Politically connected businessman convicted of attempting to bribe legislators in a brief trial that packed a Chicago punch

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In the annals of Chicago public corruption prosecutions, the federal bribery case against businessman James Weiss didn’t have the high profile of a Rod Blagojevich or George Ryan, and certainly not Michael Madigan.

But in just over a week, Weiss’ trial at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse managed to pack in a veritable corruption cornucopia, one that seemed at times to be ripped from a bad political thriller.

There was the wire-wearing state senator, a fellow legislator on the take, clandestine meetings at a pancake house and a North Shore Wendy’s, even a purported phone call with a “ghost” woman who turned out to be an invention of the FBI.

The story ended Thursday when a federal jury convicted Weiss of attempting to pay off two state legislators to pass a bill beneficial to his sweepstakes gaming company and then lying about it to two FBI agents who pulled him over on a Chicago-area expressway one morning nearly four years ago.

After a weeklong trial, the jury of seven women and five men deliberated for about four hours before finding Weiss guilty of all seven counts of bribery, wire fraud, mail fraud and making false statements.

Weiss, 44, is the son-in-law of former Cook County Democratic boss Joseph Berrios. The most serious charges carry a maximum of 20 years in prison.

Seated at the defense table in a dark suit and gray-and-silver-striped tie, Weiss took a sip from a plastic cup but showed no outward reaction as the first guilty count was read. Afterward, he and his attorneys were smiling as they left the courthouse, but declined to comment specifically on the verdict, citing ongoing litigation.

“We plan to move forward with our pending motions and see what happens,” said lead defense attorney Ilia Usharovich.

U.S. District Judge Steven Seeger set sentencing for Oct. 11.

The charges alleged Weiss desperately wanted the state’s gambling expansion bill to include language explicitly legalizing sweepstakes machines, but it was left out of the proposal in the 2019 spring session. Weiss then agreed to pay monthly $2,500 bribes to get a deal done, first to state Rep. Luis Arroyo and later to state Sen. Terry Link, who was a chief sponsor of the gambling bill in the Senate, according to prosecutors.

Arroyo and Weiss didn’t know that Link, a Vernon Hills Democrat, was cooperating with the FBI. Link, who is hoping for a break on his own federal tax conviction in exchange for his cooperation, testified over two days beginning last week about his undercover role.

Weiss’ attorneys argued Weiss was paying Arroyo as a legitimate consultant for his business, and that trying to enlist another politician’s help is not a crime.

They also tried to drag the state’s long history of public corruption into the courtroom by claiming that the video gaming industry, which was vehemently opposed to Weiss’ business, had the rest of the General Assembly in its pocket.

“This is a dirty place where the rules seem to be gray, where a contribution can be considered a bribe, a bribe a contribution,” Usharovich told the jury in his closing remarks Wednesday. “It is all messed up.”

But juror Abriana Sutherland-Scienski, 29, of Chicago, later told reporters in the courthouse lobby that she didn’t find anything compelling about Weiss’ defense. “There were some arguments the defense made that I personally found insulting to our intelligence,” she said.

“It’s pretty clear just from the things that were provable by recordings and other evidence that Mr. Weiss was not going to get out of this,” said Sutherland-Scienski, a full-time college student studying social work.

She said Link “seems to be a complicated character,” but that she appreciated his honesty. Regarding Arroyo, she said, “Mr. Arroyo’s absence was very plainly felt. I have a lot of questions about him that have not yet been answered.”

Asked if she would be surprised to know Arroyo was in prison, Sutherland-Scienski said, “No, not at all.”

When told he’d pleaded guilty, she said, “That seems wise.”

Prosecutors rested their case Wednesday morning after three full days of testimony featuring some 14 witnesses, the defense did not put on any evidence of its own.

The trial centered on the largely uncharted world of sweepstakes machines, sometimes called “gray machines,” which allow customers to put in money, receive a coupon to redeem for merchandise online and then play electronic games like slot machines.

Since the machines can be played for free, they are not considered gambling devices. Critics, however, contend that the unregulated devices — which operate in cities, including Chicago, that have banned video gambling — are designed to skirt the law.

In his testimony, Link took the jury through the meetings and phone calls he secretly recorded for the FBI, including one at a Wendy’s restaurant in Highland Park as well as another meeting weeks later at a Skokie pancake house, where Arroyo allegedly handed over the first $2,500 check from Weiss.

“This is, this is the jackpot,” Arroyo told Link as he handed over the check, according to the recording played for the jury Monday.

Additional monthly $2,500 payments were expected to be made over the next six to 12 months, totaling $30,000, the charges alleged.

At the direction of the FBI, Link had told Arroyo to have the checks made out to a purported associate named Katherine Hunter, who didn’t actually exist.

When Weiss was later questioned by agents, he lied and said Hunter was a lobbyist who lived in Winnetka and that he’d spoken to her on the phone, according to a recording of the interview also played for the jury Monday.

