Jury convicts politically connected Chicago businessman of bribing lawmakers

By Hannah Meisel Capitol News Illinois

Businessman James Weiss exits the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in Chicago after being found guilty on public corruption charges. (Capitol News Illinois photo by Hannah Meisel)

CHICAGO – It wasn’t quite “where’s the beef?” but when he stepped outside a suburban Wendy’s with a fellow lawmaker on a hot August morning in 2019, then-state Sen. Terry Link asked a question to the same effect as the fast-food giant’s former slogan.

“What’s in it for me, though?” Link asked then-state Rep. Luis Arroyo, who had been pitching him – once again – on sponsoring legislation to regulate so-called sweepstakes machines, a legally murky form of gambling.

The answer to that question became central to the federal government’s case against politically connected businessman James Weiss, which ended Thursday with a jury convicting Weiss on seven counts, including bribery and lying to the FBI.

Federal sentencing guidelines dictate a maximum of 20 years in prison for the most serious of the charges, though those convicted of public corruption have faced wildly different sentences.

Weiss is married to former state Rep. Toni Berrios, D-Chicago, making him the son-in-law of longtime former Cook County Democratic Party boss Joe Berrios. Neither attended any of the seven-day trial.

Wearing a stony expression and a black suit, Weiss took occasional sips of water from a red plastic cup while Judge Steven Seeger read the guilty verdicts on Thursday afternoon. The jury deliberated for about four hours after hearing the last bit of closing arguments in the morning, following roughly four days of testimony from 13 witnesses – including Link.

Before dismissing the parties, Seeger scheduled Weiss’ sentencing for Oct. 11.

‘A scheme already underway’

In September 2018, Weiss founded a sweepstakes machine company called Collage LLC and promptly set to work on changing state laws to fully legalize the devices, which operate in a legal gray area in Illinois.

Part of that campaign included bringing on Arroyo to “consult” with him for $2,500 per month. While the defense said it was a legitimate business arrangement, the government called it a bribe – and the jury agreed.

“He can call it whatever he wants,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Sean Franzblau told the jury during his closing arguments Wednesday. “He can call himself his consultant, his lobbyist, his dentist, his therapist – it doesn’t matter. If you pay a public official money in exchange for an official act, it is a bribe.”

Ten months into Arroyo’s arrangement with Weiss, the two met Link for a meeting in a Highland Park Wendy’s. It was there that Link asked Arroyo to step outside, and then asked the critical question. Though Link had assured his fellow Democrat that their conversation was “you and I talking,” the 24-year veteran of Springfield had been wearing an FBI wire as part of a deal he’d cut a couple years earlier after being caught evading his taxes.

Arroyo answered Link’s question in the Wendy’s parking lot with an offer of “a monthly check, a monthly stipend” for Link or someone else of his choosing. And a few weeks later, Weiss cut the first of two $2,500 checks for a “friend” of Link’s named “Katherine Hunter.”

But no such person ever existed; it was a name the FBI provided to Link an hour before his second meeting with Arroyo. Weiss drove Arroyo to a diner in Skokie, then stayed in the car while Arroyo went inside and handed Link a folder containing Weiss’ business card, draft legislation to regulate sweepstakes machines, and a $2,500 check from Collage LLC that Weiss had signed with the payee line left blank.

Arroyo is now 10 months into a 57-month prison sentence after he pleaded guilty to bribing Link. But Weiss has maintained his innocence.

Weiss’ attorney, Ilia Usharovich, emphasized Weiss’ absence from both key meetings between Link and Arroyo in which the bribe was arranged.

“They both hid it from Mr. Weiss,” Usharovich said. “If they wanted Mr. Weiss to know about it, they would’ve had him at the table.”

Usharovich also said the fact that Weiss paid the $2,500 monthly consulting fees in checks is reason enough to doubt he was bribing Arroyo and Link.

“If Jimmy wanted to bribe these people, why wouldn’t he just give them cash?” he asked the jury in his closing arguments. “Bribes come in cash because you don’t want a record. You don’t want to be sitting in federal court explaining.”

Businessman James Weiss, second from left, exits the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in Chicago with his lawyer and others after being found guilty on public corruption charges. (Capitol News Illinois photo by Hannah Meisel)

The government attorneys, however, refuted that claim.

“Common sense dictates that when you send someone to meet an elected official at (the Skokie) restaurant with a blank check and legislation…you are paying a bribe,” Franzblau told the jury. “It’s not an accident…It’s a continuation of a scheme already underway.”

Speaking to reporters after the verdict, juror Abriana Sutherland-Scienski said the jury didn’t buy Usharovich’s attempt to separate Weiss from Arroyo’s actions.

