Judge silences, scolds attorney for Berrios relative who faces trial Monday for bribing state lawmaker

James T. Weiss’ attorney wound up having to raise his hand to speak in court, including when he said he had to use the bathroom. He claimed he’d been unlawfully restrained and had thrown up in a cup. He told the judge, “look at the cup!”

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James T. Weiss, left, with his attorney Ilia Usharovich at Dirksen Federal Building, Thursday, June 1, 2023.

James T. Weiss, left, with his attorney Ilia Usharovich at Dirksen Federal Building, Thursday, June 1, 2023.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

The next public corruption case set for trial at Chicago’s federal courthouse seemed headed down a rocky road Thursday after a disastrous hours-long hearing in which the judge silenced a lawyer and threatened to hold him in contempt — all while an appellate court warned of sanctions.

U.S. District Judge Steven Seeger noted it was the first hearing in which he had come “nose-to-nose” with James T. Weiss, a businessman under indictment since October 2020 for allegedly bribing onetime state Rep. Luis Arroyo. Weiss, who attended the hearing, is a son-in-law of former Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios.

The judge set the stage for the hearing by handing down a six-page ruling shortly before it began. In it, he dispensed with attempts to delay Weiss’ trial, including through an appeal filed over an argument that the judge called “frivolous.”

“Maybe defense counsel isn’t ready for trial,” Seeger wrote. “Maybe they want more time to prepare. Or maybe Weiss wants to postpone the trial until the day after never. Who knows.”

Seeger wrote that the attempts to delay Weiss’ trial seemed “like a farce and a stunt.” And he said the trial “will roll forward” on Monday, as scheduled, unless the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled otherwise.

The appellate court chimed in about an hour later, with an order that dispensed with the appeal and found that “professional discipline may be warranted.”

The appellate order came down in the midst of a pretrial hearing in Seeger’s courtroom, where things had already gone off the rails for Weiss’ defense attorneys, Ilia Usharovich and Sheldon Sorosky. Usharovich first caught Seeger’s ire by trying to respond to Seeger while sitting casually at the defense table, rather than by standing at a podium.

“You can’t sit back leisurely in a seat like you’re watching a football game and address me from the La-Z-Boy chair,” Seeger said. The judge told him to “behave like you’re on the 23rd floor of the Dirksen Federal Building.”

The judge then warned the lawyers not to speak over him. And when he couldn’t get a clear answer about who served as Weiss’ “lead” defense attorney, the judge turned to Weiss.

Seeger asked Weiss if he’d had a conversation with his lawyers about “who’s driving the train.”

Usharovich then quickly sought to withdraw from the case, saying the judge had “interfered in the relationship” they had with their client.

The judge told Weiss’ defense team to take five minutes to cool down. But it didn’t help. Usharovich tried to explain the reasoning behind their appeal, but Seeger wound up telling him “you may not speak again without permission.”

That led to multiple episodes in which Usharovich raised one hand, or both, to signal that he wanted to speak, including once to use the bathroom.

Late in the hearing, Usharovich claimed he’d thrown up into a cup and complained that he’d been restrained unlawfully in the courtroom. He told the judge “here’s my vomit in a cup.”

When Seeger questioned whether Usharovich had really thrown up, Usharovich insisted to the judge, “Look at the cup!”

Seeger told him that “the transcript will never fully convey the contemptuous air that I’m getting from you, and I don’t like it.”

The lawyers and judge eventually managed to move on and discuss various aspects of the case. At one point, the judge noted that Sorosky was “respectful to me throughout the process.”

Still, it all seemed a bad omen for a case set to be heard by a jury in a matter of days.

Weiss allegedly paid Arroyo $32,500 over a year to promote and vote for legislation in the Illinois General Assembly related to unregulated gambling devices known as “sweepstakes” machines. When their efforts failed, they allegedly tried to enlist then-state Sen. Terry Link in the scheme.

Link turned out to be cooperating with federal investigators in a bid for a sentencing break for his own tax crimes.

Usharovich and Sorosky in April invoked the U.S. Constitution’s “Speech or Debate Clause,” which protects members of Congress from interference by other branches of the federal government, in an attempt to have the case thrown out. Seeger denied it and pointed out the clause applies not to the Illinois General Assembly but to Congress — and that Weiss was not a member of either body.

Weiss’ defense team filed a notice of appeal Monday, creating uncertainty over whether the case could go forward. The 7th Circuit dealt with it in its order Thursday. In doing so, it wrote that Weiss’ “pursuit of this appeal hint[s] that this was perhaps nothing but a last-ditch effort to obtain from us a trial continuance.”

It agreed the appeal was “frivolous” and added, “professional discipline may be warranted.”

Arroyo was charged in the case October 2019. He pleaded guilty and is now serving a 57-month prison sentence handed down last year by Seeger.

That hearing also went particularly bad for Arroyo’s defense team, which had argued that sending Arroyo to prison would be “no more effective” in ending Chicago corruption “than draining Lake Michigan with a spoon.”

Seeger retorted during that hearing, “Maybe judges need a bigger spoon.”

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