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Former lawmaker pleads guilty two years after arrest for attempt to bribe another lawmaker

CHICAGO — Federal prosecutors notched one more guilty plea on Wednesday as the wide-ranging corruption probe that’s rocked Illinois politics for the last nearly three years marches onward.

Former State Rep. Luis Arroyo (D-Chicago) changed his plea to guilty on Wednesday a little more than two years after he was arrested for attempting to bribe another sitting lawmaker in an attempt to sway gambling legislation in Springfield.

Arroyo’s arrest and bribery charge was made public as lawmakers returned to Springfield in late Oct. 2019, and he resigned his seat a week later, facing formal expulsion from the Illinois House. But he’s maintained his not guilty plea since early 2020, as has his alleged co-conspirator, the son-in-law of one-time Cook County Democratic Party boss Joe Berrios.

But on Wednesday, Arroyo broke with his previous narrative and pleaded guilty to one count of “defraud[ing] the people of Illinois of the intangible right to the honest services” of Arroyo as a state representative, in addition to the services of former State Sen. Terry Link (D-Vernon Hills), whom Arroyo attempted to bribe while Link was wearing an FBI wire.

‘This is the jackpot’

Though he’s not named in court filings, Link was quickly identified as the senator on the other end of the transaction when Arroyo was first charged, and has since pleaded guilty to the tax fraud that led him to wear a wire while cooperating with the feds.

Link was wearing that wire as he sat with Arroyo in a Skokie restaurant on Aug. 22, 2019 when Arroyo slipped him a check for $2,500 — the first of 12 monthly checks Link agreed to take in exchange for carrying legislation to legalize so-called sweepstakes machines in Illinois.

“This is, this is, this is the jackpot,” Arroyo allegedly told Link, according to the original complaint filed by prosecutors two years ago.

Link had not been particular about the amount of the checks or how long he’d be getting them, telling Arroyo: “Whatever. A year sounds great.”

Link had been the longtime go-to member in the Senate for negotiations on gambling legislation, including a massive gambling expansion package lawmakers passed earlier that year. Arroyo characterized his efforts to legalize sweepstakes machines as a so-called “trailer bill” to that legislation.

“I’m not too happy about doing this, but I’m doing it for ya,” Link told Arroyo as he accepted the check, to which Arroyo replied, “I know you’re not.”

Sweepstakes machines operate in a legal gray area and have popped up in municipalities — including the city of Chicago — that ban the state-sanctioned video gaming terminals that have proliferated in bars, restaurants, gas stations and truck stops throughout Illinois over the last decade. Sweepstakes machines are wholly unregulated by the state, unlike the tightly controlled video gaming industry, which contributes millions of dollars in tax revenue to both Illinois coffers and municipal budgets.

Though a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers have called for banning the sweepstakes machines in the last few years, Arroyo had begun lobbying at Chicago’s City Hall in favor of legalizing them beginning in the summer of 2018 — just days after a WBEZ investigation highlighted sweepstakes machines’ spread in Chicagoland and beyond.

By the time the General Assembly was considering a massive legislative package regulating gambling in May of 2019, Arroyo’s lobbying company, Spartacus 3 LLC, had received nine of its own $2,500 monthly checks from sweepstakes machine company V.S.S. for his lobbying work in front of the city. Arroyo didn’t disclose that fact when he became agitated with an attorney who testified in a House committee hearing that the machines were tantamount to illegal gambling.

That final 2019 gambling expansion package did not end up including provisions dealing with sweepstakes machines, and subsequent gambling legislation approved in Springfield has not addressed them either.

Co-conspirator

Link agreed to sponsor legislation legalizing sweepstakes machines and later that day received an email containing a draft of a bill that would do so. That email was sent by James Weiss, the owner of sweepstakes machine company Collage LLC. Weiss is also married to former State Rep. Toni Berrios (D-Chicago), making him a member of the politically connected family headed by the once-influential Democratic power broker Joe Berrios.

The elder Berrios, however, lobbies on behalf of the video gaming industry, state records show.

Weiss founded Collage LLC in August of 2018, though Secretary of State records show the company has not been in good standing for the last three months. Before Arroyo’s arrest in connection with Weiss and Collage, the company had spent more than $81,000 in campaign contributions to lawmakers and other political action committees active in Illinois politics, in addition to a few municipally elected officials.

Weiss registered as a lobbyist for Collage during the last two weeks of lawmakers’ spring legislative session in May 2019, just as negotiations were tightening in the broad gambling expansion bill. Collage also hired former State Sen. Annazette Collins (D-Chicago) to lobby on its behalf in November 2019 — after Arroyo’s arrest. Collins was indicted in March on charges alleging she underreported her income and failed to file federal income tax returns for her lobbying firm.

In addition to conspiring to bribe Link, Weiss and Arroyo’s financial relationship was also illegal, according to the indictment filed against them both last October, which added charges for Arroyo. Beginning in November 2018, Weiss allegedly paid bribes to Arroyo totaling $7,500 in exchange for Arroyo’s support of the sweepstakes machine industry, according to the feds. Arroyo failed to disclose that in the statements of economic interest he was required to file as a lawmaker.

A few weeks before Arroyo gave Link his first check, Weiss was present at another restaurant meeting between the two lawmakers, where Arroyo gave a long soliloquy about his personal need for sweepstakes machines to be recognized as fully legal.

“I cannot be part [of] something that’s illegal. That’s just like being part of the mob or being part of a gang that’s selling drugs,” Arroyo told Link. “I can’t be part of that. I’m not going to taint my reputation for something that’s illegal. Now, if he ever goes to court or anybody goes to court and they say the sweepstakes is illegal, I can’t, I can’t have no part of it. Nobody has said it’s illegal, so that’s why I keep pushing…I would like for you to carry the bill…I don’t have nobody in the Senate.”

Weiss was not invited to the meeting later that month where Arroyo cut Link a check, but several days later he emailed Link to thank him for his support.

“I appreciate your help and assistance,” Weiss wrote. “I know there are several challenges in front of me with sweepstakes. Please let me know if there is anyone else you would recommend I meet with and share information.”

Nearly eleven months passed between Arroyo’s arrest and charge that revealed Weiss as Arroyo’s co-conspirator and the feds filing the October 2020 indictment. Weiss pleaded not guilty to the eight counts lobbed at him by the January 2020 grand jury.

Copyright 2021 NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS. To see more, visit NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS.
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