“It’s pretty clear that Mr. Weiss was involved in every step of this process,” she said. “There were some arguments that the defense made that I personally found insulting to our intelligence and to the court at large.”


Sweepstakes machines

After partnering with Weiss, Arroyo promptly began pushing for pro-sweepstakes machine legislation in Springfield, according to testimony from Link and two lawmakers who’d been involved in gambling legislation around that time. State Rep. Bob Rita, D-Blue Island, characterized Arroyo’s advocacy as “extreme,” and said he’d even started avoiding Arroyo.

After Link blew up at Arroyo as the clock was winding down on lawmakers’ spring session in May of that year, the feds saw an opportunity to further Link’s role as a cooperating witness. In mid-July, Link called Arroyo, apologized for telling him on the Senate floor to “get the f— out of here” and suggested meeting to talk about sweepstakes legislation.

The meeting at the Highland Park Wendy’s took place a couple weeks later, where Weiss made his case to Link for the legalization of sweepstakes machines – a close cousin of the heavily regulated video gaming terminals that have proliferated in Illinois in the last decade.

But unlike video gaming terminals, which require thousands of dollars in annual fees for licensing, sweepstakes machine operators only pay a $30 annual fee to the Illinois Department of Revenue for a sticker. Sweepstakes machines proponents claim the devices fall under Illinois’ Prizes and Gifts Act and shouldn’t be treated as a type of gambling.

Due to the much lower barrier to entry, both Weiss and Arroyo told Link that sweepstakes machines help small businesses that either don’t have liquor licenses or can’t afford the license fees required to host state-regulated video gaming terminals.

Usharovich had tried to make the case that lawmakers like Link, Rita and former state Sen. Tony Munoz, who also testified in the case, were in the pocket of big video gaming companies and casinos, both of which want to ban sweepstakes machines outright. As a result, Usharovich claimed, it was in their best interest to block legislation to legalize sweepstakes machines.

But juror Sutherland-Scienski told reporters that the jury didn’t find that argument compelling either.

“That didn’t really seem super relevant to what Mr. Weiss did,” she said.

The fictitious Katherine Hunter

When interviewed by FBI agents two months after Link and Arroyo’s second meeting, Weiss claimed that Link had wanted Weiss to hire “Katherine Hunter” to lobby on behalf of Collage in Springfield. Weiss even said he’d once had a brief phone conversation with her.

“I knew Katherine Hunter. I had talked to her, or I thought it was her,” Weiss told the agents while in the back of an FBI vehicle during a surprise interview in late October 2019. “I told you guys that I talked to her for two minutes.”

According to Weiss, Arroyo had handed him his phone once while they were together at Tavern on Rush, a restaurant in downtown Chicago, and indicated it was Hunter wanting to talk to him about their consulting arrangement.

Weiss’ attorney asked the jury to keep an open mind about coincidences.

“There’s no proof to show that Mr. Weiss did not speak to what he believed to be a woman named Katherine,” Usharovich said in his closing arguments.

Weiss would later have his assistant send a lobbying contract to Hunter, along with a second $2,500 check. The items were sent to Link’s P.O. box, which he’d long used to accept mail related to his political action committee. But Weiss claimed he didn’t know it was Link’s P.O. box, as it was the only address provided to him by Arroyo.

Both the contract and the check were made out to “Catherine Hunter” – spelled with a C instead of a K – a fact Usharovich used to sow doubt about Weiss’ involvement in the alleged scheme. Earlier in trial, jurors heard a September 2019 wiretapped call in which Link reminded Arroyo that Katherine was spelled “with a K, not a C.”

“That means Mr. Arroyo wasn’t communicating with Mr. Weiss because the second check and the contract was made out to Catherine with a C,” Usharovich said.

He claimed Weiss didn’t know that Katherine Hunter was just a “pass-through” entity for Link to get paid, and cited Weiss’ exclusion from the second meeting between Link and Arroyo.

“They both hid it from Mr. Weiss,” Usharovich said. “If they wanted Mr. Weiss to know about it, they would’ve had him at the table.”

Usharovich also built on the theme the defense introduced in their opening statement last week, insisting that it was actually the government that “created” the bribe by creating the fictitious “Katherine Hunter” and having Link solicit a bribe from Arroyo on her behalf.

The government’s attorneys, however, pushed back on the notion that Link solicited a bribe; Link himself said he’d asked the question the feds suggested “in his own words,” and that it was meant to be open-ended.

Franzblau told the jury that Arroyo could’ve offered Link anything – like support for one of his bills – or nothing. But instead, “Arroyo flipped into corruption mode,” he said.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the government did not create the bribe,” Franzblau said. “The FBI simply walked up to a corrupt scheme already in place, gave a little nudge, and another bribe came tumbling out.”


Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of print and broadcast outlets statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.