Client of crooked Bridgeport bank got out of $4 million owed by going bankrupt, then got millions more in loans

Chicago
By Chicago 13 Min Read

As the president of a tiny Bridgeport bank was running what ultimately was exposed as a multimillion-dollar embezzlement scheme, one of its biggest customers was getting out of having to repay $4 million he owed the bank by filing for bankruptcy.

But that didn’t stop Washington Federal Bank for Savings from lending even more money to Edward H. Gobbo once his bankruptcy court case was over.

One month later, John F. Gembara — the bank’s president, CEO and chairman of the board — started giving money once more to Gobbo, court records examined by the Chicago Sun-Times show. And Gembara kept on giving the bank’s money to Gobbo — whom former bank employees have described in court as among a group of Gembara insiders who were known as “friends of John” — for five years.

The loans didn’t stop coming until a few months before Gembara, by then suspended from his job as federal regulators unraveled the embezzlement scheme at Washington Federal, was found dead Dec. 3, 2017, in the main bedroom of another bank customer’s home, with a rope around his neck and a stair railing. Park Ridge police and the Cook County medical examiner’s office labeled Gembara’s death a suicide.

Twelve days later, regulators shut down the bank, after finally beginning to piece together a fraud scheme that would see the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation spend nearly $150 million to pay back customers for money they lost when the bank went bust.

When the bank was shut down, federal bank examiners discovered that Gobbo and his immediate family owed more than $3.8 million on 27 residential loans, some of them years overdue, court records show.

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It’s unclear how much money federal regulators have recovered from the Gobbos, though they have sold some of the properties for which the loans were given.

Gobbo, who a former bank employee has testified showed up at the bank about every other day, hasn’t been charged with any crime. But a source says he remains under investigation by federal agencies still trying to figure out why Gembara looted the bank that previously had been run by his father and grandfather.

The now-defunct Washington Federal Bank for Savings at 2869 S. Archer Ave.

The now-defunct Washington Federal Bank for Savings at 2869 S. Archer Ave.

Cook County assessor’s ofice

Sixteen people have been charged with crimes involving the failed bank. They include three former bank board members and six former employees. So far, 14 have been convicted.

Among them is former Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson, a Washington Federal borrower who was found guilty of having lied to regulators about how much he owed the bank. Washington Federal operated in the neighborhood where Thompson’s grandfather, the late Mayor Richard J. Daley, raised his family. Thompson still lives in that neighborhood, which has been the Daley family’s political base for decades. The disgraced Chicago City Council member resigned his seat and went to prison.

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Gobbo’s name has been cited by federal investigators and other witnesses during the trials of three bank customers convicted of embezzling more than $16 million: Robert M. Kowalski, a builder and friend of Gembara, and two men described as having worked as handymen for the bank, Miroslaw Krejza and Marek Matczuk. Gembara was found dead in Matczuk’s Park Ridge home.

“Can you provide us a breakdown of all the Gobbo-related loans and provide us the files for those loans,” federal bank examiner Amanda Whitney Ridges said in an email sent to Gembara on Nov. 13, 2017. Gembara never produced the records.

John F. Gembara wears a blue bow tie and a tuxedo in this headshot.

John F. Gembara was CEO, president and chief shareholder of Washington Federal Bank for Savings in Bridgeport.

Provided

During Matczuk’s trial, Whitney Ridges told the jury, “We also saw Gobbo as a very common name that kept popping up,” saying authorities were trying to determine whether the bank had committed violations of legal lending limits by giving more money than allowed to Gobbo or any single customer.

At Kowalski’s trial, former loan officer Cathy Torres testified that Gobbo was one of the customers the staff called “Friends of John” because they weren’t being made to make payments on their loans, which were hidden from regulators to make them think the bank had no bad loans. Torres has pleaded guilty for her role in the scheme.

Gobbo, 64, of Niles, declined to comment when a reporter spoke with him briefly at his home.

Peter Nabhani, his real estate attorney, said Gobbo had hired a criminal defense attorney regarding the Gembara loans. He said he’d refer questions to that lawyer, whom he wouldn’t identify.

Four months ago, Gobbo was the real estate agent for his daughter and son-in-law, who paid $12.5 million for a 12,000-square-foot mansion on Lake Michigan in Winnetka. It reportedly was the most expensive house sold in the Chicago area this year.

Gobbo’s daughter Gabriella is married to Jared Smith, co-founder of RxBar, a protein bar company that he and his partner sold to Kellogg’s in 2017 for $600 million.

