One of the biggest customers of a failed Bridgeport bank has filed for bankruptcy, trying to stave off federal regulators who believe he owes more than a third of the $60 million in bad loans that led them to shut down the bank days after its president was found hanged in another customer’s home.

Robert M. Kowalski, a Chicago housing developer and attorney, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after he says federal regulators told him he owes more than $20 million from loans he got from Washington Federal Bank for Savings and its late president John F. Gembara.

In a bankruptcy petition filed March 29, Kowalski says he “believes” a couple of the loans, totaling as much as $27 million, that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. wants paid were actually repaid when he sold the property years ago.

“I’m not trying to run away,” says Kowalski, a longtime friend of Gembara. “I want the FDIC to come in and dispute or challenge — and work something out.”

Robert M. Kowalski.

Robert M. Kowalski.

Federal regulators won’t talk about their ongoing investigation of the failed bank, whose customers included the nearby 11th Ward Democratic Party, which the family of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley has run for generations.

As the federal agency that regulates financial institutions, the FDIC — which is funded by the nation’s banks — has to cover any losses from Washington Federal’s loans.

The FBI is also investigating.

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The FDIC closed the bank on Dec. 15, citing “unsafe or unsound practices.”

That was 12 days after Gembara was found hanged in the Park Ridge home of Marek Matczuk, a contractor who had five outstanding loans totaling $1.8 million from the small, family-owned bank, which operated in Bridgeport for more than a century.

Matczuk’s home has been in foreclosure since last summer, when U.S. Bank filed a lawsuit in which it said Matczuk was behind on a $1 million mortgage. A foreclosure sale was put on hold after regulators intervened in the case last month because there also are two other mortgages on Matczuk’s home — including one for $662,000 from Gembara’s bank.

Gembara’s death was ruled a suicide by the Cook County medical examiner and the Park Ridge police department. But his widow Therese has hired an attorney, Luke Casson, who suspects Gembara was killed.

John F. Gembara.

John F. Gembara. | Provided photo

“We have reasonable cause to believe there were other factors involved in his death that may have led or contributed to his death,” Casson says.

Casson says federal regulators have been contacting Washington Federal’s customers, trying to recover outstanding loans and “take as much property as they can.”

In response to those efforts, Kowalski filed for bankruptcy. He disputes that he still has to repay more than 20 loans he and his business partners received from Washington Federal as far back as 1999.

Kowalski and his companies pledged real estate as collateral for the loans, including the valuable corner of Halsted and Fulton streets in the Fulton Market District in the West Loop. Kowalski and his partners no longer own that land — whose current owners are putting up a seven-story office building there. But the FDIC says he hasn’t repaid the $1 million loan on the property that he and his brother got six years ago.

Despite pledging real estate, Kowalski’s loans weren’t secured by mortgages, according to his bankruptcy petition. That means Gembara’s bank couldn’t foreclose on the properties.

Kowalski says some of the loans might have included personal guarantees he would repay the money.

He says it’s possible he owes money on the loans Gembara’s bank gave him — “but not to the extent of $27 million.”

Kowalski used the building at 833 W. Fulton, which houses the Publican restaurant, to obtain a $3.8 million loan from Gembara in 2002, according to his bankruptcy petition. In it, he says he “believes” the loan was repaid when the property was sold in 2014 — despite federal regulators’ contention that it remains outstanding.

Gembara “would take the money, but he wouldn’t be forthcoming with the release” document to show a loan was paid off, Kowalski says. “I think the FDIC has to show some loan histories.”

Kowalski and his brother used a three-flat in the 800 block of East 63rd Place in Woodlawn as collateral to borrow $914,990 from Gembara’s bank on Feb. 27, 2010, according to his bankruptcy filing. A month later, they used the same three-flat to get another loan, for $912,273, from Gembara’s bank. Kowalski lists both of those loans in his bankruptcy filing.

That property is worth $458,230, according to the Cook County assessor.

In March, the Sun-Times reported that Casson suspects Gembara was involved in embezzling from the bank, possibly by recording loans as being paid off even when they weren’t.

Since the bank’s forced closing, its deposits have been assumed by Royal Savings Bank, which took over Washington Federal’s main office at 2869 S. Archer Ave. and its lone branch at 1410 W. Taylor St. in Little Italy.

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