Longtime Chicago Teamsters boss John T. Coli Sr. — who’s charged with extorting $100,000 from Chicago’s major TV and film studio — now also is facing scrutiny over union deals that have funneled millions of dollars to his son’s law firm, records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show.
Coli, a powerful figure in state and local politics, was indicted by a federal grand jury in Chicago in July. He’s accused of extorting cash payments this year and in 2016 from a business the Sun-Times has previously identified as Cinespace Chicago Film Studio.
Shortly after the indictment was announced, Coli declined to show up for questioning by independent investigator Joseph diGenova, a former U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia hired to investigate corruption in the union under a longstanding consent decree between the Justice Department and the Teamsters.
Coli — who was once a key ally in organized labor for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Gov. Bruce Rauner and former Gov. Pat Quinn — would have faced questions from diGenova about the relationship between the Teamsters and the Loop law firm Illinois Advocates LLC, owned by his son Joseph Coli, the records show.
One month to the day after the younger Coli was admitted to practice law in Illinois in 2012, his firm was named “exclusive provider” of legal services for 9,000 members of Park Ridge-based Teamsters Local 727 — which his father headed from 1992 until his indictment.
DiGenova’s office cited a September 2015 Watchdogs report in the Sun-Times that revealed Illinois Advocates was paid more than $2 million in its first 14 months working for the Teamsters Local 727 Legal & Educational Assistance Fund.
Joseph Coli’s firm was paid another $4.2 million by that fund and other arms of Local 727 over the next two years, ending Feb. 29, 2016, according to their most recent financial reports to the U.S. Labor Department.
Neither John Coli Sr.’s defense lawyer nor Joseph Coli responded to calls seeking comment.
In the records obtained by the Sun-Times, diGenova said his office also had planned to question John Coli Sr. about “his relationship” with HMC HealthWorks, a union contractor. They show Coli had asked a top official with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters to recommend that all of the union’s locals use HMC for wellness services.
Local 727’s health fund paid HMC $1.46 million over four years starting in 2012, records show.
In sworn testimony to diGenova’s office, Terrence Hancock — who was named head of the joint Teamsters council for the Chicago area two days after Coli’s indictment — told investigators about a lavish party HMC “co-sponsored” for a small group of Teamsters during a union conference in Las Vegas in 2010.
In an October 2015 interview, Hancock told investigators he and HMC executive Mark Mauro split the $8,344 tab for dinner and drinks at Mastro’s Ocean Club on the Las Vegas strip. Hancock told them that, at the time, Mauro “was trying to become a vendor” for the union.
The Las Vegas party cost $600 a person, records show. Among those attending were Coli, longtime Teamsters spokesman Brian Rainville, Coli protégé Becky Strzechowski and Coli’s other son, John Coli Jr., who’s also a Teamsters official.
Among the items on the tab that night, according to the investigator’s records, were:
• Eight double-cut porterhouse steaks that ran $87.95 apiece.
• Thirteen pounds of live, $36.95-a-pound Maine lobster and four “jumbo lobsters” at $85.95 each.
• Eight orders of Alaskan red crab claws ($39.95 each), 16 lobster cocktails ($36.95 each), eight orders of chilled crab legs ($28.95 each), eight Dungeness crab cocktails ($21.95 each), four orders of “East Coast oysters” ($21.95 each) and four orders of “West Coast oysters” ($21.95 each).
• Four $140 bottles of Duckhorn Merlot wine and three $115 bottles of Cakebread Cellars Chardonnay.
• Martinis made with Grey Goose ($21 apiece), Ketel One ($20.50) and Absolut ($20) vodkas.
Hancock paid $4,172.07 toward the restaurant bill, and Mauro covered the rest, records show.
Hancock also told investigators that HMC, which is based in Jupiter, Fla., became a vendor for Teamster Local 731 in Burr Ridge after the Las Vegas dinner.
