Feds ask judge to sentence ex-Teamster boss John Coli to 19 months in prison

John Coli once bragged, “You can cut my fingers off, I wouldn’t talk.” Two years later, Coli pleaded guilty and formally agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors.

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Former longtime Chicago Teamsters boss John T. Coli Sr. leaving the Dirksen Federal Courthouse on July 30, 2019, after pleading guilty to receiving a prohibited payment and filing a false income tax return.

Former longtime Chicago Teamsters boss John T. Coli Sr. pleaded guilty to receiving a prohibited payment and filing a false income tax return.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Federal prosecutors Wednesday asked a judge to give a 19-month prison sentence to former Teamsters boss John T. Coli Sr., who pleaded guilty in an extortion case but then cooperated against former state Sen. Thomas Cullerton.

In making his request to U.S. District Chief Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer, Assistant U.S. Attorney Amarjeet Bhachu wrote that Coli “has accepted responsibility for his criminal conduct.”

“Experience in this courthouse teaches this is not an easy thing for a prominent local leader to do,” Bhachu wrote. “It is easy to assemble a busload of public figures similarly situated to Coli in this district who could not bring themselves to accept responsibility.”

Coli once allegedly bragged that, “you can cut my fingers off, I wouldn’t talk” about money he’d collected through extortion. But that was late in 2016, months before his 2017 indictment.

Two years later, Coli pleaded guilty and formally agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors, despite his earlier tough talk. With that, the feds in July 2019 had enlisted a longtime labor leader with ties to prominent politicians who included then-Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan, former mayors Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel and ex-Gov. Pat Quinn.

Though plenty of public corruption cases followed, the only one Coli is known to have a hand in is the embezzlement case that put Cullerton in prison. A federal grand jury indicted Cullerton just days after Coli’s guilty plea in 2019. Cullerton entered his own guilty plea this year, and he was sentenced to one year behind bars.

A federal inquiry into the diamond engagement ring bought for Quinn’s press secretary was also tied to the investigation that snared Coli, the Chicago Sun-Times has reported.

The former labor leader’s sentencing hearing is set for Oct. 26.

Coli admitted he’d taken $325,000 in cash payments from Cinespace Chicago Film Studios between 2014 and 2017. Worried at one point he wouldn’t get his money, Coli told Cinespace President Alex Pissios, “We’ll shut it down tomorrow. We’ll shut it down within an hour. … I will f—ing have a picket line up here, and everything will stop.”

But Pissios turned out to be a government cooperator as well. The Sun-Times has previously reported that he signed a “non-prosecution agreement” that let him off the hook for failing to tell a bankruptcy judge about a $100,000 bank account he used to support his family and pay gambling debts. 

Pissios began feeding law enforcement information about Coli in June 2016, according to an FBI affidavit first obtained by the Sun-Times. He told the feds he’d begun making quarterly payments of $25,000 in 2014 that were drawn from a petty cash account, according to the affidavit.

The studio head told authorities the deal began years ago under his late uncle, Nick Mirkopoulos, the Sun-Times has reported.

The feds watched and recorded as Pissios paid Coli in July and October 2016 at the Greek Islands restaurant in the 200 block of South Halsted. Investigators saw Pissios and Coli leave the restaurant July 7, 2016, and they watched as Pissios handed a FedEx envelope containing $25,000 to Coli outside the entrance, the affidavit said. 

“This is for the contract,” Pissios allegedly told Coli, using “contract” as a code word.

During the second meeting, on Oct. 4, 2016, Pissios allegedly told Coli that an executive had questioned Pissios about his petty cash withdrawals. That story turned out to be a ruse suggested by investigators, but Pissios asked Coli what to do, the affidavit said. 

Coli said, “Fire him.”

“No matter how you try to put him in a corner, right, he’ll always be a problem,” Coli allegedly added. “Once somebody’s a problem like that, even if you think you can outleverage him and get him in a corner, you’ll always have one eye f—ing open looking at him. … He’s a rat.”

Pissios allegedly later put a FedEx envelope containing $15,000 in Coli’s vehicle. Afterward, Coli complained in a phone call with Pissios that “some of the documents were missing out of what I was supposed to look at today,” according to the affidavit. The feds say Coli was using coded language to point out that $10,000 was missing.

Pissios wound up explaining it was because of the issue with the executive. 

Nine days later, Coli made the threat to call a strike if he didn’t get his money. And, he added, “There’s gonna be time-to-time unique things that are gonna come up that you’re gonna have to deal with. … You can’t have a f—ing rat in a wood pile. You can’t have a whistleblower here.”

He collected the missing $10,000 from Pissios on Nov. 29, 2016, according to the affidavit.

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