Cinespace Chicago Film Studio president Alexander S. “Alex” Pissios shares a laugh with Mayor Rahm Emanuel at a news conference. 

Cinespace Chicago Film Studios president Alexander S. Pissios and Mayor Rahm Emanuel at the studio last February.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times file

CHA gave $76M deal to movie studio head’s group while he was an FBI mole

Cinespace Chicago Film Studios president Alexander Pissios and his partners — The Habitat Co. and Mount Sinai Hospital — stand to share in $4 million-plus in fees on a deal Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago Housing Authority appointees gave them.

SHARE CHA gave $76M deal to movie studio head’s group while he was an FBI mole

While secretly recording conversations to help the FBI expose an extortion scheme run by longtime Chicago Teamsters union boss John T. Coli Sr., the president of Chicago’s largest movie studio, Alexander S. Pissios, also had a starring role in another production that could bring him and his partners millions of dollars.

Pissios’ Cinespace Chicago Film Studios teamed with public housing manager The Habitat Co. and Mount Sinai Hospital on a development in North Lawndale, getting the Chicago Housing Authority to approve their proposal for a $76 million development on Ogden Avenue including stores, offices and homes.

Records show Pissios and his partners stand to share in more than $4 million in fees for developing nearly 11 acres that includes CHA land and also property that Cinespace and the not-for-profit hospital bought from City Hall during Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration.

Pissios and his partners put that plan together during the months-long period he was secretly working with the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago to investigate Coli, hoping that would keep him and his wife from being charged with bankruptcy fraud.

The Pissios group submitted its plan to the CHA on March 22, 2017.

Nine days later, the U.S. attorney’s office gave him a non-prosecution deal, guaranteeing he would face no criminal charges, in exchange for helping them in the Coli investigation.

It’s unclear whether the authorities eavesdropped on any of Pissios’ conversations regarding the development project or were listening only to his conversations with Coli.

CHA and Mount Sinai officials say they haven’t been contacted by federal authorities regarding Pissios. Habitat executives won’t talk about Pissios or their project. Pissios didn’t return messages.

Last month, a few days before Christmas, the Pissios group wrapped up a $21.78 million financing package for the initial phase of the CHA project, records show. This part of the housing authority development, which won’t include any homes, will build new offices for Cinespace and Mount Sinai. Pissios has been a member of the hospital’s board since 2013.

The housing authority is helping finance the project, which is getting federal tax incentives and $2.5 million from City Hall’s “Neighborhood Opportunity Fund,” money that Emanuel pledged before leaving office last year.

That taxpayer funding is the latest in a string of government subsidies Pissios has gotten over the past decade despite his financial and legal problems.

He got $27.3 million in state grants under Gov. Pat Quinn to help his uncle launch the West Side movie studio.

Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel helped Cinespace Chicago Film Studios, 2621 W. 15th Pl., get a property tax cut worth as much as $3.4 million. He also gave the studio permission to close off and take over city streets to create a bigger Cinespace campus, forcing traffic, including CTA buses, to be rerouted.

Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel helped Cinespace Chicago Film Studios, 2621 W. 15th Pl., get a property tax cut worth as much as $3.4 million. He also gave the studio permission to close off and take over city streets to create a bigger Cinespace campus, forcing traffic, including CTA buses, to be rerouted.

Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times

Later, Emanuel helped the studio get a property tax cut worth as much as $3.4 million. He also gave the studio permission to close off and take over city streets to create a bigger Cinespace campus, forcing traffic, including CTA buses, to be rerouted.

The studio secured most of that government funding with help from Coli — a powerful union supporter of Quinn and Emanuel — who had been extorting money from Pissios during the time the studio boss was wearing a wire.

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.’s guilty plea last summer to extorting $325,000 from Cinespace meant that Alexander Pissios wouldn’t have to testify for the prosecution at his trial.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

Coli pleaded guilty last summer to extorting $325,000 from Cinespace and agreed to cooperate with federal authorities. That means Pissios won’t have to testify as the star prosecution witness at his trial.

Pissios’ name also has surfaced in the ongoing federal investigation of the collapse of Washington Federal Bank for Savings, which was shut down in December 2017, days after bank president John Gembara was found hanged in the bedroom of a customer’s home in Park Ridge.

When Pissios filed for bankruptcy in 2011, he owed the clout-heavy Bridgeport bank millions of dollars from real estate loans. It’s unclear whether Pissios ever repaid those loans.

Also unclear: how Pissios became a partner with Mount Sinai and with Habitat, which is headed by developer Daniel Levin, who, under a federal court order, had overseen the CHA’s scattered-site housing program for 23 years.

Future site of Ogden Commons development at northwest corner of Ogden Avenue and South Talman Avenue.

Future site of Ogden Commons development at northwest corner of Ogden Avenue and South Talman Avenue.

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Mount Sinai vice president James Bicak says the CHA encouraged the hospital to team with Habitat on the commercial and residential development, which is near the hospital. But hospital and CHA officials say they didn’t know who exactly recommended the partnership.

Emanuel has strong ties to Mount Sinai, where his late father, Dr. Benjamin Emanuel, did his medical residency. The hospital was founded in 1919 by a grandfather of Steven Koch, who was on the hospital’s board for 24 years, the last seven of them as chairman. He resigned that post when he became Emanuel’s deputy mayor in 2012.

The former mayor says he has not been contacted by federal authorities regarding Pissios or Coli.

