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Once-powerful Chicago Teamsters boss’s long fall

John T. Coli Sr. pleaded guilty Tuesday in an extortion case involving Cinespace Chicago Film Studios. But there’s much more you should know about the longtime union leader.

Former longtime Chicago Teamsters union boss John T. Coli Sr.’s guilty plea last summer to extorting $325,000 from Cinespace meant that Alexander Pissios wouldn’t have to testify as the star prosecution witness at his trial.
Former longtime Chicago Teamsters union boss John T. Coli Sr. leaving court after pleading guilty to taking part in a scheme to shake down a Chicago film studio.
Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

As Chicago’s top Teamsters boss, overseeing 100,000 union members and wielding influence in politics and business, John T. Coli Sr. liked to invoke an old saying.

“Pigs get fat,” he’d say. “Hogs get slaughtered.”

In the end, Coli, who pleaded guilty Tuesday to federal charges in an extortion case involving $325,000 in cash he got from Cinespace Chicago Film Studios, didn’t heed his own wisdom.

He’d been one of the country’s highest-paid union figures, making $385,000 in 2017. Yet Coli was demanding cash under the table from Cinespace president Alexander S. Pissios to ensure labor peace.

Coli’s plea deal marks another sordid chapter for Chicago’s labor movement, which for the better part of the 20th century was replete with mob ties and corruption.

Now, Coli is cooperating with prosecutors, facing up to eight years in prison, after being booted out of the Teamsters and ostracized by powerful figures he once courted.

For years, he epitomized the excesses and arrogance associated with the old guard of Chicago’s unions. He feasted on pricey dinners and drank hard while sticking others with the bills, surrounded himself with younger women, drove expensive cars and used a wealthy Chicagoan’s 76-foot yacht, at no cost, for a trip to Europe.

And, as he learned from his father, the late Teamsters boss Eco James Coli, he ushered his kids into the family business.

After attending military school for part of high school, John Coli graduated from college and got a law degree.

His father followed a less-refined path. A White House report on organized crime in the 1970s identified him as a member of the Chicago Outfit, and law enforcement records called him a “syndicate member” and mob “corrupter.” Eco James Coli had been questioned in the 1952 gangland murder of a Republican Party ward committeeman and convicted of stealing slot machines from a suburban country club, though he beat that charge after an appeal and retrial.

According to a source, Pissios has told federal investigators Coli described his father as a hit man for the mob, which once had an iron grip on the Teamsters in Chicago.

Alex Pissios, president of Cinespace Chicago Film Studios.
Alex Pissios, president of Cinespace Chicago Film Studios.
Provided photo

For more than two decades, the elder Coli ran Teamsters Local 727, which represented thousands of blue-collar workers. After dying in 1982 of natural causes, he was succeeded in the union by another son, James L. Coli, who ended up being barred from leadership a decade later when federal monitors accused him of doing nothing after learning a fellow union official had reputed mob ties.

John Coli — who’d once worked as a valet at Arlington International Racecourse in Arlington Heights and an administrative prosecutor in the Illinois secretary of state’s office — then was given the job, which he held for the next quarter century.

His rise benefited not only from his brother’s troubles but also those of Bill Hogan, who’d been the undisputed leader of the Teamsters in Chicago, in charge of Teamsters Joint Council 25 — the consortium of two dozen Chicago-area locals, including Local 727 — and a national figure in the union. For decades, Hogan and his family also controlled Local 714, whose members worked conventions at McCormick Place and staffed movie sets in Chicago.

In the early 2000s, Hogan was expelled from the Teamsters, accused of helping a nonunion company where his brother worked, though the Hogans viewed the case as Teamsters national president James P. Hoffa’s way of eliminating his rival.

Coli ended up with Hogan’s job at Joint Council 25 and spent the next two decades expanding his power, often with the help of Hoffa, son of the legendary union leader who’s been missing and presumed dead for decades.

“Hoffa used Coli, Coli used Hoffa,” says Ken Paff, national organizer of the union reform group Teamsters for a Democratic Union.

Under Hoffa, Local 714 eventually was disbanded, and Local 727 got its film and convention divisions. That’s one way Coli held sway over Pissios’ operation.

Between 2014 and 2017, Coli demanded and got about $325,000 under the table from Cinespace, according to court records. When Pissios suggested the secret payments might have to end, saying people were getting suspicious, Coli said, “I will f------ have a picket line up here, and everything will stop.”

Pissios secretly recorded that. He was cooperating with the FBI, rather than face bankruptcy fraud charges for failing to disclose a loan, agreed to wear a wire on Coli and got a “non-prosecution” deal.

Coli — who was charged in 2017 and left the Teamsters that year but still is expected to collect at least two union pensions — didn’t pay income taxes on the money from Pissios, records show.

While Coli was paid between $300,000 and $400,000 a year for his posts with Local 727, Joint Council 25 and, for a time, the international union under Hoffa, he reported total 2016 income to the IRS of just over $450,000. “Coli knew that his total income substantially exceeded” that amount, court records show, as the Pissios payoffs and other freebies weren’t reported to the IRS.

