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Customer of failed Bridgeport bank charged with fraud, forcing way into office

Robert Kowalski is accused of taking a hard drive from the office he lost in bankruptcy.

Robert Kowalski is accused of taking a hard drive from the office he lost in bankruptcy.

One of the biggest customers of a failed Bridgeport bank, accompanied by a gun-carrying attorney, forced his way into his former office after losing the office in bankruptcy, federal prosecutors say.

After Robert M. Kowalski’s attorney flashed a gun at a maintenance worker on Feb. 21, the worker unlocked the office in the 1900 block of West Cermak Road, according to a criminal complaint unsealed Tuesday that says Kowalski took a hard drive and tried to drive off before being arrested.

The maintenance worker managed to take video of the incident, prosecutors say. And now Kowalski is charged with bankruptcy fraud. Also charged: Kowalski’s sister Jan R. Kowalski, an attorney who ran for Cook County clerk last year.

The Kowalskis couldn’t be reached for comment.

Robert Kowalski’s bankruptcy attorney Ernesto Borges says he withdrew from the case the day after the arrest.

Robert Kowalski’s divorce attorney Frank Avila says he was with Kowalski when he went to his office on the night of Feb. 21 but was not carrying a firearm. Avila says Kowalski wanted to get inside the office to get a pair of dress shoes, not a hard drive. Avila is not named in the complaint and wasn’t charged.

Robert Kowalski — a lawyer and Chicago housing developer who calls himself “Bob the Builder” — filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after federal regulators said he owed more than $20 million on loans obtained from Washington Federal Bank for Savings and its president, John F. Gembara.

The bank was shut down by federal regulators in December 2017 — less than two weeks after Gembara was found hanged inside a customer’s home in Park Ridge. The federal government is trying to recover millions of dollars in outstanding loans, including money lent to Robert Kowalski. The bank failure remains under investigation.

Robert M. Kowalski.

Robert M. Kowalski.

In a bankruptcy petition filed last March 29, Robert Kowalski said he “believes” that a couple of the loans, totaling as much as $27 million, which the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. wants repaid already have been.

Many of the properties in Robert Kowalski’s bankruptcy case had been collateral on loans from Gembara’s bank. Those real estate holdings are also the subject of a contentious divorce case in Cook County circuit court between Kowalski and his wife Martha Padilla, who helped oversee their holdings.

The federal criminal complaint says Robert Kowalski and his sister hid about $360,000 from the bankruptcy trustee and creditors largely by passing cashier’s checks back and forth between themselves. It says he hid his interest in Mountain Duck Properties LLC by saying the company was owned by his daughter.

Prosecutors say Robert Kowalski sold two jetskis without telling the bankruptcy court and hid federally subsidized Section 8 rent payments that he received from tenants of his properties. Many of those buildings were financed with loans from the bank founded by Gembara’s grandfather a century ago.

A bankruptcy judge ordered Robert Kowalski to turn over the office he shared with his sister in the 1900 block of West Cermak on Jan. 18. On Feb. 21, a bankruptcy trustee had a maintenance worker change the locks, according to the complaint.

Afterward, someone who said he was Jan Kowalski’s lawyer asked the worker for access to the building, prosecutors say. At the time, Jan Kowalski was in federal custody, having been held in contempt of court for refusing to tell authorities where to find hundreds of thousands of dollars they say are part of the bankruptcy estate.

The maintenance worker let the lawyer enter and take pictures. When the attorney left, the worker also tried to leave. But a truck driven by Robert Kowalski and a sedan in which the attorney was a passenger suddenly blocked the maintenance worker’s vehicle, according to the complaint.

Prosecutors say Robert Kowalski asked the maintenance employee to let him in to the office and that the lawyer displayed a gun in his waistband and told the worker to let them in.

The worker did but also activated a video recorder as he reached for his keys.

After taking the hard drive from the office, authorities say Robert Kowalski drove away in his truck but was stopped by deputy U.S. marshals who arrested him on a bankruptcy court warrant and found $9,700 in money orders labeled “rent.”

Editor’s note: This article was corrected after publication to note that Jan R. Kowalski ran for Cook County clerk. 

READ MORE

Why did Bridgeport bank president kill himself in customer’s Park Ridge home? March 4, 2018
After Bridgeport banker found dead, top debtor tries to avoid repaying $20M, April 8, 2018
Feds find massive fraud at shuttered Bridgeport bank whose president was found dead, Nov. 9, 2018