Failed Bridgeport bank customer charged with fraud, forcing way into office

on Mar13
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2019-03-12 23:00:11

One of the biggest customers of a failed Bridgeport bank forced his way into an office with help from an attorney — who was armed with a gun — last month after he’d lost the office to a bankruptcy trustee earlier in the year, federal prosecutors allege.

After Robert M. Kowalski’s attorney allegedly flashed a gun at a maintenance worker Feb. 21, the maintenance worker unlocked the office in the 1900 block of West Cermak. Kowalski is accused of reaching inside, taking a hard drive and trying to leave, only to then be arrested.

But the maintenance worker managed to take video of the incident, prosecutors say. And now Kowalski is charged with bankruptcy fraud in a federal criminal complaint unsealed Tuesday. Also charged is Kowalski’s sister, Jan R. Kowalski, an attorney who ran for Cook County Assessor in 2018.

The Kowalskis couldn’t be reached for comment. Robert Kowalski’s bankruptcy attorney Ernesto Borges said he withdrew from the case the day after the arrest.

Robert Kowalski’s divorce attorney, Frank Avila, said he was with Kowalski when he went to his office on the night of Feb. 21, but Avila told the Sun-Times he was not carrying a firearm. Avila says Kowalski wanted to get into the office to get a pair of black dress shoes, not a hard drive. Avila is not named in the complaint or facing any charges.

Robert Kowalski — an attorney and Chicago housing developer who calls himself “Bob the Builder” — filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after federal regulators told him he owed more than $20 million on loans he got from Washington Federal Bank for Savings and its president, John F. Gembara.

The bank had been shut down by federal regulators in December 2017 less than two weeks after Gembara was found hanged inside a customer’s home in Park Ridge. Federal regulators have been seeking to recover millions of dollars in outstanding loans, including money lent to Robert Kowalski. The bank failure remains under investigation by federal regulators.

John F. Gembara.

John F. Gembara. | Provided photo

In a bankruptcy petition filed March 29, 2018, Robert Kowalski said he “believes” a couple of the loans, totaling as much as $27 million, that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. wanted paid, were actually repaid.

Many of the properties in Robert Kowalski’s bankruptcy case had been collateral on several loans from Gembara’s bank, and those real estate holdings are also the subject of a contentious divorce case in Cook County Circuit Court between Kowalski and his wife Martha Padilla, who helped oversee their real estate holdings.

The new criminal complaint alleges Robert Kowalski and his sister hid about $360,000 from the bankruptcy trustee and creditors, largely by passing cashier’s checks back and forth between themselves. It also alleges that he hid his interest in Mountain Duck Properties LLC, claiming the company was owned by his daughter.

The complaint also alleges that Robert Kowalski sold two jet skis without telling the bankruptcy court and hid Section 8 rent payments he received from tenants living in various properties, many financed with loans from the bank founded by Gembara’s grandfather a century ago.

Finally, the feds say the bankruptcy court ordered Robert Kowalski to turn over the office he shared with his sister in the 1900 block of West Cermak on Jan. 18. On Feb. 21, the bankruptcy trustee had a maintenance worker change the locks, according to the complaint.

After the maintenance worker finished, someone who claimed to be Jan Kowalski’s attorney asked the maintenance worker for access to the building. At the time, Jan Kowalski was being held in federal custody in contempt for refusing to tell authorities where to find hundreds of thousands of dollars that belonged to the bankruptcy estate.

The maintenance worker let the attorney enter the office and take pictures. When the attorney left, the maintenance worker also tried to leave. But a red truck driven by Robert Kowalski and a sedan in which the attorney was a passenger suddenly blocked the maintenance worker’s vehicle, according to the complaint.

Robert Kowalski allegedly asked the worker to let him into the office. Then, prosecutors allege, the attorney walked up and showed the worker a gun in his waistband. The attorney allegedly told the maintenance worker to let them in.

The maintenance worker did so, activating a video recording device as he reached for his keys.

After he took the hard drive from the office, Robert Kowalski drove away in his truck, the feds say. But that’s when deputy U.S. marshals stopped him and arrested him on a bankruptcy court warrant. They took the keys to his truck, which the feds soon searched. They said they found $9,700 in money orders labeled “rent.”


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