Cinespace — located on the site of a former steel plant on the West Side — has become a bustling studio, where TV shows including “Chicago PD,” “Chicago Fire” and “Empire” are filmed.

Coli’s plea agreement also mentions a second, unnamed company as being involved in the shakedown scheme and other acts, including vendors paying for Coli’s “meals at various restaurants and fine dining establishments in Las Vegas, Nevada, and in other cities where various organized labor conventions and meetings were periodically held” and “for entertainment and other benefits.”

According to sources, Coli, a physically imposing figure who drinks heavily and smokes cigars, would demand favors that included having others cover the cost of strippers and prostitutes while out of town and sticking union vendors with bills for group dinners and bottles of wine for the road, saying, “They owe us, we made them, they need us.”

According to Coli’s plea deal, he and guests also were given the “use of a yacht (together with the two-member crew of such yacht)” for trips in the United States and “internationally, including an excursion in and around Italy.”

The yacht belongs to Kevin J. Cooney, a Chicago lawyer and businessman, the Sun-Times confirmed. The vessel, sometimes moored at Belmont Harbor, called “Rising Expectations,” is as long as three city lots side by side, has a hot tub on board and a captain, according to records and interviews.

The yacht “Rising Expectations,” which John T. Coli Sr. and guests were allowed to use free of charge for trips in the United States and abroad — “including an excursion in and around Italy.”
The yacht “Rising Expectations,” which John T. Coli Sr. and guests were allowed to use free of charge for trips in the United States and abroad — “including an excursion in and around Italy.”

Cooney, who couldn’t be reached for comment, runs Professional National Title Network, which the state of Illinois fined $14 million last year for using unregistered title-insurance agents on more than 14,000 transactions.

One of Cooney’s companies had an arrangement with the Teamsters to offer mortgage services to union members, a source said.

Cooney provides office space to Frank J. Cortese, a lobbyist whose clients include Cooney’s company, the Teamsters, other unions, the village of Bridgeview and other suburbs.

Pissios has told investigators he hired Cortese as Cinespace’s Springfield lobbyist at Coli’s urging, paying him about $10,000 a month.

Neither Coli nor his lawyer, Joseph Duffy, would comment.

Pissios couldn’t be reached. According to records and sources, he and his wife Patricia once were on Coli’s Teamsters payroll, and Pissios told authorities his wife did no work but was paid $1,000 a week. In 2010, the year before Cinespace opened, records filed with the U.S. Department of Labor show Pissios was paid about $36,000 for “representational activities.”

Just as Coli followed his father into the union, his sons have profited from their own union ties.

John Coli Jr. is secretary-treasurer of Local 727, paid about $330,000 in 2018, records show. Married in Peru, Pissios was among his wedding guests, sources said.

The other son, Joseph Coli, is a lawyer. Soon after graduating from law school, he opened the law firm Illinois Advocates, LLC, and scored lucrative work from the Teamsters, the Sun-Times has reported. His firm was hired by Coli’s union and also has had a business relationship with another law firm the union did business with.

The sons, who haven’t been charged with any crime, couldn’t be reached.

In recent years, John Coli Sr. formed alliances with powerful politicians. He stood alone among union leaders by backing Rahm Emanuel in his first run for Chicago mayor. He also allied himself with Rod Blagojevich and Pat Quinn, the last two Democratic governors. Quinn’s administration sent millions of taxpayer dollars to fund Pissios’ studio. And Quinn’s successor, Republican Bruce Rauner, gave Coli an unpaid position on the Illinois Labor Advisory Board, which assists the state labor department on employment rules.

Rahm Emanuel getting the endorsement of John T. Coli Sr. (right) on Jan. 25, 2011, during his first run for mayor.
Rahm Emanuel getting the endorsement of John T. Coli Sr. (right) on Jan. 25, 2011, during his first run for mayor.
John H. White / Sun-Times

Coli’s power resulted in part from his influence over union contracts with the city and state, as well as his ability to come up with campaign money, endorse candidates and mobilize workers during election season.

He had used connections to help convince Pissios’ uncle, the late Nick Mirkopolous, to expand his Toronto movie studio’s operation to Chicago. Pissios has told federal investigators his uncle agreed to pay Coli $100,000 a year, payments Pissios continued after his uncle’s death. Pissios would drop off the money at the Teamsters’ office in Park Ridge or at Coli’s Lincoln Park home, where the FBI arrested the union leader in the alley in April 2017.

Over time, Coli tightened his inner circle. But Becky Strzechowski remained, an aide and confidante who ended up running Local 700, representing workers including Chicago city garbage collectors and snowplow operators.

Strzechowski, who resigned in January, is among union figures federal authorities have approached during the Coli investigation. According to sources, she has provided them with some information but hasn’t yet met with them.

Former Teamsters leader Becky Strzechowski.
Former Teamsters leader Becky Strzechowski.
Teamsters