A diamond engagement ring that former Gov. Pat Quinn’s campaign manager bought for Quinn’s press secretary has become part of the federal investigation that’s resulted in extortion charges against longtime Chicago Teamsters boss John Coli Sr., the Chicago Sun-Times has learned.
The FBI is trying to determine who paid for the ring, which former Quinn press secretary Brooke Anderson got nearly four years ago from her husband Lou Bertuca, the governor’s 2014 campaign manager.
The key witness against Coli, Alexander S. Pissios, whose Cinespace Chicago Film Studios got millions of dollars in state grants under Quinn’s administration, has told the FBI he contributed $500 towards the purchase of the ring.
Pissios, president of the West Side studio where TV shows including “Chicago P.D.” and “Chicago Fire” are shot, secretly agreed to cooperate with federal investigators to avoid being charged with bankruptcy fraud. He has an unusual “non-prosecution” deal in return for his cooperation.
Pissios told the FBI that he helped pay for the ring at the suggestion of his lobbyist Frank Cortese, who helped convince the Quinn administration to award Cinespace state grants totaling $27.3 million.
The last of those grants — for $10 million — came a few weeks after Quinn lost the November 2014 governor’s race to Bruce Rauner.
But the new governor forced Pissios to give back the money after the Sun-Times reported that the land Cinespace said in its grant application it needed the money to buy wasn’t for sale.
The Sun-Times also has learned that Pissios paid part of the tab for Bertuca’s bachelor party in Miami and said he gave a $1,000 wedding present to Bertuca and Anderson, who were married on Jan 24, 2015, shortly after Quinn left office.
The federal grand jury that indicted Coli issued subpoenas to the governor’s office last August, seeking personnel files for Bertuca, Anderson and John D’Alessandro, another former Quinn official. Pissios has told authorities D’Alessandro was helpful in securing the state grants.
Shortly before Quinn left the governor’s office, he found a new job for Bertuca. Over the objections of Rauner and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Quinn gave Bertuca a two-year, $160,000-a-year appointment as executive director of the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, the city-state agency that owns the home of the Chicago White Sox.
Quinn, who attended the wedding, says he doesn’t know whether anyone helped pay for Anderson’s engagement ring. The former governor says he didn’t know Bertuca had a bachelor party, let alone who paid for it. And he says he didn’t know whether Pissios attended the wedding.
“This is the first time I’m hearing about it,” Quinn told the Sun-Times. “I have no information about this matter.”
But Quinn, who built his reputation by attacking unethical behavior by politicians including former Govs. George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich, says no one who was on his staff should have accepted personal benefits from anyone who had contracts with the state of Illinois.
“My view is this: If you’re in public life, you have a duty to the public, and you should have no private dealing that would cloud your judgment,” Quinn says. “They were very hard workers. I expected each of them to follow the same rules I followed.”
Quinn says he doesn’t believe Bertuca had any role in awarding the grants to Cinespace but also says he didn’t “know all the grant-making process.”
Bertuca, Anderson and D’Alessandro didn’t respond to messages.
Bertuca, 34, is now a registered lobbyist for a California company, Turo, that helps people lease their cars to others. Anderson, 35, is head of global safety communications for Uber in San Francisco. D’Alessandro, 30, of Melrose Park, works for several companies, lobbying Illinois officials.
Quinn, an alumnus of Fenwick High School, was lieutenant governor in 2006 when he hired Bertuca. Bertuca had played on a Fenwick basketball team coached by Quinn’s brother John Quinn. D’Alessandro, also an alum of the Oak Park school, began working for Quinn in 2011 in the governor’s office.
Pissios, 46, and Cortese, 55, of LaGrange, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Pissios, who lived for years in the north suburbs, has had a string of financial difficulties. A mortgage company foreclosed on his home in Hawthorn Woods, and the house was sold at a sheriff’s sale last year.
Three years ago, federal authorities threatened to charge Pissios with bankruptcy fraud for failing to disclose a $100,000 bank account. Pissios agreed to cooperate with them, and he secretly recorded conversations with Coli, a Quinn supporter who was indicted in July 2017.
Coli is charged with extorting more than $325,000 from Cinespace to prevent labor problems with the Teamsters, which since has booted him from the union. Coli pleaded not guilty, but he’s expected to change his plea next month.
Pissios has told federal agents he hired Cortese at Coli’s suggestion and that Coli, Cortese and D’Alessandro were instrumental in obtaining the state grants starting in 2009.
Sometime during the summer or fall of 2014, as Quinn was running for re-election, Pissios got in touch with his jeweler, asking her to help find Bertuca an engagement ring for Anderson. Pissios’ jeweler agreed to meet Bertuca in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel on Chicago’s Gold Coast to show him rings. Pissios, D’Alessandro and Cortese were also there, according to sources.
At some point later, the jeweler, who was interviewed by the FBI last August, ended up selling a ring to Bertuca.
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The Coli grand jury also issued a subpoena three months ago for the personnel file and other records of state Sen. Thomas Cullerton, D-Villa Park, a cousin of Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago. The Senate president appointed his cousin, who has worked for the Teamsters, as chairman of the Senate’s committee on labor.
John Cullerton’s son Kyle has been a board member of the not-for-profit organization Stage 18 that Pissios set up at Cinespace to aid young, independent filmmakers.
The Quinn administration gave Cinespace — which had operated a movie studio in Toronto — state grants to set up operations in Chicago in a former Ryerson Steel plant in North Lawndale. The campus now also includes Lagunitas Brewery.
Over the past decade, the state has awarded more than $420 million in tax credits to TV shows and movies, many of them filmed at Cinespace. They got those tax breaks for hiring Illinois residents, including Teamsters union members, and spending money on Illinois businesses.
But Illinois officials have never done an audit to verify the accuracy of the bills and receipts the productions submitted to get those tax breaks. State officials refuse to release those records because the TV shows and movie producers argue they are trade secrets.
Quinn says “there should be no clouds to hide how public money is spent.’’ But he says Cinespace has been a boon to the city and the state.
“It was a closed steel factory,” Quinn says, defending the money he gave the studio. “”It’s proven to be a goldmine for jobs for everyday people.”