmark Operation Family Secrets mob trial testified had taken part in the bombing of an Elmwood Park restaurant in the early 1980s. Barbara wasn’t charged then or in connection with the Family Secrets case.

In December, the gaming board reversed course on Banks’ company’s application, granting it a license without offering any details about what changed the minds of board members.

Heidner’s associations have also come under scrutiny, with his plans to open a combined horse track and casino in Tinley Park scuttled by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in 2019 after reports that Heidner had business ties to a family with reputed mob connections.

Pritzker dumped Banks and others from the tollway board in 2019 amid a reorganization the governor portrayed as needed step to reform the agency.

Lisa Duarte — a former Pritzker aide, lawyer and lobbyist now working with Banks — met with Pritzker adviser Emily Bittner, who oversees gaming issues for the governor, shortly after Banks was awarded a state gaming license.

“Emily Bittner had a meeting with Lisa Duarte on Dec. 20, and Duarte informed her Mr. Banks was a client,” a Pritzker spokeswoman says. “The governor’s office was already aware the license had been granted in the gaming board’s Dec. 8 meeting because IGB staff regularly update the governor’s office of the board’s actions. At no point did Emily Bittner provide any direction, instruction or pressure to the IGB to make any decision in any way.”

Banks won’t discuss the loans, Vanecko’s role with his gaming operation, his associations that raised concern from regulators or his gambling plans — including whether he has his sights set on the potential Chicago market.

A Banks spokeswoman says, “As far as video gaming in the city of Chicago, right now video gaming is not allowed in Chicago. The issue is moot.”

Contributing: Jesse Howe

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