CHICAGO – Nearly four years after his name first surfaced in connection with a bribe arrangement between two sitting lawmakers, politically connected businessman James Weiss is finally having his day in court.
Weiss, who is married to former state Rep. Toni Berrios, D-Chicago – the daughter of longtime former Cook County Democratic Party boss Joseph Berrios – stands accused of bribing two Democratic lawmakers in an effort to shield his fledgling business from threatened bans at the state and local levels.
Weiss was in the business of sweepstakes machines – devices that look similar to video gaming terminals that have proliferated in bars, gas stations and standalone gaming cafes in Illinois since their legalization a decade ago. But, unlike video gaming terminals, sweepstakes machines are wholly unregulated and are operating in a legal gray area.
In the government’s opening statements on Tuesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Christine O’Neill laid out Weiss’ alleged crimes to the jury.
“In 2019, ladies and gentlemen, the defendant had two sitting politicians on his company payroll,” O’Neill said of Weiss’ business, Collage LLC. “It was all to benefit his business, Collage, the sweepstakes machines and his own bottom line.”
Weiss’ attorney, Sheldon Sorosky, used his opening statements to characterize Weiss as a shrewd businessman who seized the opportunity to contract with and curry favor with influential lawmakers who could help him in Chicago and Springfield.
“So yes, Jim Weiss had a business motive to promote sweepstakes to help himself,” he told the jury. “That’s not a crime.”
The trial, which is expected to last about a week, will feature long-anticipated testimony from one of the two ex-legislators Weiss is alleged to have bribed: former state Sen. Terry Link, D-Vernon Hills. Link happened to be cooperating with the government and wearing a wire when then-state Rep. Luis Arroyo, D-Chicago, offered him a bribe in an attempt to further the cause of legalizing sweepstakes machines. Arroyo pleaded guilty to the bribery charges in 2021.
Other government witnesses will include a current high-ranking member of the Illinois House, a former influential member of the Illinois Senate and a longtime powerful Chicago alderman.
‘What’s in it for me, though?’
In a little over an hour of opening statements Tuesday, both the prosecution and defense painted a picture of two separate meetings involving Arroyo, Link and Weiss in August 2019.
On a hot Friday early that month, Arroyo arranged a meeting with Weiss, Link and himself at a Wendy’s restaurant in suburban Highland Park in an effort to convince Link to push for fully legalizing sweepstakes machines.
At that point, Arroyo, who had a lobbying business that lobbied the city of Chicago, had been receiving monthly checks from two sweepstakes machine companies related to Weiss for approximately 10 months. While the government characterized those $2,500 payments as bribes, Sorosky characterized them Tuesday as “legitimate consulting fees.”
During the 2019 meeting, Link asked to step outside so he could speak with Arroyo alone. But the ensuing conversation would not stay between the two of them; Link was cooperating with the government after having been caught underreporting his income for several years to evade taxes. As part of the cooperation deal, he was wearing a wire that day, and federal agents were watching from afar.
“What’s in it for me, though?” Link asked Arroyo as the two stood in the Wendy’s parking lot.
Arroyo offered Link a menu of options, according to a partial transcript of their conversation published in an October 2019 affidavit.
“I’m a paid consultant, okay?” Arroyo explained to Link. “If you want to put a price on it, I mean, if you want to get paid, you want somebody else to get a check monthly, a monthly stipend, we could put them on contract. We could put you on a contract. You tell me what it is. Tell me what you need.”
The exchange would eventually contribute to the end of both men’s political careers. Arroyo began serving a 57-month prison sentence last summer after pleading guilty on bribery charges, while Link is still awaiting a sentencing date for his admission of guilt on one count of tax evasion.
Weeks later, Weiss and Arroyo again traveled north to see Link, this time at a diner in Skokie. But Weiss was left in the car for that Aug. 20, 2019, meeting while Arroyo went inside to deliver three things to Link: Weiss’ business card, a copy of draft legislation that would explicitly legalize sweepstakes machines, and a signed $2,500 check with the payee line left blank.
Link told Arroyo that the name on the check would be a “friend” of Link’s named Katherine Hunter – who turned out to be a fictional person made up by the feds.
Sorosky told the jury on Tuesday that Weiss honestly believed that Katherine Hunter existed, and therefore hired her in good faith to appease Link, who at the time was the lead negotiator on gambling legislation in the Illinois Senate.
He also directed the jury to focus on Link’s “What’s in it for me?” question to Arroyo, noting that it occurred “outside the hearing and presence of Jim Weiss” and was a clear indicator that Link solicited a bribe at the behest of federal agents.
“And with all due respect,” Sorosky said, “the original bribe in this case is created by the government.”
As she wrapped up the government’s opening statements, O’Neill previewed a recording the jury will hear during trial of the FBI’s surprise October 2019 interview with Weiss. She characterized Weiss as changing his story as to whether he knew Katherine Hunter was real.
“You’ll hear the defendant’s lies from his own mouth,” O’Neill said.
Sorosky preempted that argument telling the jury that Weiss was caught off guard and had believed he once briefly talked with the fabricated woman when Arroyo passed him his phone during a loud lunch meeting.
“If he said something inaccurate, he did not intend to lie,” Sorosky said of his client.
The trial will continue at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday.
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