The CHA’s board, appointed by Emanuel, selected the Habitat, Cinespace and Mount Sinai team in June 2017 even though it gave the group a slightly lower score than it gave Brinshore Development, which also had bid for the work. CHA officials said they liked that Habitat was working with two major employers in the neighborhood — Cinespace and Mount Sinai — and that their proposal would encompass an extra 5.5 acres, including land they bought from the city.

Among the CHA board members who approved the deal was John Hooker, who resigned as chairman last summer, as his lobbying work for ComEd had become part of a federal corruption investigation centering on Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago.

The construction site at Ogden Avenue and South Talman Avenue where the Ogden Commons development is planned. The Chicago Housing Authority had hoped the project would be finished by September 2020. But it’s unclear when the development will be completed — or even when construction will begin.

The construction site at Ogden Avenue and South Talman Avenue where the Ogden Commons development is planned. The Chicago Housing Authority had hoped the project would be finished by September 2020. But it’s unclear when the development will be completed — or even when construction will begin.

Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times

The CHA board also included vice chairman Craig Chico, brother of former mayoral candidate Gery Chico. Gery Chico’s law firm Chico & Nunes is working for the Habitat, Cinespace and Mount Sinai partnership.

“CHA’s legal department and ethics officer have determined that there was no conflict because vice chair Chico did not stand to derive any financial benefit, directly or indirectly, from the law firm’s role as a retained party,” according to CHA spokeswoman Molly Sullivan.

TRACKING ALEX PISSIOS’ CHA DEAL

TRACKING ALEX PISSIOS’ CHA DEAL

Cinespace Chicago Film Studios president Alexander S. Pissios was trying to secure a contract with the Chicago Housing Authority during the time he was a federal mole helping investigate longtime Chicago Teamsters boss John T. Coli Jr. Here’s a timeline of what Pissios did:

May 26, 2016 — Federal prosecutors met with Pissios and threatened that they could charge him and his wife with bankruptcy fraud because their January 2011 bankruptcy petition didn’t disclose a $100,000 loan he’d gotten from his uncle Nick Mirkopoulos. Pissios was told he could go to prison for five years. Over the next several months, a series of meetings took place involving Pissios, FBI agents and prosecutors regarding the money Coli was extorting to maintain labor peace at the movie studio.

Oct. 13, 2016 — Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration helped Lawndale Real Estate — owned by Pissios, his brothers and Mark Degnen, the studio’s chief financial officer — acquire land in the 2600 block of West Ogden that the city had sold for $1 to the Latino Chicago Theater build an arts center, a project that never was built. The Pissios group got the property by paying $34,500 to the theater company, which then gave the city $34,200. The property has become part of the CHA development awarded to Pissios’ group.

Jan. 31, 2017 — As the feds continued meeting with Pissios, Lawndale Real Estate paid $450,000 for a two-story building at the northeast corner of Ogden and Talman, a property that is also part of the CHA development deal.

Feb. 17, 2017 — CHA asked for proposals to redevelop about 5.4 acres north of Ogden between Talman and Washtenaw.

March 22, 2017 — Habitat, Cinespace and Mount Sinai submitted a proposal to CHA chief executive officer Eugene Jones to develop the property. They also included another three acres owned by Sinai and 2.5 acres owned by Pissios and his partners — a $76 million proposal that would include stores, offices and 384 housing units and give the three development partners $4 million in fees to split. Habitat has a 50 percent stake in the venture, Cinespace 30 percent and Mount Sinai 20 percent.

March 31, 2017 — Prosecutors signed a “non-prosecution agreement” with Pissios.

April 4, 2017 — Pissios made his final $25,000 extortion payment to Coli, and the FBI arrested Coli in the alley behind his Lake View home.

May 2017 — Pissios’ home was sold at Lake County sheriff’s sale. This came eight years after he stopped making mortgage payments, prompting a foreclosure suit seeking more than $850,000.

June 20, 2017 — The CHA board picked Habitat, Cinespace and Mount Sinai to redevelop the Ogden Avenue site, expecting construction to begin in March 2019. “It is expected the development entity will deliver the highest number of CHA units while maximizing and combining use of both CHA-owned land and privately held contiguous land owned by members of the development team,” according to the CHA.

July 12, 2017 — Coli was indicted for extorting Cinespace.

June 15, 2018 — The Chicago Sun-Times reported Pissios agreed to cooperate to avoid bankruptcy fraud charges, secretly recording his conversations with Coli for about a year.

Dec. 12, 2018 — Pissios and Lawndale Real Estate paid City Hall $30,000 for two pieces of land in the 2600 block of Ogden — within the CHA development project.

March 13, 2019 — Emanuel announced his Neighborhood Opportunity Fund would give $2.5 million towards the CHA’s commercial and retail development, which includes offices for Mount Sinai and Cinespace.

July 30, 2019 — Coli pleaded guilty, agreeing to cooperate in other investigations, including the subsequent indictment of state Sen. Thomas Cullerton, D-Villa Park, who’s accused of embezzlement for collecting more than $200,000 in wages and benefits from the Teamsters for doing little or no work.

Dec. 19, 2019 — Habitat, Cinespace and Mount Sinai secured financing for the first phase of what they’re calling Ogden Commons. The CHA had hoped the project would be completed by September 2020. It’s unclear when construction will start and when the project will be completed.

CHA officials say they don’t know what the total cost of the project will be, when it will be finished or how much Pissios and his partners can expect to make.

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