Bribery or coincidence? Federal jury to decide fate of politically connected businessman

Bribery or coincidence? Federal jury to decide fate of politically connected businessman

By HANNAH MEISEL
Capitol News Illinois
hmeisel@capitolnewsillinois.com

CHICAGO – It wasn’t quite “where’s the beef?” but when he stepped outside a suburban Wendy’s with a fellow lawmaker on a hot August morning in 2019, then-state Sen. Terry Link asked a question to the same effect as the fast food giant’s former slogan.

“What’s in it for me, though?” Link asked then-state Rep. Luis Arroyo, who had been pitching him – once again – on sponsoring legislation to regulate so-called sweepstakes machines, a legally murky form of gambling.

Though Link had assured his fellow Democrat that their conversation was “you and I talking,” the 24-year veteran of Springfield had been wearing an FBI wire as part of a deal he’d cut a couple years earlier after being caught evading his taxes.

And nearly four years later, audio captured by that wire was played in a courtroom in Chicago’s Dirksen Federal Courthouse as the centerpiece of the government’s case against James Weiss, a politically connected businessman accused of bribing both Link and Arroyo.

The jury began deliberating on Thursday morning after hearing the end of closing arguments that began Wednesday afternoon. That came after roughly four days of testimony in the case from 13 witnesses, including Link.

Weiss is accused of paying bribes to Arroyo for nearly a year beginning in November 2018 in exchange for Arroyo pushing for the legalization of sweepstakes machines, a close cousin of the heavily regulated video gaming terminals that have proliferated in Illinois in the last decade. After Arroyo’s unsuccessful efforts on behalf of the sweepstakes machine industry during the General Assembly’s 2019 spring session, he and Weiss then approached Link that summer.

Arroyo answered Link’s question in the Wendy’s parking lot with an offer of “a monthly check, a monthly stipend” for Link or someone else of his choosing. Arroyo made the offer after telling Link he was a paid consultant for Weiss – something Weiss still maintains was a legitimate arrangement.

Weiss’ attorney, Ilia Usharovich, said the fact that Weiss paid the $2,500 monthly consulting fees in checks is reason enough to doubt he was bribing Arroyo and Link.

“If Jimmy wanted to bribe these people, why wouldn’t he just give them cash?” he asked the jury in his closing arguments. “Bribes come in cash because you don’t want a record. You don’t want to be sitting in federal court explaining.”

The government disagrees.

“He can call it whatever he wants,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Sean Franzblau told the jury during his closing arguments Wednesday. “He can call himself his consultant, his lobbyist, his dentist, his therapist – it doesn’t matter. If you pay a public official money in exchange for an official act, it is a bribe.”

In September 2018, Weiss incorporated his sweepstakes machine company, Collage LLC, and began paying Arroyo two months after that. Weiss is married to former state Rep. Toni Berrios, D-Chicago, making him the son-in-law of longtime former Cook County Democratic Party boss Joe Berrios.

After partnering with Weiss, Arroyo promptly began pushing for pro-sweepstakes machine legislation in Springfield, according to testimony from Link and two lawmakers who’d been involved in gambling legislation around that time. State Rep. Bob Rita, D-Blue Island, characterized Arroyo’s advocacy as “extreme,” and said he’d even started avoiding Arroyo.

After Link blew up at Arroyo as the clock was winding down on lawmakers’ spring session in May of that year, the feds saw an opportunity to further Link’s role as a cooperating witness. In mid-July, Link called Arroyo, apologized for telling him on the Senate floor to “get the f— out of here” and suggested meeting to talk about sweepstakes legislation.

The meeting at the Highland Park Wendy’s took place a couple weeks later, where Weiss made his case to Link for the legalization of sweepstakes machines. Those machines, he and Arroyo maintained, help small businesses that either don’t have liquor licenses or can’t afford the license fees required to host state-regulated video gaming terminals.

It was in the middle of that meeting when Link asked to speak to Arroyo outside to discuss what was in it for him.

A few weeks later, Weiss drove Arroyo to a diner in Skokie for a second meeting with Link. Weiss stayed in the car while Arroyo went inside and handed Link a folder containing Weiss’ business card, draft legislation to regulate sweepstakes machines, and a $2,500 check from Collage LLC that Weiss had signed with the payee line left blank.

Inside the restaurant, Link told Arroyo to make it out to “Katherine Hunter,” who he said was a friend. But as it turned out, no such person ever existed; Katherine Hunter was the name the FBI had told Link to use an hour before he met with Arroyo.

When interviewed by FBI agents two months after that meeting, Weiss claimed that Link had wanted Weiss to hire Katherine Hunter to lobby on behalf of Collage in Springfield – he even said he’d once had a brief phone conversation with her.

“I knew Katherine Hunter. I had talked to her, or I thought it was her,” Weiss told the agents while in the back of an FBI vehicle during a surprise interview in late October 2019. “I told you guys that I talked to her for two minutes.”

According to Weiss, Arroyo had handed him his phone once while they were together at Tavern on Rush, a restaurant in downtown Chicago, and indicated it was Hunter wanting to talk to him about their consulting arrangement.

Weiss’ attorney asked the jury to keep an open mind about coincidences.

“There’s no proof to show that Mr. Weiss did not speak to what he believed to be a woman named Katherine,” Usharovich said in his closing arguments.

Weiss would later have his assistant send a lobbying contract to Hunter, along with a second $2,500 check. The items were sent to Link’s P.O. box, which he’d long used to accept mail related to his political action committee. But Weiss claimed he didn’t know it was Link’s P.O. box, as it was the only address provided to him by Arroyo.

Both the contract and the check were made out to “Catherine Hunter” – spelled with a C instead of a K – a fact Usharovich used to sow doubt about Weiss’ involvement in the alleged scheme. Earlier in trial, jurors heard a September 2019 wiretapped call in which Link reminded Arroyo that Katherine was spelled “with a K, not a C.”

“That means Mr. Arroyo wasn’t communicating with Mr. Weiss because the second check and the contract was made out to Catherine with a C,” Usharovich said.

He claimed Weiss didn’t know that Katherine Hunter was just a “pass-through” entity for Link to get paid, and cited Weiss’ exclusion from the second meeting between Link and Arroyo.

“They both hid it from Mr. Weiss,” Usharovich said. “If they wanted Mr. Weiss to know about it, they would’ve had him at the table.”

Usharovich also built on the theme the defense introduced in their opening statement last week, insisting that it was actually the government that “created” the bribe by creating the fictitious “Katherine Hunter” and having Link solicit a bribe from Arroyo on her behalf.

The government’s attorneys, however, pushed back on the notion that Link solicited a bribe; Link himself said he’d asked the question the feds suggested “in his own words,” and that it was meant to be open-ended.

Franzblau told the jury that Arroyo could’ve offered Link anything – like support for one of his bills – or nothing. But instead, “Arroyo flipped into corruption mode,” he said.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the government did not create the bribe,” Franzblau said. “The FBI simply walked up to a corrupt scheme already in place, gave a little nudge, and another bribe came tumbling out.”

 

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of print and broadcast outlets statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.

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