Chicago Teamsters leader John T. Coli Sr. charged in extortion scheme

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John Coli of Teamsters Joint Council 25 answers questions on Oct. 21, 2011, as Gov. Pat Quinn, left, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel listen during a news conference to announce agreements with labor groups to settle disputes and lawsuits against McCormick Place. | Sun-Times files

For decades in Chicago, the word “Teamsters” has been synonymous with one family name: Coli.

Now the feds have indicted John T. Coli Sr., the man who has led Teamsters Joint Council 25 for more than 15 years and has been a major player in city and state politics.

Coli was a powerful backer of Rahm Emanuel in the 2011 mayoral election, holds a state labor board post under Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and was a key supporter of Rauner’s predecessor, Democrat Pat Quinn. While his name might not be publicly well known, the campaign dollars, union endorsements and volunteers he commands have made him a go-to figure for candidates seeking elected office.

Coli, 57, is accused of trying to extort $100,000 from Cinespace Chicago Film Studios, the clout-heavy studio that has gotten millions of dollars in state grants.

As the federal grand jury indictment against him came down Wednesday, word of Coli’s retirement from the union also surfaced.

But retirement will not save him from allegations that he forced Cinespace to pay him $25,000 in cash quarterly. Coli faces one count of attempted extortion and five counts of demanding and accepting a prohibited payment as a union official.

The most serious charge, the attempted extortion, carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence.

A Cinespace spokesman could not be reached Wednesday afternoon. While the indictment does not name the film studio, a source with knowledge of the investigation confirmed Cinespace is the business Coli allegedly tried to shake down.

The indictment also mentions an unnamed company that’s affiliated with Cinespace, noting its employees are represented by Teamsters Local 727 in Park Ridge, where Coli is secretary-treasurer. Local 727 is one of about two dozen Teamsters groups in the Chicago region that fall under Joint Council 25 leadership.

In all, the joint council oversees more than 100,000 Teamsters.

Neither Coli nor his attorney could be reached for comment. A bench warrant for his arrest had been issued, but no arraignment had been set as of Wednesday afternoon.

The statement announcing Coli’s retirement named Becky Strzechowski as the next president of the Joint Council 25 executive board.

“It is with tremendous reflection and a big heart that I announce my retirement from the Teamsters — the greatest union in the world,” Coli said in the statement. “After more than 46 years of membership and service to my fellow Teamsters, it’s time to begin the next chapter.

“Above all, that includes spending time with my family, my loving wife of 35 years and my two beautiful grandkids.”

The feds allege that Coli accepted a $25,000 cash payment on July 7, 2016; $15,000 on Oct. 4, 2016; $10,000 on Nov. 29, 2016; $25,000 on Dec. 22, 2016, and $25,000 on April 4.

In 2015, Rauner appointed Coli to the state’s labor advisory board. A Rauner spokeswoman said Coli “will be removed from the board” in the wake of the indictment.

Emanuel’s office had no comment on the indictment, though the mayor’s staff argued privately that Coli has been far closer to Rauner in recent years than to Emanuel.

During the 2011 mayoral campaign, Coli provided early and pivotal support for Emanuel while most other union leaders either took a pass or endorsed vanquished challenger Gery Chico.

Coli’s support was also instrumental in helping the mayor deliver two rounds of cost-saving work-rule changes that altered the economic landscape at McCormick Place and made Chicago more competitive against hard-charging convention cities like Las Vegas, Orlando and Atlanta.

Cinespace, home to NBC’s hit TV shows “Chicago Fire” and “Chicago P.D.,” received five grants totaling $27.3 million from the Quinn administration since 2011, including a $10 million grant in December 2014 to buy seven industrial properties near its North Lawndale campus. Cinespace returned that grant in March 2015 after the Chicago Sun-Times discovered that most of the property it had said it planned to buy wasn’t for sale.

Cinespace kept the other grants.

Coli helped the studio “navigate the politics of getting grants” from state government, said one source with knowledge of the situation. Coli “lobbied for all the state money to get Cinespace to build” in Chicago in the first place, the source said.

Coli got his start with the Teamsters when he landed a job as a parking lot attendant in 1971, according to a press release from Rauner’s office. His late father, Eco James Coli, a longtime boss of Teamsters Local 727, was questioned in the 1952 gangland murder of a Republican ward committeeman.

The Sun-Times has previously reported how control of the Teamsters has paid off for John T. Coli Sr. and his two sons, who collectively were paid more than $615,000 in 2012 for their work in leadership roles with the union, according to public records. Coli himself was paid more than $347,000 in 2014 in three Teamsters leadership positions.

In 2015, the union hired a law firm recently opened by son Joseph Coli as the “exclusive provider” of legal help to its 9,000-plus members.

SCI Illinois Services Inc. sued Coli in 2011 and claimed that, when asked about his family during a deposition, Coli replied, “for the record, go f— yourself.”

Coli later allegedly left the deposition, insisting Emanuel “needed him on an emergency basis.”

The lawsuit was settled in 2014, records show.

Contributing: Fran Spielman, Dan Mihalopoulos, Tim Novak, Stefano Esposito

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