Former state Sen. Terry Link, a Vernon Hills Democrat, is pictured in a Capitol News Illinois file photo. The Statehouse veteran admitted to working with federal prosecutors in the trial of a politically connected businessman this week. (Capitol News Illinois file photo)
CHICAGO – Former state Sen. Terry Link, a nearly 24-year veteran of the Illinois Capitol, publicly acknowledged for the first time this week that he’d worn a wire to secretly record a fellow lawmaker in 2019.
Link, a Vernon Hills Democrat, has spent years denying news media reports that he was the legislator-turned-cooperating witness described in charging documents made public after the arrest of ex-state Rep. Luis Arroyo in October of 2019.
But in a federal courtroom this week, Link was forced to finally acknowledge the truth as he testified in the second of five major public corruption cases involving Illinois public officials scheduled for this year.
Arroyo, a Chicago Democrat, is already 10 months into the roughly five years he was sentenced to serve in prison in part because of his attempt to bribe Link. And Link himself is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to the tax evasion charge that led him to cooperate with the feds in the first place.
Link, who at one time was a regular poker buddy of future President Barack Obama when they both served in the Illinois Senate, is the star witness in the government’s bribery case against politically connected businessman James Weiss.
Weiss had sought Arroyo’s help to get the legislature to legalize so-called sweepstakes machines in Illinois. The devices are close cousins to the explicitly legal – and heavily regulated – video gaming terminals that have proliferated in Illinois for the last decade. But sweepstakes machines operate in a legal gray area and have neither been specifically outlawed nor regulated in Illinois.
Speaking slowly and with a tremor borne of a neurological condition that’s worsened in the nearly three years since he left office, Link was concise when Assistant U.S. Attorney Christine O’Neill asked him to explain his crime in his own words on Wednesday.
“Underreported my income tax,” Link said, adding that he did so “I wanna say (from) 2012 or 2013 to about 2016.”
O’Neill clarified that the tax evasion was related to improperly spending money from his campaign account. Some of the money, Link said, went to help a longtime friend who had been in the throes of family and business problems. But not all of it.
“I used some of it for gambling,” Link admitted.
After Arroyo’s arrest in late October 2019, Link falsely denied reports that he was the unnamed cooperating witness described in his colleague’s charging documents.
The former lawmaker took the stand for about 90 minutes on Wednesday afternoon, during which government lawyers introduced the first of several recordings of phone calls and meetings Link facilitated at the FBI’s behest.
The most anticipated of the recordings will come when trial resumes Monday after an extended recess due to the presiding judge’s work-related travel. In those recordings, the jury will hear Link ask Arroyo, “What’s in it for me?” in regard to Arroyo’s recruitment of Link in his push to legalize sweepstakes machines. And they will hear Arroyo tell his colleague, “this is the jackpot,” when he made good on the bribe arrangement for Link.
‘Get the f— out of here’
Link and Arroyo have already acknowledged their roles in the alleged bribery scheme, but Weiss – the son-in-law of former Cook County Democratic Party boss Joseph Berrios and husband of former state Rep. Toni Berrios – has maintained his innocence.
In testimony so far in the trial, Weiss has mostly been a footnote compared to Arroyo’s role in the narrative. State Rep. Bob Rita, D-Blue Island, and former state Sen. Tony Muñoz, D-Chicago, both described how Arroyo had suddenly become passionate about legalizing sweepstakes machines in fall 2018, with increasing persistence during the following spring legislative session.
“He continually pressed the issue to the point where I didn’t even want to talk to him anymore,” Rita said.
In spring 2019, Rita, Muñoz and Link were lead negotiators on what would become the biggest gambling-related legislation since Illinois legalized casinos in 1990.
Unbeknownst to them, Arroyo’s sudden interest in their closed-door working group meetings was prompted by his new side gig.
In fall 2018, Weiss’ newly formed sweepstakes machines company, Collage LLC, began paying Arroyo $2,500 per month to lobby the Chicago City Council against a proposed ban on the machines. During the trial’s opening statements earlier this week, Weiss’ attorney insisted they were “legitimate consulting payments,” though the feds contend they are bribes.
Chicago didn’t end up banning sweepstakes machines, and Arroyo pivoted his crusade to Springfield, where he sought “to make them legit,” as Muñoz said during his testimony.
Rita, Muñoz and Link recalled that they’d briefly met Weiss in the Capitol in spring 2019, introduced by Arroyo when he approached them to talk about including sweepstakes machines in the major gambling expansion package.
Link described a time when he “lost it” on Arroyo when he tried to ask Link about the sweepstakes machines’ fate toward the end of spring session in late May of that year – one of “a number of times” Arroyo had pushed the issue with Link.
“I kind of exploded and used some unfriendly language; ‘Get out of here, it’s not going to happen and I’m not going to let it happen,’” Link said.
Judge Steven Seeger told Link that he was welcome to be explicit about the actual words he used. Link obliged.
“I said ‘get the f— out of here.’ And I apologize for saying that.”
Legal gray area
Sweepstakes machines began popping up in Illinois in tandem with the introduction of legal video gaming terminals in 2012, according to Frank Scanio, an officer with the state police’s division assigned to the Illinois Gaming Board. Scanio, the first witness the government called in the trial, explained the basics of how sweepstakes machines work.
According to Scanio, sweepstakes machines operate much like their heavily regulated counterparts, video gaming terminals. Just like VGTs, sweepstakes machines dispense a receipt to hand over to the establishment that houses the machine for players to cash out.
“The only difference” between regulated VGTs and sweepstakes machines, Scanio said, is that sweepstakes machines also dispense coupons for merchandise that can be purchased online – and offer the option to play for free.
However, he testified, the free play is not easy to obtain; in order to play the slot machine-like games for free on a sweepstakes machine, a customer has to get a special code from the machine, mail it to the company that operates it and then wait about a month in order to get $1 worth of credits to play on that same machine.
While the Illinois Gaming Board has long considered sweepstakes machines illegal, the agency has gotten involved in the seizure of machines only twice. The incidents both wound up in court, and on appeal, judges declined to directly rule on the legality of the machines.
The jury this week heard audio from two separate committee hearings from May 2019, when Arroyo went out of his way to get a direct answer from witnesses about sweepstakes machines’ legal standing.
“Somebody here is lying,” Arroyo said during one of the hearings, in the middle of testimony from Bill Bogot, a former attorney for the Illinois Gaming Board. “Why are you up here saying it’s illegal? Either you’re lying or the gentleman in the back (of the) room is lying.”
Arroyo was referring to a proponent of sweepstakes machines, who had testified earlier in the hearing in favor of legalizing them. Bogot had been explaining why state regulators considered sweepstakes machines illegal.
Rita witnessed the exchange from his position as chair of the House Executive Committee, and in court this week told the jury that it’s unusual for a representative to be so hostile to a witness tapped to give their expert opinion on a matter.
Rita said he was notified not long after that hearing that the latest amendment to the proposed gambling expansion bill included language legalizing sweepstakes machines – something he said he did not authorize. It was not included in the final bill.
“Do you think that someone was trying to sneak something into the legislation without you knowing about it?” the government attorney asked Rita.
That prompted an immediate objection from Weiss’ attorney, which was quickly overruled.
“It appears that way, yes,” Rita said.
The trial continues at 9:30 a.m. on Monday.
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