Businessman James T. Weiss guilty of bribing 2 state lawmakers, lying to the FBI
Politically connected businessman James T. Weiss bribed two Illinois lawmakers in a corrupt attempt to change the state’s laws in his favor and then tried to lie his way out of it when the FBI confronted him, a federal jury found Thursday.
The verdict is the second in less than two months to address separate bribery schemes inside the Illinois Capitol. Weiss is a son-in-law of former Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios.
The jury of seven women and five men deliberated for four hours before finding Weiss guilty of honest services wire and mail fraud, bribery, and lying to the FBI. The bribery scheme involved then-state Rep. Luis Arroyo, who is now in prison, and then-state Sen. Terry Link, who cooperated with the FBI but faces sentencing for his own tax crimes.
Arroyo and Link are both Democrats.
Weiss, husband of former state Rep. Toni Berrios, sipped slowly from a red plastic cup in the 23rd-floor courtroom of U.S. District Judge Steven Seeger as the judge read seven “guilty” verdicts in all. Weiss’ sentencing is set for Oct. 11, and the most serious charges against him carry a maximum sentence of 20 years.
Weiss’ trial stretched over seven days and featured 15 witnesses, including four who have held elected office. As with the ComEd bribery trial that ended May 2, Weiss’ scheme centered on the world of lobbying and was exposed by secret FBI recordings. The verdict makes Weiss the sixth person convicted by a federal jury in Chicago this year as a result of the feds’ public corruption investigations.
After the verdict was read, juror Abriana Sutherland-Scienski told reporters it was clear that “Mr. Weiss was not gonna get out of this.” She said some arguments made by his defense attorneys were “insulting to our intelligence.” She specifically cited comments by attorney Ilia Usharovich about “correlation and coincidence” that she called “a pretty grade school-type argument.”
Weiss’ trial involved unregulated gambling devices known as sweepstakes machines, which can look like video slot machines but offer “free play” options and coupons to users.
An October 2020 indictment against Arroyo and Weiss first alleged that Arroyo served as Weiss’ bought-and-paid-for member of the Illinois House of Representatives. In exchange for $32,500 in bribes from Weiss, Arroyo agreed to vote for and promote sweepstakes legislation in Springfield.
Arroyo later admitted taking those bribes and is serving a nearly five-year prison sentence.
Weiss’ defense attorneys insisted during his trial that Weiss’ payments to Arroyo actually amounted to legitimate consulting fees for Arroyo’s help blocking a proposed ordinance at Chicago’s City Hall. It would have banned sweepstakes machines.
But the Illinois General Assembly also passed landmark gambling legislation in 2019. It did so without sweepstakes language, despite the efforts of Arroyo and Weiss. So the men turned to Link, a key lawmaker on gaming issues, for help.
Link was secretly working with the feds. He has since pleaded guilty to filing a false tax return, and he is hoping his cooperation will help him get a break when he is sentenced.
Link’s two days on the witness stand during Weiss’ trial did little to clear up the timeline of his cooperation. The feds have previously said he became a source in 2016 and was terminated in November 2016 after the FBI learned about his false tax returns. It’s not clear when his cooperation resumed.
Link testified that his cooperation began simply — he passed along information “that was basically public information … more or less procedural information on how … the Senate works.”
But he confirmed for a prosecutor that he began regularly making recordings for the FBI in 2018 and 2019. The only recordings by Link that have been made public were of Arroyo and Weiss in 2019.
Prosecutors aired those recordings for the first time during Weiss’ trial. One captured an Aug. 2, 2019, meeting between Weiss, Arroyo and Link at a Highland Park Wendy’s. At one point, Link asked Arroyo, “Can I talk to you alone one second?”
Outside the Wendy’s — and away from Weiss — Link asked Arroyo, “What’s in it for me?” Arroyo explained that he was a “paid consultant for him” making $2,500 a month, that the same could be arranged for Link, and that payments could be made to a third party.
Link testified that he understood Arroyo’s reference to “him” to mean Weiss.
Arroyo and Link met a second time at Sander’s restaurant in Skokie on Aug. 22, 2019. Shortly before they did, FBI agents gave Link the name of a fictional third party to be paid — “Katherine Hunter.” Jurors heard a recording of the meeting that then followed, in which Arroyo gave Link a $2,500 check from Weiss’ business and said “this is the jackpot.”
Link told Arroyo to make that check out to Hunter. And two months later, the FBI found a second $2,500 check from Weiss’ business, Collage LLC, made out to Hunter in Link’s post-office box in Lincolnshire.
Weiss’ attorneys argued that Arroyo never looped Weiss in on his illegal bribery deal with Link. But when FBI agents confronted Weiss in October 2019, he actually told them Arroyo had once put him on the phone with Hunter.
“I talked to Katherine over the phone about engaging in the relationship and helping me,” Weiss told the FBI about the fictional consultant. “That’s all.”
One of those FBI agents, Curtis Heide, acknowledged to Usharovich that he couldn’t disprove Weiss’ claim that Arroyo told him Hunter was on the other end of a phone call. But Weiss went further in his interview with the agents, telling them she actually lived in Winnetka.
Former Chicago Ald. Patrick O’Connor (40th), who proposed the ordinance that Weiss wanted to block at City Hall, testified that he was unaware of lobbying there on the issue after late 2018. Meanwhile, Weiss’ payments to Arroyo were made between Nov. 1, 2018, and Oct. 1, 2019.
That’s the time period in which state Rep. Robert “Bob” Rita told jurors he noticed a significant change in Arroyo’s behavior in Springfield. Rita testified that Arroyo went from never mentioning sweepstakes machines to pestering him about them constantly amid negotiations on the gambling bill.
“He continually pressed the issue to the point where I didn’t even want to talk to him anymore,” Rita testified.
Weiss’ trial began June 5 despite a last-minute appeal by Weiss’ defense team on an argument that was quickly labeled “frivolous” by Seeger and the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
It centered on the U.S. Constitution’s speech or debate clause, which protects members of Congress from interference by other branches of the federal government. The courts noted the clause applies not to the Illinois General Assembly but to Congress — and Weiss was not a member of either body.
The courts ruled against the appeal at the same time as a rocky pretrial hearing in which Usharovich was silenced by the judge. Usharovich eventually claimed he’d been unlawfully restrained and had thrown up in a cup in the courtroom.
The 7th Circuit has given Usharovich until Tuesday to explain why that “frivolous” appeal should not lead to disciplinary action, “including suspension, disbarment or a fine.”