Jury out barely an hour before convicting Chicago attorney on all counts in Bridgeport bank fraud

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A federal jury deliberated a little over an hour Friday before convicting a Chicago attorney of embezzling more than $8 million from a Bridgeport neighborhood bank that later collapsed.

Robert Kowalski, 60, was convicted on all counts of embezzlement, bankruptcy fraud and income tax fraud after a 3 ½-week trial before U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall.

Kowalski, who took the ill-advised step of representing himself in the complex case, and faces a total maximum sentence of 82 years in prison.” At the request of prosecutors, Kendall ordered him taken into custody following the verdict.

Sentencing was set for June 2.

Kowalski is among 14 defendants charged in an alleged multiyear embezzlement scheme that preceded the failure of Washington Federal Bank for Savings, a family-run institution that had been a mainstay in the city’s Bridgeport neighborhood for more than a century.

Kowalski, who was a large debtor of the bank when it was closed by regulators in December 2017, was accusing of conspiring with the bank’s president, John Gembara, to rack up millions in collateral-free loans, then lying about and concealing assets and income in bankruptcy proceedings and on his tax returns.

Police records show Gembara, 56, was found dead on Dec. 3, 2017, in the Park Ridge home of a bank customer where he had been staying. An autopsy report showed Gembara was found seated in a chair in his bedroom with a rope tied to the banister and around his neck. His death was ruled a suicide by the Cook County medical examiner’s office.

The sprawling investigation has already led to one other high-profile trial. Patrick Daley Thompson, the then-11th Ward alderman and scion of the Daley political dynasty, was convicted last year of two counts of lying to federal regulators about loans he had with Washington Federal and falsely claiming mortgage interest deductions on his tax returns.

Thompson, who by law was forced to step down immediately after his conviction, was sentenced to four months in prison and released in December.

Kowalski’s trial, meanwhile, came after years of bizarre pretrial hearings that saw him locked up for violating his bond and filing dozens of motions alleging investigators were hiding evidence and colluding with the judge to railroad him.

Prosecutors said in their opening statement last month that Kowalski used his friendship with Gembara to turn Washington Federal into his own piggy bank, getting collateral-free loans to bankroll his real estate developments and using letters of credit from the bank to fool other creditors.

Kowalski, meanwhile, tried to pin the blame on Gembara, saying his friend ran a scheme that allegedly involved years of bad loans, shifting collateral, forged signatures and even cash buried by one of his customers somewhere in the Cayman Islands.

“He didn’t start out to be a bad man, but his plan was terrible,” Kowalski said in his opening statement to the jury. “It wasn’t George Bailey in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ ”

Eight people have pleaded guilty to roles in the scheme. Several others are awaiting trial, including William Mahon, a then-top official with the city’s Streets and Sanitation Department charged with willfully filing false tax returns and failing to disclose a $130,000 personal loan he’d received directly from Gembara.