“There was a woman who Luis (Arroyo) put me on the phone with,” Weiss insisted. “We were ... where the hell was it? We met in person. ... I’m trying to give you guys the details.”

Suddenly Weiss remembered they were at Tavern on Rush. He said he and Arroyo were at the popular restaurant on Chicago’s Near North Side when Arroyo said, “I gotta put you on the phone with Katherine about engaging in the agreement.”

“OK, and he said Katherine?” one of the agents asked.

“I believe it was Katherine, yes,” Weiss replied.

With his explanation not adding up, Weiss told the agents a story about how hard it had been to gain traction with legislators in Springfield on the subject of sweepstakes machines. Weiss said that it was so bad that even Link, who was spearheading the state’s gambling overhaul and knew his father-in-law well, told him off in vulgar terms at the Capitol.

“My father-in-law interacted with Terry Link for 30 years, and (Link) told me, ‘(Expletive) you’ to my face,” Weiss said on the recording. “I didn’t know what to do.”

Berrios, who was head of the Cook County Democratic Party and also served as Cook County assessor from 2011 to 2019, has not been accused of wrongdoing. Weiss is married to his daughter, Toni, a former state representative.

The only other time the Berrios family’s name was mentioned came later on Tuesday, when jurors were shown a Post-it note Weiss wrote instructing that paperwork purportedly involving the consulting contract be signed and emailed to a Vanessa Berrios, Weiss’ sister-in-law, who was working as Weiss’ assistant at his valet parking company.

The testimony also focused on a parallel fight that went on at Chicago’s City Hall, where Arroyo was operating as a paid lobbyist for Weiss’ company regarding sweepstakes machine issues.

Former Ald. Patrick O’Connor, the longtime City Council floor leader, testified Tuesday that he proposed a ban on sweepstakes machines in 2018 after seeing them in operation at a gambling house next door to a high school.

O’Connor, who was defeated in 2019 after 36 years in City Council, said he met with Weiss one time about sweepstakes machines in the fall of 2018 at his 40th Ward office.

“He just kind of stated that he felt my position was incorrect and we just agreed that we weren’t agreeing, and that was pretty much it,” O’Connor said.

In his closing argument Assistant U.S. Attorney Sean Franzblau said Weiss was trying to corrupt the political process, where laws should be fashioned with “power of the ideas instead of the size of the pocketbook.”

He said any attempt to call Weiss’ payments to Arroyo and Link legitimate amounted to putting “lipstick on a pig.”

“Lobbyist, consultant, dentist, therapist, it doesn’t matter,” Franzblau said. “When you pay a public official money in exchange for an official act, it is a bribe.”

Franzblau said the government didn’t put the bribery scheme in action — Weiss and Arroyo did. “The FBI simply walked up to a corrupt relationship that was already in place and they gave it a little nudge, and another bribery scheme came tumbling out,” he said.

Usharovich, however, said Weiss was kept in the dark about the scheme and believed the payments were for legitimate consulting work.

“If this was a bribe, it would have been done with a big bag of cash” to keep it off the books, he said.

Usharovich said every one of the current and former legislators who testified for the government, including Link, state Rep. Bob Rita and former state Sen. Tony Munoz, admitted they had taken campaign contributions from Rick Heidner, the video gaming kingpin who is a staunch opponent of sweepstakes machines.

O’Connor, meanwhile, testified that Heidner hired him as a $5,000-a-month consultant a month after O’Connor left office.

“The public wasn’t cheated, as they say, by Mr. Weiss and Mr. Arroyo. They public was cheated by the people who testified here,” Usharovich said. “They made you guys losers, the state of Illinois.”

In rebuttal, Assistant U.S. Attorney Christine O’Neill said the argument that Heidner and the video gaming industry had the politicians in their pocket was irrelevant.

“What did you expect (Weiss) to do? We expected him not to try to buy laws,” O’Neill said.

The case is the latest in a string of public corruption trials involving state and local politics lined up at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse, and comes on the heels of the blockbuster “ComEd Four” bribery case involving a scheme to bribe then-House Speaker Michael Madigan, which ended with sweeping guilty verdicts last month.

Later this year, former Chicago Ald. Edward Burke is scheduled to go on trial on racketeering charges, followed in April by Madigan himself, who is also charged with racketeering conspiracy.

Arroyo, meanwhile, pleaded guilty to bribery for his role in the scheme with Weiss but did not agree to cooperate with prosecutors. Seeger sentenced Arroyo to nearly five years in prison last year, calling him a “corruption superspreader.”

In her comments to reporters, juror Sutherland-Scienski said the jurors were unaware who Weiss’ father-in-law is and that the panel wasn’t “really discussing politics.”

She said the defense argument that “everyone in Chicago politics is in the pockets of big gaming” fell flat because it was irrelevant to the charges against Weiss.

“That’s not really what we were here to discuss,” she said. “But I think several times during the jury (selection) people mentioned that we are in Crook County, and this kind of this is unfortunately not uncommon.”

jmeisner@chicagotribune.com