A graduate of Loyola Academy in Wilmette, Gobbo landed a job as a garage attendant for the Chicago Police Department in 1981 while his mother’s brother, William Hanhardt, was the police department’s chief of detectives. In one of the biggest Chicago police scandals in history, Hanhardt later went to prison after pleading guilty to running a mobbed-up jewelry theft ring that stole millions of dollars — while he worked as a top police official.

William Hanhardt is seen outside a federal courthouse in 2000.

William Hanhardt went to prison after being convicted of running a mobbed-up jewelry theft ring while he was a top official in the Chicago Police Department.

Brian Jackson / Sun-Times file

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Gobbo was driving a truck for the city of Chicago’s Department of Streets and Sanitation when he and his wife, Michele, got a $93,000 mortgage from Gembara’s bank 30 years ago to buy a small frame house in Bridgeport. That appears to be the bank’s first loan to Gobbo. 

Three years later, Gobbo left the city payroll and began buying properties to develop, often with others who also got loans from Gembara’s bank.

In April 2002, Gobbo signed a quit claim deed, turning over a Bucktown property to Thomas Development, a company owned by Boguslaw Kasprowicz, who faces a lengthy prison sentence after pleading guilty to embezzling $14 million from Washington Federal. Kasprowicz has testified that he had to pay $1.7 million worth of bills for Gembara, including credit cards and a loan for a small yacht.

Kasprowicz built a three-story condo building on the property financed by Gembara’s bank. His attorney didn’t return calls seeking comment.

Gobbo set up several small development companies with Alexander S. Pissios, a former Michigan Avenue fur salesman, to build housing around the United Center with millions in loans from Gembara’s bank. Pissios went bankrupt in 2011 and Gobbo in 2012. Both men owed Gembara’s bank millions of dollars, and their attorneys have said those loans never were repaid.

Gobbo continued developing property with money from Gembara, while Pissios went to work for his uncle Nick Mirkopoulos, who was looking to expand his Cinespace movie studio from Toronto to Chicago.

Five years after Pissios’ bankruptcy case ended, federal prosecutors learned that he had failed to disclose a $100,000 loan he received from his uncle. Facing a threat of possible bankruptcy fraud charges, Pissios agreed to become an undercover mole, helping prosecutors build the case that saw longtime Chicago Teamsters union boss John T. Coli Sr. convicted of extorting $325,000 from Cinespace Chicago Film Studios.

Alexander Pissios speaks at Cinespace Chicago Film Studio in 2019.

Alexander Pissios at Cinespace Chicago Film Studio in 2019.

Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

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Gobbo has been involved in real estate deals, including a Bucktown home, with George Bahramis, a certified public accountant from Glenview who went bankrupt in 2012, reporting that he owed Gembara’s bank $443,000. After Bahramis’ bankruptcy case settled, Gembara resumed giving loans to Bahramis, as he did to Gobbo.

Bahramis couldn’t be reached for comment.

Gobbo also had a business relationship with Matczuk. On Sept. 2, 2011, Washington Federal issued a $25,000 check to “Mark M Group/ … Gobbo,’’ according to prosecution documents from Matczuk’s trial. Matczuk owned Mark M Group. Matczuk’s attorney declined to discuss the purpose of the check.

Gembara also gave Gobbo money to buy homes at foreclosure sales and repair them, but did so without putting a lien on the properties that would have allowed the bank to recover its money when the properties were sold, according to sworn testimony that Gembara’s loan servicer Alicia Mandujano gave in an April 2019 deposition with FDIC attorney Stuart Tonkinson.

“So the bank, John, would make the purchase, do the rehab, and Mr. Gobbo didn’t have to pay anything out of pocket,” Mandujano told the FDIC.

“Years ago, he was giving disbursements [to] Mr. Gobbo against his mortgages … but I said, John, you know Mr. Gobbo hasn’t made payments, you know. And he’s, like, for what? I said, for his mortgages,” Mandujano testified.

“And he would get mad. He’s, like, I didn’t ask about his mortgages. I just told you to make this deposit into his account. But he said it in a mean way, like — he’s, like, I’m the owner of this bank. I’m the one in charge. Do you want to get a paycheck? Do you want to still keep working here? Then, do what I tell you.”

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Mandujano has pleaded guilty to conspiracy and faces a possible five-year prison sentence. She has testified against four of Gembara’s customers: Kowalski, Krejza, Matczuk and Thompson.

READ THE ORIGINAL SUN-TIMES INVESTIGATION

The newspaper cover featuring the Sun-Times investigation of the failed Bridgeport bank Washington Federal Bank for Savings, published March 4, 2018.

Click here to read the first story in the Sun-Times investigation of the failed Bridgeport bank Washington Federal Bank for Savings, published March 4, 2018.

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