THE WATCHDOGS: Family biz pays off for Joseph Coli, son of Rahm’s top labor ally

SHARE THE WATCHDOGS: Family biz pays off for Joseph Coli, son of Rahm’s top labor ally

The family business has been very good to Joseph Coli, whose father John Coli Sr. is Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s No. 1 backer in organized labor and recently won appointment by Gov. Bruce Rauner to a key state labor board.

A month to the day after he was licensed to practice law in Illinois, the younger Coli got a big break.

In the latest in a series of dealings involving the Teamsters that have enriched his clout-heavy family, the union run by his brother and father hired the law firm he’d just opened as the “exclusive provider” of legal help to its 9,000-plus members.

The firm that the then-28-year-old, newly minted attorney’s Illinois Advocates LLC was brought in to replace in December 2012 had made as much as $1 million a year for its work for the union only once.

For Coli, though, whose family has run the Teamsters in Chicago for decades, the deal proved to be more lucrative, records examined by the Chicago Sun-Times show. In the first 14 months it worked for the Teamsters Local 727 Legal & Educational Assistance Fund, Coli’s fledgling firm was paid more than $2 million, according to the documents the organization has filed with the U.S. Labor Department.

Those records show that, at the time Illinois Advocates was hired, the Teamsters legal assistance fund’s officials included:

• The lawyer’s brother John Coli Jr., who is the president and business agent of Teamsters Local 727, the union based in Park Ridge whose members include bus drivers, funeral directors, trade-show workers and parking-garage attendants.

• William Coli, Joseph Coli’s uncle, who is the manager of the fund.

• Jonathan Magna, who at that time owned a condominium on Diversey Parkway in Lincoln Park with Joseph Coli. Magna left the union and went to work for Illinois Advocates in 2014, shortly after finishing law school, according to the firm’s website. He’s now a senior associate.

The year before the union legal aid fund hired Illinois Advocates, the fund’s trustees also had included Joseph Coli and John Coli Sr., records show.

Coli Sr. is secretary-treasurer of Local 727 and heads the Teamsters Joint Council 25, whose affiliates also include Teamsters Local 700, which represents more than 12,000 municipal, county and state government workers.

Joseph Coli formed Illinois Advocates on Sept. 24, 2012. Five weeks later, the Illinois Supreme Court admitted him to the bar.

Local 727 soon announced the union’s legal assistance fund, which provides members with up to 45 hours a year of free legal help “for matters such as real estate transactions, traffic offenses and wills,” had “reached an agreement with a new cooperating attorney for plan participants.

Rahm Emanuel gets endorsed by John Coli Sr., president of the Teamsters Joint Council 25, for mayor on Jan. 25, 2011. I Sun-Times file photo

Rahm Emanuel gets endorsed by John Coli Sr., president of the Teamsters Joint Council 25, for mayor on Jan. 25, 2011. I Sun-Times file photo

“Effective Dec. 1, 2012, the Board of Trustees retained Illinois Advocates LLC as the exclusive provider of legal representation for Legal Assistance Plan participants,” according to a news release from Local 727, which has since been taken down from the union’s website.

The announcement quoted John Coli Jr. as saying the board was confident the new firm “will carry on the tradition of this plan’s top-notch legal assistance” for Teamsters members.

It also noted that “former Local 727 business representative Joseph Coli, a graduate of Northwestern Law, is a partner at the firm.”

According to the firm’s website, Coli is “managing partner” of Illinois Advocates, whose offices are at 77 W. Washington in the Loop. None of the other firm’s 10 other lawyers is described as a partner.

Its hiring brought an end to the Teamsters fund’s longtime affiliation with the law firm Klein, Daday, Aretos and O’Donoghue, which had been paid $601,155, $929,387, $919,981 and just over $1 million in the four years before Joseph Coli’s firm was brought in to replace it.

Labor Department filings show Illinois Advocates was paid more than $171,000 in its first three months working for the union legal fund.

The fund paid the younger Coli’s firm nearly $1.86 million over the following year — from March 1, 2013, to Feb. 28, 2014, the most recent period for which the Local 727 fund has filed a report with the Labor Department.

Joseph Coli and a spokeswoman for Local 727 did not respond to calls or emails seeking comment.

Illinois Advocates continues to work for the union’s legal fund, according to the Local 727 website.

The Coli family has been running the Teamsters in Chicago for more than a generation. John Coli Sr. became a top Teamsters official more than 30 years ago, succeeding his father as a union boss.

The family business has been lucrative for the Colis: Beside the deal with Joseph Coli’s law firm, the gravy train has included:

• More than $347,000 paid to Coli Sr. last year in salaries from Local 727, the Teamsters Joint Council 25 and the Teamsters international organization, Labor Department records show.

• Nearly $257,000 paid in 2014 by Local 727 to John Coli Jr., who is a year older than his brother.

• William Coli — John Coli Sr.’s brother — made more than $255,000 managing the union’s benefit funds between March 1, 2013, and Feb. 28, 2014.

Coli Sr. has had close ties with Emanuel since endorsing him in the fall of 2010, during his first mayoral run, at a time when many labor leaders were hostile to Emanuel’s ambitions.

Coli Sr. and the Teamsters also were big supporters of former Gov. Pat Quinn. But since Rauner unseated Quinn last year, the family and the union have allied themselves with the new governor, and Rauner appointed Coli. Sr. last month to an unpaid seat on the Illinois Labor Advisory Board, which works with the state Department of Labor on employment policies, laws and regulations.

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