According to the union’s website, HMC became its wellness provider in 2012 and was replaced by another company in October 2015. Federal records show Local 731’s health fund paid HMC nearly $465,000 in that period.
Hancock didn’t return calls. HMC’s chief executive, Janis DiMonaco, wouldn’t comment.
Investigators from diGenova’s office wanted to question Coli on July 28.
But Coli’s lawyer told them he advised him to cite the Fifth Amendment and refuse, saying he would talk to them “after his [criminal] case is resolved.”
“Coli would have been questioned about his relationship with particular HMC employees,” diGenova wrote. “Coli also would have been questioned about the relationship of other service providers for local funds, including his son’s law firm, Illinois Advocates.”
DiGenova — who’s based in New York and whose title is independent investigation officer — argued that “court-approved rules” governing his role gave him the right to demand that any member of the union appear for a “sworn examination.”
On Aug. 10, diGenova asked Teamsters international officials to bring Coli up on union charges for “obstructing, interfering and unreasonably failing to cooperate” with his office.
The union did that a week later, according to Charles Carberry, chief counsel to diGenova.
The Teamsters could permanently ban Coli from holding office with the union and restrict him from having contact with the labor group’s leaders.
A spokeswoman for the Teamsters international wouldn’t comment. Nor would a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago.
Coli is charged with attempted extortion and five counts of demanding and accepting a prohibited payment as a union official. Though the indictment doesn’t name the company Coli allegedly tried to shake down, a source has told the Sun-Times it was Cinespace. The clout-heavy West Side studio — which has gotten millions of dollars in state grants — is home to NBC-TV hit shows “Chicago Fire” and “Chicago P.D.,” among other TV shows and movies filmed there.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Amarjeet Bhachu recently told a judge that a superseding indictment — which could add charges or new defendants — might be handed up before the next court in the case, Sept. 26.
Ken Paff of the Detroit-based Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a dissident group, says of Coli, “His attitude is that the union exists for him and his family’s profit.”
Coli, 57, is the son of the longtime Local 727 boss Eco James Coli.
For years, Coli got three salaries from the Teamsters — from Local 727, from the international and from the Teamsters Joint Council 25, the umbrella group for the union’s roughly 100,000 members in Illinois. In 2016, his union pay totaled about $341,000, including nearly $179,000 from Local 727 and more than $153,000 as the international’s vice president and trade division director, according to Labor Department records.
But a dissident slate bounced Coli and Strzechowski from the international’s board in an election in November.
His brother William Coli has been paid about $275,000 a year for serving in several roles with Local 727 and its health and pension funds, records show. And his son John Coli Jr. was paid more than $251,000 last year as the leader of Local 727.
Before his indictment, Coli had powerful friends in both political parties.
He was a crucial ally during Emanuel’s first run for mayor, in 2011, endorsing him at a time many union leaders were snubbing the former White House chief of staff.
Local 727’s pension fund has invested more than $5 million with Grosvenor Capital Management LP since 2013, according to Labor Department records. The Chicago firm’s chairman and chief executive, Michael Sacks, is one of Emanuel’s closest confidants and biggest supporters. A spokeswoman for Grosvenor wouldn’t comment.
Though Coli backed Quinn in the 2014 governor’s race, he soon forged close ties with Republican Rauner — who has few allies in organized labor — after Rauner defeated Quinn.
Michael Coli, another brother of John Coli Sr., is paid almost $94,000 a year as a member of the Illinois Labor Relations Board, a full-time state government post he’s held since 2006. He was last reappointed in March 2015 by Rauner.
Rauner also appointed Joseph Coli to the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Advisory Board, an unpaid post, in April 2016. His term ends in 2019.
Nancy Kimme, who was a member of Rauner’s transition team, is a lobbyist for the Teamsters in Springfield. Local 727 reported paying her $30,000 in 2015 and $45,000 last year for lobbying.
“When the administration switched, I think they thought it was a good time to bring in a Republican lobbyist,” Kimme says. “That’s how I ended up working for them.”
Contributing: Jon Seidel